George Orwell opens his stunning novel 1948 novel by telling the reader that the “clocks were striking thirteen”. If this isn’t an opening line for the ages, I don’t know what is. As new entrants into the world of 1984, we are immediately introduced to Winston Smith, a small, rough-skinned, sickly member of the Outer Party. He’s just arrived at his dreary apartment from work where he’s greeted by the blaring noise his telescreen, a permanent installation in his home that works twofold. He watches it, and it watches him.
I found it disconcertingly easy to imagine, in our modern world, technology is utilized in such an all-encompassing, and eventually normalized fashion. The residents of London, Airstrip One, Oceania, are used to constant surveillance. It is how most of them have lived their whole lives and the majority would advocate for its continuous.
The totalitarian regime that reigns over Winston’s vile, cold and dirty futurist London, controls everything, right down to the thoughts in its citizen’s heads. At least, that’s what it would like. Luckily for we the readers, Winston Smith is not like the other party members, those he deems as mindless, brainwashed fools, devoted mind and body to the Party, Big Brother (the dictatorial figure/mascot of the regime who may or may not actually exist) and the principles of INGSOC (English Socialism). Through Winston’s perspective, we are allowed to experience his irritation, fury, and exasperation with the other Party members and the proles who live in the slums outside the city center.
Daily Terrors in Winston Smith’s World
While explaining the terror he exists in, day in and day out, Winston takes comfort in the fact that the small space within his head is his own. That is until the Thought Police catch up with him. Everything else, what he does, says, and how he appears, is bent to the will of the Party.
The first part of 1984 (which is divided into three sections) is an incredible achievement of world-building. Orwell sucks he reader right into the horrors of Winston’s world by moving through the minutia of his life. Winston is responsible for the re-writing of history, it is by his hand, (and he admits, likely hundreds of others) that newspaper articles are rephrased, remade and created in order to cast the government in the best light possible.
Perhaps the most chilling and shocking aspect of 1984 is the way that somethings, although noted by Winston as wrong and disturbing, have become commonplace. The rewriting of history is only one example. Winston lives in constant fear that someday, maybe that afternoon, or five years from now, he and Julia (a young woman with whom he begins an affair) are going to be “vaporized”. Death weighs heavily on Winston’s world and as a reader, I found myself experiencing some of that fear as well. Winston’s life, as he takes more risks, becomes at once rife with paranoia and incredibly, more commonly filled with moments of peace.
The Drama of Very Human Characters
As a human being, Orwell writes Winston Smith believably. So much so I found myself having arguments with his character as he tried to come to terms with changes (such as when Oceania changed the superpower it was at war with) or when he was relishing in the knowledge the O’Brien was, in fact, a member of the resistance. It is easy enough, I found, to search for the same grains of hope Winston did within the second part of 1984.
If I had to choose one moment from the novel that I know will stick with me, it is the scene in the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop in which Julia and Winston are musing over their shared, doomed fate. They say to one another “We are the dead” and in mimicry of their conversion, Mr. Charrington (who is revealed to be a spy for the Thought Police) calls out from behind a photo, “You are the dead”. Utterly chilling, even now, recalling that moment I find myself experiencing something of what these two characters felt.
It is the culmination of the previous two parts of 1984 in which Winston waits to be caught, captured and tortured. Now, he and Julie both know and the reader knows, that this is the end. He is surely going to be dragged off to the Ministry of Love and tortured to death. Perhaps he’ll be released on a temporary basis, as other “criminals” have been. But, there is no getting away from the Party. It sees, hears and knows all. At this moment, it caught up to Winston Smith. All his vague hopes for the future vanish.
The Concluding Pages of 1984
The last section of 1984 felt like looking behind the curtain. There was a great deal of satisfaction finally knowing what goes on within the Ministry of Love and it was just as horrifying as I imagined. They engage in all forms of torture, mental and physical.
When I first read the section in which Winston is forced to confront his greatest fear in Room 101 I found myself surprised by how complex, knowledgeable, and conniving the Party was in its research into Winston’s life and weak points. Thinking back on it now, it couldn’t have been any other way. Of course, O’Brien was working as a double agent, of course, the Party knew all along what Winston and Julie were doing and planning, and of course, in the end, they got what they wanted—for Winston to love Big Brother.
1984 Book Review: George Orwell's Stunning Novel
Lasting Effect on Reader
1984 is a book that you’re going to remember. From its opening lines to the various revelations about the Party and it’s means of governing its citizens a reader is met with constant twists and turns. Each one is more disturbing than the one before it. You would not be wrong if while reading 1984 you found yourself drawing comparisons between contemporary/historical society and the world that Winston Smith lives in. This book is just as relevant today as it was when Orwell finished it in 1948.
One reading does not do this novel justice. On the second, third, or even fourth time that one learns about Emmanuel Goldstein, Big Brother, the Ministries, and every other memorable element of the book, more is revealed.
- A plot that keeps the reader guessing–incredibly engaging
- Original, yet relatable characters
- Disturbingly relevant
- Big Brother verges on a caricature
- Readers are left hanging without a definite conclusion to the novel
- Misogynistic undertones that go unaddressed