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.
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:
- The Castle, Franz Kafka
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
- The Kill, Emile Zola
- 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
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.