George Orwell, 1949
The globe has been divided among three totalitarian megastates.
Britain, redubbed Airstrip One, has been absorbed into one of these,
called Oceania. The all-powerful Party, whose titular head, Big
Brother, stares at the people of Oceania from posters and through
two-way telescreens, has reorganized society according to the
principles of Ingsoc, a contraction of "English Socialism." The
uneducated eighty-five percent of the population is permitted to
go on relatively unmolested, as a source of brute labor. All others
must subsume themselves entirely to the Party, undertaking every
action on the Party's behalf, thinking no thought that fails to
conform to the Party's wishes. This surrender of the self to the
Party must be genuine and absolute. The alternative is torture,
reprogramming, and execution.
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to
falsify the records of the past to reflect the Party's wishes,
wishes that change from moment to moment. Winston finds himself
increasingly troubled by the infinitely malleable memories of
those around him — they seem genuinely to remember the
things he has made up. They seem genuinely to remember the things
they have made up! Winston has heard that there is a
resistance movement — its purported leaders, captured by
the secret police, regularly appear on the telescreens to confess
their crimes prior to execution — but doesn't know how to
go about joining it. Then, one day, he receives a note...
I have, of course, read Nineteen Eighty-Four many, many
times. This time I read it with two ideas in mind. The first was
to see whether having read all of Orwell's previous novels would
add anything new to my reading of this, his most famous. The
answer, to my surprise: Yes! I was astonished at the extent to
which Nineteen Eighty-Four was really just a permutation
of his earlier output. And yet those were distinctly minor pieces,
while Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the landmark literary
works of the twentieth century. Hence the title of this section.
Think about your favorite songs. Most of them, I imagine, are
by bands you like. Anyone who's been to this site knows that my
favorite song is "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but I could name
literally dozens of other Nirvana songs I really enjoy. But
this isn't always the case. Back before the advent of the web I
bought many a CD just because I liked the one song on it that I'd
heard, only to discover that the rest of the album sounded nothing
like it. This sort of thing is not uncommon. I remember reading a
review of a Primitive Radio Gods concert that said, "Stay away! The
rest of their stuff is nothing like 'Phone Booth'!" And then you
have the Green Day song from with the acoustic guitar and orchestral
strings that started popping up in 1998 on soft-rock stations in
between Air Supply and the Gin Blossoms. I wonder how many
receptionists heard it at work, stopped by the Sam Goody, picked up
a copy of Nimrod, listened to "Platypus," and cried their
I thought Nineteen Eighty-Four was like that. There are
authors who, when they appear on syllabi, might have any number of
their titles appear next to their names — take an American
lit class and there's no telling which Faulkner novel you'll get.
But with some, well, once you see the name, you know what
you're getting. When you see Fitzgerald, you know you're
probably not getting The Last Tycoon. And when you see
Orwell, the chances are mighty slim that it's going to be
anything he wrote in the 30s. Going into my reread of
Nineteen Eighty-Four, I assumed this was because in the
40s he basically started a whole new career writing polemics
against Stalinism. In the music analogy, he'd be a band
that changed its sound and suddenly became a lot more successful.
Only this isn't true at all! Here I'd thought I would find a
radical departure from his reportorial novels on poverty in
Britain. Instead I found... a reportorial novel on poverty in
Britain! Everyone remembers Newspeak and Eurasia and Eastasia
and Big Brother and telescreens and Room 101. But Parts One
and Two are more about "coarse soap and blunt razor blades."
Like Down and Out in Paris and
London, they're about the "effort to escape the vile
wind," about standing in line for "the regulation lunch," about
carefully, obsessively, parceling out pieces of cigarettes to
oneself. Like A Clergyman's
Daughter, they're about lives whose potential leisure
time has been swallowed by obligatory volunteer work. Like
Keep the Aspidistra Flying,
they're about boarding houses "that smelt always of cabbage and
bad lavatories," about wan city dwellers blinking in the sunlit
countryside, about a couple trained to be celibate awkwardly
trying to find a spot among the trees for furtive sex. Like
The Road to Wigan Pier, they're
about cities full of proletarian women "blown up to monstrous
dimensions by childbearing, then hardened" who live in houses
where every time the residents think they've beaten back the bugs,
they turn to find them "massing for the counter-attack." And
like Coming Up for Air, they're
about the hopeless quest to return to the Golden Country in an
England where bombs are falling. Orwell simply had to move his
revolution from 1940 to 1950. As for The Theory and Practice
of Oligarchical Collectivism... I've read only a tiny fraction
of Orwell's essays, but I think I've found most of the precursors.
For instance, I read an essay that argued that the nature of
atomic weapons pointed to "an epoch as horribly stable as the
slave empires of antiquity" in which "three super-states"
would come to dominate. All of which leads to the inevitable
question: What the hell does any of this have to do with Duran
As noted, I was completely wrong to think that Nineteen
Eighty-Four was so different from the rest of Orwell's work
that I'd end up scratching my head wondering where it came from.
Quite the opposite turned out to be the case — the family
resemblance to its predecessors could hardly be more striking.
And yet Nineteen Eighty-Four is so much better!
A few paragraphs ago I talked about how sometimes you like a song,
but it's really just first among equals in the band's catalogue.
For instance, one of my favorite bands is called
Scarling. Looking at the
September 2007 edition of my list of
I see that my favorite Scarling song, "Can't," checks in at #6.
Other Scarling songs appear at #15, #17, #29, #72, and #87. (This
list is currently undergoing revision, but those songs will all be
sticking around.) Now, another one of my favorite songs is "Union
of the Snake" by Duran Duran. It's #16 on this list. Other Duran
Duran songs on the list are... oh, there aren't any. Nor do I even
own any. Does that mean that "Union of the Snake" is like the
Primitive Radio Gods and Green Day songs mentioned earlier, totally
unrepresentative of the band's usual output? Not at all! "Union
of the Snake" actually sounds extremely similar to "The Reflex" and
"New Moon on Monday" and all the rest of the Duran Duran canon. I
find the others pleasant enough when they pop up on the radio. So
why don't I get them? Because any time I felt like listening to
Duran Duran, the song I would choose would inevitably be "Union of
the Snake." So the others would just be taking up hard drive space.
This is sort of how I feel about Nineteen Eighty-Four. I
can see how great a debt it owes to Orwell's novels of the 1930s.
But I also feel that it kind of makes those novels obsolete. So
this is my verdict at the end of my Orwell project: if anyone
ever asks me what Orwell books I'd recommend, I will ask, "Have
you read Animal Farm and
Nineteen Eighty-Four?" And if the answer is yes, my reply
will be, "Okay, then you're covered."
I wish they all could be dystopian girls
I was talking about Nineteen Eighty-Four with some people
at work. One of them rolled her eyes and pointed out that here
was yet another book in which the only purpose the female character
serves is to rip her clothes off for the gouty old man. That is a
good point! The sexual politics here do leave a lot to be desired.
Now, I said above that this time I read Nineteen Eighty-Four
with two ideas in mind. Here's the second one. A while back I
had an Okcupid account. I answered over a thousand questions and
the algorithm said it was therefore very confident in the matches
it suggested. So I looked at the profiles of the assorted young
women the site said were my best prospects, and time and time again,
under "favorite book," they listed Nineteen Eighty-Four (and,
a bit less often, Brave New World). What does that say about
them? Both of these books are commonly studied in school, so does
that indicate that the people who select them feel that they should
select literary works, yet have only read the handful of literary
works they've been assigned in an academic setting? Or did they
refrain from picking something more esoteric because they want to
make sure that people who read their profiles will successfully
gather information about them? And if so, what is that information
— that they're interested in politics and sociology? That
they're not afraid to dwell on the dark side of life? Both,
neither? And, by extension, what does it say about me that I somehow
convinced a computer program that it should try to set me up with
female dystopia fans?
George Orwell and Michael Radford, 1984
I also rewatched the movie adaptation of the novel made in 1984 —
filmed, I have read, on the very calendar dates specified in the novel.
It is an extremely faithful adaptation, so faithful that I have little
to say about it. What what little I do have to say is positive. When
you're adapting a story everyone already knows, good casting becomes
paramount, and the casting here is spot-on perfect. In preparing to
write this article I looked at a lot of other adaptations of Nineteen
Eighty-Four — paintings and comics and things — and they
were just wrong. If Winston Smith doesn't look like John Hurt,
then it's just not Winston Smith. Likewise, after watching this movie
for the first time back in the 80s, I could no longer accept an O'Brien
who looks very different from Richard Burton, nor a Julia who differs
substantially in appearance from Suzanna Hamilton.
The sets are also great. One of the key observations of the novel is
that, compared to the average middle-class reader of 1949, the most
powerful oligarchs in Oceania live very poorly; the privileges they
enjoy amount to a cup of coffee in the morning and the ability to turn
off the TV for a few minutes. The movie gets this across beautifully
without drawing too much attention to it. O'Brien's quarters are
virtually bare, but he has a desk and his floor isn't crumbling, and
very few others can say the same.
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