Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
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.
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.
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.
“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.”