Love Your Big Brother: What Orwell's '1984' Tells Us About 2009
George Orwell's seminal work, 1984, can equip its readers with the intellectual apparatus necessary to see through the routine mendacity and stupefying barrage of euphemism that plagues contemporary political life.
The Irony of American History
University of Chicago Press
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever." -- Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
"Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except by the thought that, if a man can conceive Nineteen Eighty-Four, he can also will to avoid it. " – Fredric Warburg, George Orwell's publisher.
It was 60 years ago this month that Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, first found its way into the hands of British readers. In the intervening decades, the novel has taken on inestimable cultural significance and its author has increasingly come to be viewed as a secular prophet.
Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by the organizers of World Book Day found that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the novel Britons most frequently lie about having read. Orwell's previous effort, Animal Farm is perhaps more widely consumed. It's shorter, for one, and it's often assigned to children who enjoy Orwell's storytelling, despite being far too young to appreciate the novel's political implications.
However, I don't think Britons lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four because they find Orwell's prose indigestible. Instead, I believe Nineteen Eighty-Four tops that list because, in a culture that has largely turned away from reading fiction as a leisure activity, it remains one of the few volumes that's still widely viewed as indispensable.
At the same time, the book is incredibly easy to fake having read. People who have never held a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four are nevertheless often familiar with its plot and themes, for living in the English-speaking world means you inhabit a culture from which Orwell's influence is nearly inextricable. Big Brother. Thought Police. Doublethink. Newspeak. The neologisms that populate Orwell's novel are now a pervasive part of our contemporary political discourse.
Like Animal Farm, though to a lesser extent, Nineteen Eighty-Four operates largely as an allegory detailing the evils of Stalinist Russia. Inspired by novels like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell conjured a futuristic police state that harrowingly evoked the Soviet regime's brutality. Everything from the revolution's nascence, to the purges, to the most storied intra-Party squabbles finds its analogue in Orwell's pages.
But while Animal Farm takes a macro approach to the Russian Revolution and its attendant ironies, focused as it is largely on characters representing Marx, Stalin, and Trotsky, Nineteen Eighty-Four examines the costs of totalitarianism through a far more intimate lens. Through his protagonist Winston Smith, a low-level Party member who rebels against the dictatorial Big Brother in his innermost thoughts, Orwell forces his readers to appreciate in intimate detail the brutalizing effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Where Animal Farm is merely dispiriting, Nineteen Eighty-Four is outright horrific.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of a life's work, and Orwell struggled to finish the novel as he was dying of tuberculosis. Within it one finds the blossoming of incipient roots that date back to his finest essays. I don't believe Orwell is the 20th Century's best writer, though he may well be the most important. Likewise, I don't think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the century's best novel, but in many ways, it is the definitive one. The study of literature offers many rewards, but the singular benefits of carefully reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and the essays that preceded it are so important to maintaining a healthy political culture that they warrant particular attention.
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