War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength

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Oh my. What a difference already reading this book!

I’ve finished Part I (about the first 87 pages). I normally don’t take this long to read a book, but I want to really take it in. And I have a job and other sorts of stuff that get in the way. Hooray for adulting!

For those who don’t know what this book is about, here’s a brief introduction. 1984 was written by George Orwell. Orwell was an amazing satirist. Really one of the best ever, and this book is a great satire of totalitarianism. It was published in 1949, and it’s considered the ultimate classic dystopian story. The dystopian on which all other dystopians are based.

Society in 1984 is controlled by an authoritarian regime run by the political party known as INGSOC (or English Socialism). Government is split between the four ministries: Ministry of Truth (responsible for news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts), Ministry of Peace (deals with war), Ministry of Love (maintains law and order), and Ministry of Plenty (responsible for economic affairs). And of course, there’s Big Brother. Big Brother is the perceived ruler. And Big Brother Is Watching You. All the time. Literally. From telescreens, to Thought Police, to spying neighbors and co-workers. The only reason for marriage and sex is to have children who will serve the Party. Children who will then turn on their own parents with no remorse. The only escape from this hell is death.

Our main character is Winston Smith. He lives in London in the territory of Oceania and under the rule of Big Brother. Newspeak is the official language. Although most people still speak Standard English, the goal is to have everyone speaking Newspeak by the year 2050. Newspeak begets ideas like doublethink and doublespeak. You may think you know what a word means, but it really means something else. In other words, you know that when someone says untrue things, they’re lying, right? Nope, it means they’re giving you “alternative facts.” Now, the purpose of Newspeak is, of course, to “make all other modes of thought impossible.” (246). Because who needs individual thought, right? Individual thought might lead to things like hope for a better life, and we all know that rebellions are built on hope. Big Brother would say a big Nope! to that nonsense. And, just like that, you no longer exist. And in Big Brother world, they’ll make it so you never existed.

Ok, so let’s really get into this, shall we? I feel the need to warn you though that I go a bit quote crazy here (but, there are just so many good ones!) So, the first thing I noticed this time around is how violent Winston’s thoughts are toward women. I mean, yikes! Particularly toward the girl with thick dark hair.

Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He knew the reason…He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones…It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy. (16)

Bitter much, Winston? And it just continues…

Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax. Better than before, moreover, he realized why it was that he hated her. He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity. (16)

Holy crap on a cracker, dude! Talk about male sexual entitlement. How dare the young and pretty girls not give you the attention you believe you are entitled to. How dare they be chaste. How dare the dark-haired girl live her oppressed, sexless life without any consideration for what you may be feeling. And we’re only 16 pages in when we get this. I mean, damn.

Now, we can argue that Winston isn’t really like this, and that he’s merely caught up in the Two Minutes Hate. And the way Orwell describes the mob mentality that takes hold of the crowd; can we really fault him for his vicious thoughts? After all, everyone is worked into a violent frenzy.

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. (16)

Reading this when I was 13 years old, I couldn’t picture this happening. I was a kid, it was the 80s, and a story like this was just a story. There was no way people could really behave this way, and there was no way society would allow it, let alone foster it. (I led a bit of a sheltered life back then). Reading it now, however, it’s frightening how much this isn’t just a story. We see this type of hysteria all the time. And it’s something that’s always existed. Mob or herd mentality isn’t a new concept. People lose their self-awareness and gain anonymity. They feel less or no guilt at all because everyone else was doing the same thing. And people often forget their own behavior during these moments because they aren’t paying attention to it at the time. A study from 2014 using neural imaging suggests our brains may be wired to respond this way. [1] Scary stuff, right?

So, do we excuse Winston’s thoughts and behavior due to mob mentality? Can he even help it? Does the human brain work against us in these instances and cause us to behave contrary to our morals? Or is it just an excuse for him to act like an ass? A way he can excuse it all by saying “oh, I normally wouldn’t behave or think that way. I just got caught up in it all. It can’t be helped.”

Quite the conundrum, eh? Winston is a complex character. And, as with most things, there is no easy answer. He’s not one of the characters who seemingly accepts it all. He calls bullshit a few times. He takes great risks by breaking the laws. Laws that make things like desire, sex, and even having the wrong facial expression punishable offenses. He hides in an alcove in his apartment out of view of his telescreen. He not only purchases a diary, but actually writes in it. Going so far as to write things like “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” over and over. He takes a tremendous risk by questioning the old man in the pub about the old days before Ingsoc. Pretty gutsy of him. He knows he’ll be caught, tortured, and killed. It’s a certainty, at this point. But, he continues to take these risks. Go big or go home, I guess.

Questioning what’s true is relatively easy for him given his job. He works at the Ministry of Truth and changes what was previously published in the news to match current events. That way Big Brother is always right. In today’s terms, he creates fake news. “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting” (32). One of the biggest mysteries for him is why? Why does the Party want to perpetually change that past? What is their motivation? Because “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened –that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death” (32). But, “it was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory” (32).

And Winston does question his memories. He’s changed the past so much, he really can’t be sure of what is true. He often thinks himself a lunatic and describes how easy it would be for Big Brother to convince everyone that 2 + 2 = 5. “And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable?” (69).

Holy gaslighting, Batman! Again, when I was a kid, I didn’t think too much of this. I found these ideas wildly fantastic! I didn’t think we could ever live in a society that would manipulate news and history to suit the needs of the government or to control the masses. Yeeeaaah.

Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist who believes the moon landing is fake or anything. But, I am someone who grew up in a time when certain parts of our history were reduced to only a few paragraphs in history books, or they weren’t there at all. Things like slavery and WWII Japanese internment camps. I’m also someone who grew up during the AIDS epidemic and the beginning of the war on drugs. I’ve seen over the years how our government and media have used these things to control, to manipulate, and to foster certain ideologies. Ideologies that today make me think it’s not so far off to believe that many could be convinced that 2 + 2 =5. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command” (69). How many of our politicians demand this every day? And how many people actually do it? Far too many, if you ask me. I saw something once that said, “1984 was not meant to be an instruction manual.” And that’s what makes reading it now so unsettling. It’s difficult to find satirical humor when it hits so close to home.

Part I ends, much like how it began, with a confused and paranoid Winston. He wonders if Inner Party member O’Brien shares his views. He’s paranoid the girl with the dark hair is a member of the Thought Police and is following him. He’s unsure if Mr. Charrington, the owner of the junk shop where he bought the diary, can be trusted. But he vows to return to buy more “beautiful scraps of rubbish,” even though he knows it will be a great risk. Despite his violent thoughts, I like Winston. I feel sorry for him. I love complex characters who are filled to the brim with inner turmoil. And Winston fits that perfectly.

Join me next time, if you dare, as I delve into Part II!

UPDATE: I couldn’t bring myself to blog about the rest of the book. It was honestly too frakking depressing!

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24726338

Some Thoughts on The Road


Yes, that’s my copy of The Road. Yes, I tab my books. Don’t judge me.


Often, and by often I mean all of the time, I read books as an escape. I can dive into a different world to escape my own for whatever reason. Stress, boredom, the people who live in my house are being too loud, you know, whatever. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories have always been a favorite of mine. Reading about other worlds that are far more messed up than your own makes you think, well crap, things could always be worse, right?

Weird things happen when you re-read a book, but do so at a different point in your life. It’s fascinating how what’s going on around you in the real world can have an effect on how you respond to a work of fiction. I first read The Road back in the late 2000s. I can’t remember the exact year. I just remember I was a lawyer back then. A lawyer who hated being a lawyer. And I’m pretty sure Obama was president. What I do remember is that I loved the book. It’s dark, a bit depressing, and very much fits into that “things could always be worse” line of thinking.

So let’s get into it, shall we?

The Road is the story of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. They’re making their way south to the ocean because they will not survive another winter where they are. They trudge along the road pushing a shopping cart that holds all of their worldly possessions. They wear makeshift masks to avoid breathing in the “grainy air.”

We don’t know what event created this gray and ash covered world, but that’s ok. We don’t really need that information. Based on McCarthy’s descriptions, we can assume it was probably a nuclear war. Everything is burnt, ashy, gray. No animals, no fruit hanging from trees, no green, no color at all, just a desolate land. Even the sunrise and sunset are described as bleak and gray. Through flashbacks, we learn the boy was born into this world a few nights after the incident that caused it. We learn the mother is dead, but I won’t say how because spoilers. The man coughs up blood, so we know he’s dying. He also wrestles with the idea of possibly having to kill his son if things get too bad. And the boy knows how to do it himself if the need arises.

The biggest worry for them is food. It’s usually a “well that’s convenient” kind of moment when they do find food/water/shelter because they’re on the brink of death, but it works. The scarcity of food or anything that might be able to produce it has resulted in cannibals wandering the road. But they don’t encounter the cannibals a lot which, depending on what you’re looking for in the story, may be a good or bad thing. If you’re looking for a lot of action and fighting, then you will be disappointed. This is not that book. At all. It is literally about a man and a boy walking down a desolate road in search of food and temporary shelter. They don’t encounter much because there just isn’t much there. The world is dead. Depressing, right? Don’t get me wrong though there are some moments of cheerfulness, but they are few and far between. McCarthy has said that this book is a love story to his son. He wanted to write a story about a man and his son and their relationship in this type of setting. So, that’s what you get. Kind of. I can’t imagine there are too many bonding opportunities at the end of the world, so it works out to being a strange sort of relationship.

McCarthy’s writing itself is simplistic and raw. There are no chapters, barely any punctuation, no dialogue tags. With only 2 characters, no tags isn’t that big of a deal. You can usually work out who is talking. And there isn’t much in the way of conversation anyway. It usually consists of talking about the good guys and bad guys, and the son wondering if they are the good ones. I mean what else is there to really talk about in a dead world? The characters are nameless except Ely, but he’s probably lying about his name. And he’s only in the story for about 10 pages. This bare-bones writing style is why I think I liked this book so much. Removing the basic conventions of writing fits perfectly with a setting devoid of life and color. It’s brilliant that way.

I read this book again this year because I was teaching it to my students. Clearly, things have changed since my first reading. I’m now a happy English professor instead of a miserable attorney. And our political environment, well, that’s most definitely changed. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all political here, but it does need saying that where we are right now had a profound effect on my reading of this book again. The likelihood of the events of the book becoming a reality are much higher today than they were when I first read it. So yeah, I felt robbed of the “well at least things aren’t that bad” thinking because holy crap on a cracker, things could very easily be that bad.

Of the four books I had my students read this year, this was their least favorite. They found it to be too dark and depressing. They were always expecting something more to happen, for there to be more to the story. And there just isn’t. Perhaps it was unfair to put it up against books that I knew they would love (Ready Player One being one of them), but I thought it would be a great contrast. And it was. And they did appreciate McCarthy’s writing style and how well it fit with the story which was good. So, what didn’t they like?

First, the man did some really stupid things. For someone who was so desperate to protect his son and avoid other people at all costs, he does some silly and unpredictable things that would’ve easily attracted the attention of the bad guys. Shooting off a flare gun, building a huge fire in a fireplace, those sorts of things. There was some debate that he shot the flare gun to amuse his son, and in a world like that, you take entertainment where you can get it. But in the end, there was a general consensus that it was just a dumb thing to do when the ultimate goal is to not die.

Second, there was the over-description of the world at times. Because how many different ways can you describe things as dead and gray and ashy? Not many, apparently. You get a clear picture of what this world looks and feels like pretty early on in the book, so when he’s still describing it half way through the book, it just feels like overkill.

And third, it was a bit too close to being a possible reality. And that made it far more depressing than was probably intended.

So, even though they didn’t like it, we still had a lot of good discussions about the book. And that’s always a plus.

Now, would I recommend this book to others? If you are the type of person who can easily separate real life and that of fiction, then go for it. It is a good book. But, I’ve discovered over the years that very few avid readers can make that separation. So, if you’re worried about our possible annihilation from nuclear war at the moment, maybe wait a bit before picking this one up.

Peace, love, and all that good stuff.