1001 Books, Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, George Orwell, Literature

Review: 1984 by George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 43


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

In the country of Oceania, Big Brother is always watching.  Even the tiniest twitch in one’s face or a blink of recognition from one person to another is enough to condemn one as a traitor, a spy, or a thought-criminal.  Winston Smith is a thought criminal.  He is one of those who The Party employs to destroy printed history and recreate it, to suit The Party’s needs.  He knows what he does is wrong and one day purchases a small diary (the very act of which could incriminate him), which he keeps hidden in his home.  In this diary he writes down his thoughts about Big Brother, The Party, and the daily struggles he must go through just to appear “normal” (read: submissive and obedient).  Unfortunately, one day, he takes a step too far and trusts the wrong person, in hopes of joining a group known as The Brotherhood, which Winston believes exists to overthrow The Party.  He is soon arrested, tortured, and re-indoctrinated… released only after committing the deepest betrayal imaginable, his soul and spirit completely broken.  How can there be hope in a world where even one’s children will spy against his parent?  Where lovers will betray each other to save themselves?  There is no hope – there is only Big Brother.


Characterization:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Winston Smith’s development over the course of the novel is written brilliantly.  The mindset Orwell must have been in – the steel he would have needed in his bones – to write about this one lone character’s struggle for individuality and independence, like a gnat battling against an ocean tide, is incredible.  Winston’s slow-developing confidence, his minor decisions which move him closer and closer to large decisions, the methodical way in which Orwell allows Winston to come to realizations and make choices are all very natural and thus very exciting to witness. His character is what makes the plot work and his development is what keeps the reader engaged, rooting for him and hating Big Brother, to the death.  The minor characters as well, such as Winston’s mother, who appears only in memories; or O’Brien, one in possession of “the book” of rebellion are crucial to understanding Winston and the dynamic between what is good and what is evil – what makes a person a person, or an animal.  Winston and Julia’s relationship too, and Julia herself, are imperative to the final resolution.  Julia’s youth and dismissive attitude of Big Brother and The Party, in contrast to Winston’s defiance of it, show two interesting viewpoints – two hatreds of the power structure, but hatreds which developed for very different reasons (Julia has never known anything different, so hates it without any hope or understanding of things being different; Winston knows another time, so hates with a hope that Big Brother can be defeated).  Julia’s use of sex as a form of rebellion is also fascinating, particularly in relation to Winston’s use of writing/journaling.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I knew about Orwell, from reading Animal Farm, was that he was a great writer.  He was smart, creative, and thoughtful.  He had great ideas and could put these ideas into story form with seemingly little effort.  What I know after reading 1984 is that Orwell was not just a great writer, but a masterful one.  His prose is almost cinematic – the words flow in such a way as to create flashes of images in one’s mind.  He connects his reader to the story, through the language.  When moments are tense, the language and prose reflect it.  When people are being secretive, deceptive, or easy-going, the style mirrors this.  The language he created, Newspeak, for the people of this universe is naturally incorporated into the story in a way which makes it understandable but appropriately different, and the appendix which explains “The Principals of Newspeak” – its development, mutations, purpose, etc. is genius. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic and a “must-read” on nearly every literary list imaginable, and for good reason.  Lord Acton once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  1984 is the quest for power, in print.  Big Brother is the symbol of absolute, near-omnipotent power.  It is the figure-head or symbol for “The Party,” a group of humans completely obsessed with wielding unlimited power through the oppression of all other people.  To gain control, The Party employs people to alter history, making Big Brother appear infallible, and keeps people in a state of fear, where they must always doublethink rather than just “think.”  Orwell clearly held misgivings about the advent of electronic media and the potential for it to be misused or altered to suit the party in power’s needs.  I found myself relating this book to Fahrenheit 451 in that the primary themes are destruction of the self, blind loyalty to government and the law, and elimination of creative or independent thought in print (and the dissemination of those materials to others).  I also couldn’t help but hear the band Muse’s song Uprising playing in my head, whenever talk of The Brotherhood or rebellion came up:  “Paranoia is in bloom / The PR transmissions will resume / They’ll try to push drugs that keep us all dumbed down / And hope that we will never see the truth around / They will not force us, / They will stop degrading us, / They will not control us / We will be victorious.”  Although I did expect 1984 to end on a hopeful note, Orwell fully committed to this anti-utopian vision; The Party’s control and methods, crafted over decades, turn out to be resolute.  Interestingly enough, the follow-through and lack of happy ending, though part of me was hoping for something else, is actually what makes 1984 such a stand-out novel – powerful, thought-provoking, and terrifyingly possible.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  High School +

Interest: anti-utopia, oppression, political/social oppression, rebellion, nature of power, nature of fear.

Notable Quotes:

“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

“It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” 

“If there was hope, it lay in the proles!” 

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.  The object of persecution is persecution.  The object of torture is torture.  The object of power is power.” 

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21 thoughts on “Review: 1984 by George Orwell

  1. Alex Connolly says:

    I read this book a long time ago, it was my first optional ‘foray’ into the classics. As such, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I really understood it. After reading this, I feel like reading it again to see what my opinion is. I think I’m more culturally aware, if that’s the right way to put it, so I think I’ll appreciate it more now. Great review, by the way.

    Also, I once saw a play of this. It had some good moments, but was overall ridiculous. It was laughable, really.

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  2. I love that you included one of my favorite quotes in your review:

    “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

    Forty of the most brilliant words ever put together.

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    • It was oddly refreshing to read those words. Like Orwell knew exactly what all people in power really think, subconsciously, but refuse to say. I used to wish that people would just say what they feel but, after reading this, I realize that those who don’t admit these sentiments are at least ashamed of them, in a way – and that shame keeps them from conquering the world. I found this book to be absolutely brilliant – so glad I finally read it. The only small problem I had with it was the chapter where Winston is reading the book of the Brotherhood – a bit repetitive and dull, but still, it was advancing the plot and solidifying the crux so, no major qualms.

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  3. I have to second Ally’s suggestion that you read The Handmaid’s Tale- I’m not sure if it’s better, but it’s dystopian in a different way (a more anti-feminist/crazy religious world than a politically diseased dictatorship). So glad that you loved 1984 though- and what a great review! Definitely too scared to review it myself now…

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  4. A great review as always! I am a big fan of Orwell, and love his reportage ( such as Homage to Catalonoa, Down and Out in Paris and London) and essays. However, I find it hard to love 1984, which is very depressing and even make me believe human nature is inherently bad (though temporarily). Furthermore, in this novel, I rarely find his unique sense of humor, which I find in another political novel, Animal Farm. So why does 1984 give me such a bad impression? I think it’s partly because it’s too political as a novel and Orwell puts his ideology into the novel too much. As a result, artistic quality is spoilt, I’m afraid. I wonder if it’s possible to blend politics with art (or literature) beautifully. Your review makes me think a lot and 1984 must be very thought-peovoking in this sense. Thank you!

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  5. What a great review of a great book. However, I do not think that all revolutionaries are motivated by the desire to rule. They can be motivated by unbearable economic or political conditions. Orwell (and Huxley ‘Brave New World’ also) may have read the earlier and superb dystopian novel ‘We’ by Y. Zamyatin which was a response to the disastrous evolution of the Russian Revolution from ‘The Ten Days That Shook the World’ (Reed) to ‘totalitarian repression’ of all dissent which developed as foreign armies teamed up with reactionary forces to try to quell what could have been something different. Revolutions can tragically devour their own children, but there can be no general laws or inevitability about what are specific and complex events. I like Orwell’s writing immensely and this review is superb but I think that perhaps the quote about power is conservative:

    “There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite.” — Yevgeny Zamyatin

    Thanks as ever,

    John.

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    • Hi, John – Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts. In my copy of the book, there is an essay which talks about “We” alongside 1984 and Brave New World, as the “Big 3” of dystopian novels. Pretty interesting stuff. Also, I agree with you that most revolutions happen out of necessity, and most revolutionaries are not necessarily craving pure power, but equality, representation, or a break from oppression. I do not think, however, that 1984 is about revolution, or that his examination of power in this book is in comparison (there’s a point in it where The Party talks about certain historical revolutions and dismisses them as weak because they were short-minded). Instead, I think this book is really just about power for power’s sake, which is where a lot of the quotes about power, including the one I mention, comes from. The “government” in this book is a totalitarian government, and its people are after power – just power. I imagine he probably would have taken a different stance if he made the subject about the French or American revolutions, but he seemed to be speaking more generally about a part of human nature.

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  6. I think you make some very valuable points as ever. However, while I disagree with Kazuko about the art/politics ‘split’- I would say that Orwell’s road to writing 1984 has been shaped by the book her and I liked reading- the account of his experiences in Catalonia. There he witnessed the way in which Stalinists were repressive to anarchists and others in the Civil War- after this experience he became very conscious of Stalinism and 1984 is seemingly coloured by his political ideas on this system which had grown out of the post-revolutionary situation despite Lenin’s last testament which had warned against Stalin. You are completely correct that the system in 1984 is about power maintenance but I don’t believe the book would be the same if it was not for this sort of historical context. That said, I could well be predisposed to over-emphasise history in my appreciation of great books so the ‘truth’ if there is one may be somewhere between our viewpoints. Thanks again, John.

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  7. As John shows disagreement with my opinion about politics and literature, I think it necessary to pursue this subject a little further. I didn’t mean art should split from politics, because every work of art contains political intention and historical background (though in 1984 Orwell makes it a little too obvious). In my view, “Homage to Catalonia” is a good example of a happy combination of politics and literature, in which even fighting scenes are depicted with a sense of humor (e.g. they sometimes use megaphones to insult their enemy with dirty language because of lack of weapons) Compared with this work, Orwell’s 1984 shows his pessimistic views of human nature, partly because Orwell suffered from TB at the time of writing: his mental / physical condition should have influenced this novel and made it more depressing. Orwell’s description of the horrific nature of totalitarian state reminds us of several incidents (e.g. Tianmen massacre in China, 1989) in the modern history and even at the present time. Thus his work compels us to look at something we ususally try to avoid. Very disturbing yet unforgettable. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to consider Orwell’s work seriously. Kazuko

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  8. For some reason your posts haven’t been showing up in my reader! How lame is that!

    Anyway, I read this one a LONG time ago. I believe I was only 15 at the time. My English teacher had me read it (she was convinced I was not as good a reader as I actually was), and I remember being kind of horrified by it. I loved it, but I think the last few chapters had a huge impact on me. I haven’t read it since, but I think about it now and again.

    I definitely think that I would pull way more from it being older and wiser. I also think it would be interesting to read it after having read so many other dystopias in the last few years.

    And I love that your quoted Muse. 🙂 They are one of my all-time favorites!

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  9. Just came to your blog from the BBAW and love it.

    I read this book as a teenager and I have to admit (and I know that I will be in the minority) whilst I admired the book for its content – there was nothing in it that really grabbed my attention. It’s one of those books that hopefully I will appreciate more as an adult when I get around to it.

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    • Thanks very much! I’m glad you stopped by. I actually read this one (well, tried to) during my sophomore year of high school, but I couldn’t get more than 40 pages into it. This time around, I was hooked from the start. The only “dull” portion for me was during the reading of the “book.” That got a bit repetitive.

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  11. Quite an amazing book, isn’t it? I loved it and want to read more of his work (I currently have “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Down and Out in Paris and London” on my TBR list). And just like you, I immediately thought of “Fahrenheit 451”, and also of Huxleys’s “Brave New World”, which I finished not long ago. Have you read it? If you want more “dystopia” I strongly recommend it.

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    • I haven’t read Brave New World, yet, but it is on my R.A.K. wish list – I’m hoping someone will surprise me with a copy! Lol. I’m glad to hear you recommend it, as I believe I tried to read it in high school (as I did 1984) but didn’t get more than a few pages into it. I’m sure it would be a very different experience now.

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  12. Awesome review! I loved this book! I think it was the first of the Dystopian type books I read that didn’t have a happy resolution, or at least a hopeful one, and I remember being completely shocked. But boy does this book pack a punch!

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