I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.
When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future. This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)
I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.
The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.
That’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific. You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”
Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood. This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”
Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.
As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.
I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful. It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.