Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 2: Nineteen Eighty-Four


Nineteen Eight-Four marks the third famous classic to disappoint me in recent years.  Along with The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, it would have been left unfinished early on, except for its mammoth legacy and the feeling that I ought to read it.  It’s possible I lack the maturity or life experience to appreciate these books – I leave that open as an explanation.  But for the time being, I’ll express my unpopular opinion, which isn’t without basis.  (For my personal dystopian literature criteria, see part 1.)

England, Except Not England

Winston Smith, our very Britishly named protagonist, resides in England of the 1980s.  Now called “Airstrip One,” England is a mere drop in the empire that is Oceania, and its once-vivid culture has likewise been largely eaten up by the propaganda of the ruling one-party state.  All citizens are expected to revere Big Brother, the vague yet menacing figurehead of the Party, and in so doing are closely monitored by their colleagues, spouses, and even their militarized children.  Regions suffer bombings and other hardships, people are carted away for crimes against the state, and history is rewritten or erased as suits the Party’s agenda.  Winston, as it turns out, is one of the MVPs in this latter business, which becomes very difficult when he starts having serious doubts about what is Truth, both in his personal life and in the life of the nation.

Map by Peliministeri [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany on this novel are hard to miss.  Beyond obvious references such as “comrade,” overalls, and bad food, the structure and stringencies wielded in this society resemble firsthand accounts of life in those two totalitarian states.  The turning of children against their parents made me think of Mao’s China, though that occurred after Orwell’s lifetime.  The trickle-down paranoia affects even the “happy” citizens who are most dedicated to the Party, so they begin to question everything and everyone, including themselves.

There are still remnants of Britishness left, however.  We see it in a scene with a “prole” (proletariat) woman doing her laundry out in the street and singing with a Cockney accent.  It’s the thread of history running through Winston’s fascination with old nursery rhymes and the countryside.  Finally, there is also something distinctly British about O’Brien, the aristrocratic enigma who impresses and fascinates Winston.

Just imagine a Soviet dictatorship in post-war England, and you have the world of 1984.  It’s an awful place.

Anti-Heroes and Déjà Vu

Winston is meant to be the “average guy” in this situation, thrown into a mess just like one of Franz Kafka’s characters.  I guess I have more faith in the average man, because I didn’t find him to be all that average.  He’s what would today be called a stereotypical incel, an unhappily married celibate who has rape fantasies about the first hot woman who catches his attention.  He’s strangely intuitive about certain things, such as knowing he has a past that the Party denies, but he’s also bizarrely stupid and takes risks which, at times, do not make sense, even for a dissenter.  This is the character we have to identify with, or at least to sympathize with on some level, and I found that to be more of a mental stretch than I could muster.

Our other option is Julia, the young woman who passionately reciprocates Winston’s interest, in spite of him being an unattractive middle-aged loser with admittedly violent thoughts towards her.  Julia is a different kind of rebel, fairly reckless and mostly expressing her dissent in the form of black market dealing and sexual escapades (the Party is anti-sex, which Orwell explains but not very convincingly).  After meeting Julia, Winston becomes less risk-averse, to the point he decides to officially join the rebellion – which may or may not exist.

This was all vaguely familiar, reminding me of the plot of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, an earlier Russian novel which Orwell had read.  (Would he have got away with such a similar plot these days?)  I felt Zamyatin did a better job making his characters sympathizable, especially “O,” the abandoned partner (Winston’s wife gets very little treatment here, and none too good).  For what it’s worth, the love affair was also better written in We – in 1984, it seemed quite implausible and awkward.

From Bad to Worst, and Beyond

My biggest issue with the book was the writing itself.  The first part was mostly world-building, which I don’t care for in general.  The second part focused on Winston and Julia’s unlikely relationship, plus Winston’s increasing doubts and acts of “treason.”  The last part was the stuff of bad dreams, detailing everything you did or didn’t want to know about the sadism of the Party.  In the middle, there was also a treatise about the history of the Party and the current political situation, which even I found surprisingly dull.

I don’t care to go into the ending in detail, especially since it involves spoilers, and this is a spoiler-free blog.  For reference, though, this novel joins the list of books that I really, really despise:

  1. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  3. The Kill, Emile Zola
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

As in, you could not pay me enough to re-read them.  Yes, I feel that strongly.

To wrap it up and be fair, I did find some good quotes, which are worth reading on their own:

It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. – Ch. 2

There was something subtly wrong with Syme.  There was something he lacked: discretion, aloofness, a sort of saving stupidity.  – Ch. 5

Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your own nervous system.  At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom. – Ch. 6

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. – Ch. 7

The heresy of heresies was common sense.  And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right.  – Ch. 7

What Next?

My next dystopian reading will be Brave New World, which is on my physical to-read shelf.  I also plan to read Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

So far, I’m finding I don’t dislike the genre per se, but am struggling to find a dystopian book that I like (except for Lord of the Flies, which isn’t totally comparable).  Lord of the World was interesting, but ultimately not very compelling.  We was well written but carries some of the same flaws as 1984.

I would like to see a book where the protagonist is neither as perfect as Percy Franklin nor as imperfect as Winston Smith… maybe a Syme who lacks “saving stupidity.”  I want to see some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just a speck.  It would be great if the female character were likeable, too.  Make me care about the people at the end of the world.

Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth

There was no intention on my part to read two dystopian novels at the same time.  I was already in motion to read 1984 – an embarrassingly long-overdue attempt – when I heard a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth was to be released in July.  I got in the library line quickly (these things go like hot cakes), and soon, with del Toro/Funke’s fantasy horror in one hand and Orwell’s bleak dystopia in the other, made the abrupt leap from “light summer fluff” to “not-sure-if-I’ll-sleep-tonight bedtime stories.”

So… What Were You Thinking!?

1984 requires little introduction.  In Western culture, at least, terms such as Big Brother and doublethink flavor our vocabulary as glib reminders that a British author back in 1948 foretold the existence of increasingly powerful, monolithic, and tech-savvy governments.  We see signs of it everywhere today, from more innocuous instruments such as traffic cameras to the disturbing birth of China’s Social Credit System.  At this point, it is hard to say if the book is still futuristic.

Pan’s Labyrinth, marketed as a dark Alice in Wonderland with a historical backdrop, is a story that’s long piqued my interest. I had some vague awareness of the movie release in 2006, but since I’m highly squeamish and generally avoid R-rated films, it was never a film I had an overwhelming desire to try.  In my college Spanish course, we saw the introduction to the film, with subtitles, and once again, I was curious about the story.  The novelization by YA author Cornelia Funke and the movie’s director, Guillermo del Toro, presented the perfect chance to experience the story without watching gruesome reenactments on the screen.

Battle of the Two Totalitarian States

As mentioned, the settings of both these novels are as bleak as you can imagine.  1984 is Orwell’s picture of England under a North Korean-esque dictatorship, where everyone is trained to march in time to the Party’s tune and anyone who even breathes differently is liquidated and blotted out from history.  Pan’s Labyrinth is set in real-world Franco’s Spain (not unlike Hitler’s Germany, for those unfamiliar with 20th-century Spanish history).  In both novels, the sense of being watched, of being victim to your overlords’ whims and paranoia, and finding a double meaning in the few close relationships you have, overwhelm the reader with a claustrophobic dread that evil is winning and may always win.

I do not enjoy horror for the sake of horror, so if I read a book with violence in it, I look for some deeper meaning to make it worth my time.  I have read a few dystopian works in the past few years – in particular, Lord of the World, We, and Lord of the Flies – and have developed some personal criteria for this genre:

  1. Accuracy to logic and historical or contemporary precedence.  There must be some realism for me to take it seriously.
  2. Depictions of violence which are purposeful (to teach a lesson, to strengthen the character, or as a necessary part of the plot), not gratuitous or purely sensational.
  3. The presence or possibility of salvation, either physical or metaphysical. (My Christian background makes this necessary.)

I was impressed by the writing in both books but disappointed when it came to a serious evaluation of their content, message, and characterizations.  Pan’s Labyrinth held a slight edge (1.5 stars) over 1984 (1 star), so I’ll start by going into that one in a bit more detail.

The Lost Girl and El Capitán

There are two stories going on in Pan’s Labyrinth.  One is the quest of the Faun to find the Underworld King’s long-lost daughter, who vanished many years ago following her fatal curiosity about the over-world.  Second is the plight of poor Ofelia, a bookish child whose widowed mother Carmen marries Captain Vidal, the father of her forthcoming son and one of the most sadistic officers serving under General Franco.  Carmen’s naive hope is that love will conquer all and that Vidal will accept Ofelia as his daughter.  Ofelia knows better…knows in fact that Vidal is a heartless “Wolf,” just like the monsters in the stories she reads.  The Faun gives Ofelia a chance to escape the terrible life awaiting her, but she must do everything he says and face other, less human monsters in the forest.

Blood, blood, blood, and more blood.  Amazon tells me this book is for grades 6-9, but I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me would have been properly traumatized by the tortures and killings that Vidal relishes in inflicting.  The authors are none too subtle about the sanguine imagery, and at times the references to “blood red” become almost laughable in their frequency.  Other brutalities, such as rape and cannibalism, are alluded to if not depicted, though the authors seem to want you to know they’re coming close to it, over and over again. I have read books about North Korea which treat similar subjects in a more restrained manner.  The way violence was depicted here really felt gratuitous.

There is plenty of magic going on, though the why’s and the how’s are never made quite clear.  You just have to accept what the Faun says.  I find this frustrating, perhaps because I’m used to the magic of Lewis’s Narnia, which is fairly clear-cut and almost logical, or even the supernatural elements in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which carry some sense of purpose and structure.  I had a fair amount of questions by the end of the book which I suppose can never be answered, because other reviewers say the movie and the book are nearly identical in plot.

I will say, I was sympathetic to Ofelia, her friend Mercedes, and Mercedes’s brother Pedro.  I cried a couple of times because the plot was just one bad thing after another, and it is hard to watch a child suffer.  Even the ending, which is vaguely “happy,” seemed cruel.  That is the theme of the book: cruelty is pervasive and there is nobody on earth or in Heaven to help you; suicide is mentioned a couple of times as an escape.  I don’t doubt this as an accurate portrayal of how some people feel in those kinds of situations.  But is that really the whole picture?  If it is, that means evil always wins, and I can’t believe that.

Overall, I felt the concept and protagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth were strong, but the writing and storyline did not hold up for me.  I did appreciate the authors’ ability to create a fairytale-like story with atmosphere and a likeable protagonist.  It was more than I could say for 1984… that review will be coming soon.

It’s So Classic – A Tag!

Excited to be tagged by Hamlette from The Edge of the Precipice!  This tag is all about classics and originally from a blog called Rebellious Writing.

It’s So Classic Tag


1. Link your post to Rebellious Writing (www.rebelliouswriting.com)
2. Answer the questions
3. Tag at least 5 bloggers.

    1. What is one classic that hasn’t been made into a movie yet, but really needs to?
    This was a recent Top Ten Tuesday…I stand by all my answers but will add one more:  Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.  I rated this book very highly and feel it would appeal to anyone who enjoys costumes dramas, while offering a new perspective.  (We need more Russian literature adaptations in general.  Just sayin’!)

    2. What draws you to classics?
    It is hard to put a scientific answer to this, because I got into classics at a young age and they became a core part of my life.  If anything, I love them most of all for sentimental reasons.  Apart from that, it’s the depth of the writing, the complexity of the characters, and the different perspectives which I value so much. Also, the time-travel feeling you get when you’re reading them…

    3. What is an underrated classic?
    I feel Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is hugely underrated, compared to Dracula and Jane Eyre (and I love those two, too, don’t get me wrong :)).  The Woman in White is an incredible tale of sisterly love, domestic abuse, mistaken identity, and, of course, romance.  If you haven’t read it, give it a try!

    4. What is one classic that you didn’t expect to love, but ended up loving anyway?
    Well, “love” isn’t quite the word, but I was surprised in a good way by Arthur Miller’s famous plays, especially The Crucible. It’s a worthy classic and gave me a new respect for plays.

    5. What is your most favorite and least favorite classics?
    Most favorite: It definitely changes over the years, but currently: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin.  I know, I know, I’m a broken record…  But I love it so much, and it makes me sad it’s not very well known outside of Slavic countries.  I hosted a read-along of it several years ago, and most readers enjoyed it greatly.  Maybe it’s time to do another one?!

    Least favorite: I have incredible loathing for Franz Kafka’s The Castle.  It’s especially annoying because I otherwise love Kafka, and so I forced myself to finish The Castle because I wanted to read all of his fiction.  One of the worst reading experiences ever. 
    6. What is your favorite character from a classic? Or if that is too hard, one is your favorite classic character trope (e.g. strong and silent, quiet sidekick, etc.) 
    Not hard at all… Sherlock Holmes!  Last year I did an entire podcast episode on why he’s my favorite…check it out if you’re interested.

    In general, my favorite trope is the Loner, who may or may not be Intellectual, but is usually Misunderstood.  🙂  That covers Sherlock Holmes, Prince Myshkin (from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot), Razumov (Conrad’s Under Western Eyes), Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), and many others. 

    7. What’s a popular classic that you felt wasn’t actually that great?
    The Odyssey.  I understand why it’s popular; I just couldn’t find anything to like about it, personally. 

    8. Who is your favorite classic author? 
    Wellll…currently my top three are something like:  Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Jules Verne.  I wouldn’t say I have favorites, though; it’s too hard to choose.  🙂

    9. In your opinion, what makes a classic a classic?
    Another past podcast episode!  🙂  [Not trying to promote the podcast (which is on hiatus), just FYI.]  Universal themes is a big factor.  I also think it has to do with culture.  Each culture has its own set of classics that aligns with its values, and if/as subcultures become more and more prevalent, there will be fewer books universally loved or considered classics.  That’s my prediction, at least.

    10. Relating to newer books, what attributes does a book need to have in order to be worthy of the title “classic”?
    I haven’t read a ton of newer books, but “modern classic” makes me think of three novels by Kazuo Ishiguro:

    1. The Remains of the Day (1989)
    2. An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
    3. A Pale View of Hills (1982)

    These books involve what you might call common, almost universal history (WWII), plus themes many people can relate to – change, loyalty, betrayal, old age, fear, family, etc.  They are written in a clear, simple narrative mostly devoid of trendy words or phrases that could be considered “dated.”  He gets to the core of what people care about.  It’s immersive, because it draws you in even if you have a different background than the protagonists.  All these things make them classic-worthy, I think.

    That was fun!  I tag these bloggers, if they haven’t done it yet and are interested:

    1. Beth at Beth’s Bookish Thoughts
    2. Cirtnecce at Mockingbirds,Looking Glasses & Prejudices…
    3. Brian at Babbling Books
    4. Catherine Marie at Elle Lit Des Classiques
    5. Sharon at Gently Mad

    Also, if you’re reading this and would like to do the tag, please feel free to jump on board!  A couple of you are on still hiatus (?), and I had to resist the urge to tag many more…but I still want to hear what you all think!

      Top Ten Character Friends

      August is RACING by.  (I guess I say that every month.)  I’ve finished a couple of books over the weekend, but I don’t know when I’ll get to writing proper reviews.  Till then, here’s a quick post for Top Ten Tuesday!

      Characters I’d like to be best friends with, classics and otherwise:

      1. Much from BBC’s Robin Hood.  This guy gets a lot of flak from the other members of Robin’s gang (and Robin himself), but it’s not fair… he does pretty much all the cooking and worrying for everyone.  If we’re friends, I’ll help with the cooking (even though I don’t like it) and back him up when they start picking on him.  Being my friend, he will be loyal to a fault, but also give me constructive criticism when I need it.
      2. Miss Marple.  Poor Miss Marple… I just want to protect her from all the creepers and psychos she encounters (not that I am capable, heh).  She really needs a friend.
      3. Lucian Gregory from The Man Who Was Thursday.  Ok, maybe not friends, more like frenemies.  But I feel an anarchist-poet would round out my acquaintanceship very well and make life more exciting.
      4. Tatyana from Eugene Onegin.  She’s a good soul, but she desperately needs someone to help her stand up to her relatives and give some perspective on Onegin and how he’s frankly not worth the heartache of pursuit.  (I guess that’s more of a therapist than a friend, oops…) 
      5. Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis. Not gonna lie, I am TERRIFIED of creepy crawlies of any size, so it would be a real challenge for us to be friends.  However, I can relate to having chronic problems (albeit not of the beetle variety); he could really use a friend to be on his side.
      6. Gandalf the Grey from The Lord of the Rings.  Master of fireworks, fighter of horrid creatures, and an overall grandpa figure.  Who wouldn’t want to be Gandalf’s best friend?
      7. Mary Poppins.  Is basically my role model for being Kind But Extremely Firm.  If we were friends we could commiserate over the nonsense of the world while sipping tea across a floating tea table.  I need this.
      8. Bertie Wooster from the Jeeves and Wooster series.  Speaking of nonsense… We’re probably too much alike to be good for each other.  But we’d have the best times gadding about town and shocking Aunts with our funemployment.
      9. Conseil and Ned Land from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Conseil, Professor Aronnax’s servant, is a true nerd like me.  On the other hand, I share Ned Land’s abhorrence of being a prisoner, even on the Nautilus.  I would help them figure out a solid escape plan, while trying to minimize conflict with the Professor (and Nemo).  
      10. Sherlock Holmes.  He’s smart-aleck and also knows martial arts.  Low patience with lesser minds such as myself but literally willing to battle to the death to save our lives.  Also, we’ve been best friends since 4th grade…well, since I was in 4th grade…  As for Holmes, “he never lived, but he never died.” #bf4ever

      Reading Everything in August

      No, that is not the title of a challenge…but it may as well be.  I’m up to my ears in books and it’s wonderful.

      Sweet peas and ocean breezes   ♥

      I spent most of my July weekends working on a large volunteer project for a non-profit.  It was a beneficial experience, but more of a commitment than I realized.  Now that that’s pretty much wrapped up, I can turn back to books.

      Here’s a quick list of what I’ll be reading this month, at different levels of undivided attention and in no particular order:

      • 1984 – George Orwell
      • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
      • Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian
      • Drawn from Memory – Ernest Shepard (illustrator of the original Winnie the Pooh)
      • Psalms (almost finished)
      • Tesla biography (yes, still)
      • Smart People Should Build Things and The War on Normal People – Andrew Yang
      • Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
      • Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
      • Other??  There’s sure to be more.

      I probably mentioned before how many, many times I struggled to start Nostromo and stick with it.  Well, I’ve finally succeeded making it past the start, and it’s every bit as engrossing as I thought it would be.  Abandoned mines, haunted Englishmen, political unrest, and questionable investors…if you’re fascinated by 19th-century South American history, this book is all about it.  Some parts are pretty funny, close to dark humor but more often like Dickensian absurdism.

      Some quotes from chapter 6:

      ‘We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it – and neither we can, I guess.’ – random American character

      * * *

      The parrot, catching the sound of a word belonging to his vocabulary, was moved to interfere.  Parrots are very human.

      Joseph Conrad 1916

      I will never get over the fact that English was Conrad’s third language.  Regardless of one’s views on his politics or perspective, the man was brilliant with words.

      Tonight I think I will go read the first chapter of Moby-Dick, because it’s the moment I’ve been waiting for – the beginning of Brona’s read-along

      You can read a sample of my old thoughts on the novel here.  I first read Moby-Dick back in 2010… it feels like a lifetime ago.  Since then, these are some of the milestones which have happened in my life:

      • Entering/graduating college
      • Getting my first car and job
      • Learning real faith
      • Falling in love
      • Cutting my hair short
      • Writing drafts of two books
      • Buying two Apple products (whaaat?)

      I so rarely re-read books that I’m really curious how I will react to this one.  Will I enjoy it as much as I did before?  Will I notice anything new?  I’ll be posting intermittently about it, so we’ll see how it goes.  🙂