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

1984

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.

1984mapoftheworld
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.

The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank lacht naar de schoolfotograaf

…I seem to have everything, except my one true friend.  All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time.  I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things.  We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem.

As I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, two things really struck me.  The first was that humans, ordinary humans, can turn cruel so quickly and completely.  The second was that, even as an adult, I could see pieces of my own life in Anne’s, because her writing, in so many ways, is ageless.

It’s one of the most famous memoirs of all time, so many people know the story: a Jewish family in Holland is compelled to go into hiding after the Nazi takeover, and the youngest daughter records their experiences in her diary.  I had heard much about the book but put off reading it, due to my emotional experience with similar memoirs (The Hiding Place, Night, and From the Ashes of Sobibor).  Though different in scope and perspective from those other books, The Diary is every bit as emotional and, while difficult to put down, cannot be read lightly.

Anne’s first entries show the Frank family before they went into hiding, making the best life they could under an increasingly oppressive police state.  When she was about twelve, Anne and her sister were forced to transfer to the Jewish Lyceum school due to segregation by Nazi mandate.  Always intent to be cheerful, she writes joyfully of her friends and admirers at the new school.  Of the discrimination against Jews – from harsh curfews to exclusion from public transportation – she writes very matter-of-factly, in a bluntness that carries through the rest of the diary.

Even at thirteen, when she began writing, Anne seemed to have a sense for what was important to record; later, she told her imaginary friend “Kitty” that she wanted to become a writer or journalist when she grew up.  What results is a fascinating combination of personal (even intimate) anecdotes and journalistic writing about the family’s day-to-day activities and the progress of the war. 

The Frank family was not alone; they shared the “Secret Annex” with the van Daan family and a middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Dussel.  For two years, the eight people were cooped up together in the tiny hidden rooms, fearful of making noise or being seen by the outside world.  Understandably, tempers often ran high.  Much of the book covers the conflict between Anne and everyone else, as it seems (at least from her perspective) she was frequently the target of the grown-ups’ frustrations.  In the Definitive Edition which I read, even the arguments between Anne and her mother are included.  The whole dynamic is extremely believable, and I would imagine the situation caused the majority of the friction between people who would otherwise have got along pretty well.

What is most enduring to me about Anne’s diary is just that: its honesty.  There’s the day-to-day dramas, traumas, and bathroom jokes, which make the characterizations so real.  Then there’s the introspection, self-analysis, and over-analysis which ring true for a girl in her early teens.  Anne’s desire to be taken seriously and understood is something I could so well relate to at that age, and reading it now was like a flashback to my own diary.  Less relatable for me was her enthusiasm about puberty and “growing up,” but I think a lot of other readers would be able to relate to that.

There were many great quotes, but I wanted to end with one that I found especially insightful, as well as chilling:

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists.  Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago!  There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.  And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

The Frank family, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel were eventually captured on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and, within about six months, had been murdered through the terrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor.

As I remember Anne Frank and her family, I also pray for those who are suffering persecution today, such as Pastor Wang Yi.  We shouldn’t forget that history is repeating itself, even today, all over the world.

My First Classics Club List

So…contrary to my past practices, I am starting to embrace epic challenges.  Before this enthusiasm leaves me, I’ve decided to finally join The Classics Club and commit to reading 50 classics within five years.

It’s a pretty reasonable goal (ten classics a year), since I mostly read classics anyway.  But I’m making it more difficult by including some chunksters and books I’ve been putting off for years and some that fall under both (*cough* War and Peace).  I also threw in some rereads that I keep meaning to return to.  The list also came out to 52 instead of 50 (sigh), but I’m only committing to 50.

  1. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
  2. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  3. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  4. Resurrection – Leo Tolstoy
  5. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
  7. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  8. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank – 4/3/19
  9. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
  10. 1984 – George Orwell – 4/25/19
  11. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  12. True Grit – Charles Portis
  13. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
  14. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. The Analects – Confucius
  16. Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
  17. Silence – Shusaku Endo
  18. The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham
  19. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  20. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  21. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  22. Emily of New Moon – Lucy Maud Montgomery
  23. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  24. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  25. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  26. Le Morte d’Arthur – Thomas Malory
  27. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Victor Hugo
  28. The Last Days of Pompeii – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  29. Common Sense – Thomas Paine
  30. The Bride of Lammermoor – Walter Scott
  31. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  32. Paradise Lost – John Milton
  33. The Outsiders – S. E. Hinton
  34. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
  35. The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
  36. The Beautiful and the Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  37. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  38. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  39. Germinal – Emile Zola
  40. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  41. Dracula – Bram Stoker (reread)
  42. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (reread)
  43. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (reread)
  44. The Secret Garden – Frances Burnett (reread)
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins (reread)
  46. Under Western Eyes – Joseph Conrad (reread)
  47. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (reread) & Notebooks for The Idiot
  48. Silas Marner – George Eliot (reread)
  49. Moby-Dick – Herman Melville (reread)
  50. The Bounty Trilogy – James Hall and Charles Nordoff (reread)
  51. The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte Yonge (reread)
  52. The Lord of the Rings (reread)
  53. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (bonus, added 12/12/19)