Orwell’s 1984 - a challenging and rewarding read
1984 by George Orwell (16+)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
In the fictional superstate of Oceania in the year 1984, this famous dystopian novel follows Outer Party member Winston Smith and his life in the totalitarian regime of the ominous Big Brother.
In this perfect dictatorship, the ruling party controls every aspect of human society: from watching and listening to all citizens through “telescreens” or cracking down on those who rebel – or even think of rebelling – against the Party via the Thought Police; the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” rings supreme.
Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1948 as a warning of how totalitarianism can disillusion its populations through extreme censorship, psychological manipulation, and constant surveillance to the point where even thinking is controlled and oppressed to shape a perfectly orthodox society.
This even escalates to the point where the Party can force its citizens to believe logical falsities such as “2 + 2 = 5” or contradict their pre-existing knowledge without question (aka Doublethink), such as changing the fact of if Oceania is at war with the superstate Eurasia or that of Eastasia.
There are four ministries that maintain order in Oceania: The Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty.
Paradoxically, the Ministry of Truth spreads lies (or simply rewrites the truth, depending on your interpretation), the Ministry of Love concerns itself with torture, the Ministry of Peace handles matters of war, and the Ministry of Plenty actively maintains poverty while projecting the illusion of prosperity.
Winston, our protagonist, is an intellectual and pensive 39-year-old man who harbours revolutionary ideas while working for the Ministry of Truth. Loathing the Party, Winston commits “thoughtcrime” often, even beginning an illicit love affair with fellow Outer Party member Julia with whom he rebels against the Party further. Julia, though hedonistic, is much more pragmatic than Winston, often sharing clever ways to defy the Party or casually stating a startlingly thought-provoking idea that might not occur to most – including Winston. Such challenges to the norm are imperative in a world where truth is consistently altered.
Though originally written in English, Orwell uses his own fictional language throughout the novel – Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.
Though still in development, it aims to make heretical thoughts virtually impossible simply because there is no way to communicate unorthodoxy. Its vocabulary ranges from the complex concept of doublethink (the notion of simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas on the basis of what the truth is at that point in time – tricky!), to simply eliminate arguably “superfluous” language such as “excellent” with plusgood and “spectacular” with doubleplusgood.
Personally, I found this fictitious new language both humorous at times – due to its over-exaggerated practicality – as well as fascinating in the way that Orwell showcases how obviously biased language (such as referring to orthodoxy as goodthink) is conveyed as factual and how this can easily manipulate characterisations of/attitudes towards the Party.
A final thought on 1984 is how understanding its historical context adds clarity to its meaning. For instance, “2 + 2 = 5” was a real political slogan in Soviet Russia to reinforce the promise that the five-year industrialisation plan will be completed in four years.
Orwell satirises such ideas to show how authoritarian governments attempt to suspend reality for political gain.
Overall, 1984 is a challenging yet rewarding read, as it raises new notions and absorbing abstracts that some readers might not become acquainted with otherwise.
I found that 1984 presented a strong case for me to challenge conventions I typically would not examine: Is war really peace? Is freedom slavery? Is ignorance strength? These nuances are mesmerising, and I encourage all to explore them in this doubleplusgood novel!
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