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.  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!