Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

To say a book can “change your life” is a cliche, of course, but one that is borne out in each of us by only a few titles—books that quite literally mold your worldview and burrow themselves indelibly  into your heart. To simply love a book is not the same thing; the distinction is ineffable but, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you read it. I’ve loved countless books throughout my life, by a myriad of authors: I remember canceling plans for the entire weekend after starting Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife on a Friday evening; missing my subway stop and winding up down in Bensonhurst on the way home from school because my nose was buried in Gone With The Wind; giggling uncontrollably as I inwardly recited lines from the Radio City Music Hall scene in The Catcher in the Rye or the “travel snobs” chapter of Bobos in Paradise, inviting suspicious glances from passersby. But ultimately—and while collectively, of course, absolutely everything you read shapes how you see the world around you—I elevate only the following novels to “life-changing” status: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; and, after this past Sunday, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Though, as a friend sagely pointed out, I should “give it a few weeks and see how it holds up.” Right now, I’m optimistic.)  

Obviously, Nineteen Eighty-Four was absent from my high-school curriculum, but the novel’s so integral a part of the literary (and political) lexicon that I knew how the story ended before I even began. I read the first few chapters, and was intrigued. I initially compared it to Brave New World—all the critics do, after all. Orwell’s dystopian vision purports people can be controlled by fear and pain; Huxley’s mandates that they will be subjugated by the elevation of the superficial over the cerebral, that ultimately, a collective vacuousness (happiness, if you like) will destroy that which separates man from beasts. Huxley set about destroying the myth of America, the land aplenty; Orwell of the Soviet Union. Nineteen Eighty-Four is no less an anti-Communist screed than Animal Farm, with Big Brother (Stalin) and Emmanuel Goldstein (Trotsky) as the “new” Napoleon and Snowball, so the conventional wisdom surrounding the book went, and so I was ready to believe.

But with the following passage, in Part One, Chapter Seven, the book came alive for me, transcended everything I’d ever heard about this most revered of novels, and I never looked back:

The story really began in the middle sixties, the period of the great purges in which the original leaders of the Revolution were wiped out once and for all. By 1970 none of them was left, except Big Brother himself. All the rest had by that time been exposed as traitors and counter- revolutionaries. Goldstein had fled and was hiding no one knew where, and of the others, a few had simply disappeared, while the majority had been executed after spectacular public trials at which they made confession of their crimes. Among the last survivors were three men named Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford. It must have been in 1965 that these three had been arrested. As often happened, they had vanished for a year or more, so that one did not know whether they were alive or dead, and then had suddenly been brought forth to incriminate themselves in the usual way. They had confessed to intelligence with the enemy (at that date, too, the enemy was Eurasia), embezzlement of public funds, the murder of various trusted Party members, intrigues against the leadership of Big Brother which had started long before the Revolution happened, and acts of sabotage causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people. After confessing to these things they had been pardoned, reinstated in the Party, and given posts which were in fact sinecures but which sounded important. All three had written long, abject articles in the Times, analysing the reasons for their defection and promising to make amends.

Some time after their release Winston had actually seen all three of them in the Chestnut Tree Café. He remembered the sort of terrified fascination with which he had watched them out of the corner of his eye. They were men far older than himself, relics of the ancient world, almost the last great figures left over from the heroic days of the Party. The glamour of the underground struggle and the civil war still faintly clung to them. He had the feeling, though already at that time facts and dates were growing blurry, that he had known their names years earlier than he had known that of Big Brother. But also they were outlaws, enemies, untouchables, doomed with absolute certainty to extinction within a year or two. No one who had once fallen into the hands of the Thought Police ever escaped in the end. They were corpses waiting to be sent back to the grave.

There was no one at any of the tables nearest to them. It was not wise even to be seen in the neighbourhood of such people. They were sitting in silence before glasses of the gin flavoured with cloves which was the speciality of the café. Of the three, it was Rutherford whose appearance had most impressed Winston. Rutherford had once been a famous caricaturist, whose brutal cartoons had helped to inflame popular opinion before and during the Revolution. Even now, at long intervals, his cartoons were appearing in the Times. They were simply an imitation of his earlier manner, and curiously lifeless and unconvincing. Always they were a rehashing of the ancient themes—slum tenements, starving children, street battles, capitalists in top hats—even on the barricades the capitalists still seemed to cling to their top hats an endless, hopeless effort to get back into the past. He was a monstrous man, with a mane of greasy grey hair, his face pouched and seamed, with thick negroid lips. At one time he must have been immensely strong; now his great body was sagging, sloping, bulging, falling away in every direction. He seemed to be breaking up before one’s eyes, like a mountain crumbling.

It was the lonely hour of fifteen. Winston could not now remember how he had come to be in the café at such a time. The place was almost empty. A tinny music was trickling from the telescreens. The three men sat in their corner almost motionless, never speaking. Uncommanded, the waiter brought fresh glasses of gin. There was a chessboard on the table beside them, with the pieces set out but no game started. And then, for perhaps half a minute in all, something happened to the telescreens. The tune that they were playing changed, and the tone of the music changed too. There came into it—but it was something hard to describe. It was a peculiar, cracked, braying, jeering note: in his mind Winston called it a yellow note. And then a voice from the telescreen was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

The three men never stirred. But when Winston glanced again at Rutherford’s ruinous face, he saw that his eyes were full of tears. And for the first time he noticed, with a kind of inward shudder, and yet not knowing at what he shuddered, that both Aaronson and Rutherford had broken noses.”

Orwell may be one of the greatest political theorists of the century. Certainly, he was prescient enough to know that the real threat was not just the Soviet Union itself, it was the “enlightened” Western world falling prey to totalitarian principles. Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, after the Allies had won the battle against fascism in Europe and Asia (and arguably with the help of the Soviet Union, at least militarily), but the novel underscores the prevailing postwar mentality in Western Europe—a kind of enervating despair about the future as the “victors” were faced with a ruined continent and the quixotic task of rebuilding and restoring Europe to its former greatness. Arguably, and despite whatever one’s feelings are about the European Union, that greatness never returned; Europe’s “time had come.” And certainly the thirty-plus years of perpetual conflict had broken European spirits, had left many of them unable to imagine a world without war. Orwell’s ending—and I assume that most people, as I did, know how the book ends even if they’ve never read it—is decidedly bleak. The last lines are famous, but they’re worth repeating here:

“Uncalled, a memory floated into his mind. He saw a candle-lit room with a vast white-counterpaned bed, and himself, a boy of nine or ten, sitting on the floor, shaking a dice-box, and laughing excitedly. His mother was sitting opposite him and also laughing.

It must have been about a month before she disappeared. It was a moment of reconciliation, when the nagging hunger in his belly was forgotten and his earlier affection for her had temporarily revived. He remembered the day well, a pelting, drenching day when the water streamed down the window-pane and the light indoors was too dull to read by. The boredom of the two children in the dark, cramped bedroom became unbearable. Winston whined and grizzled, made futile demands for food, fretted about the room pulling everything out of place and kicking the wainscoting until the neighbours banged on the wall, while the younger child wailed intermittently. In the end his mother said, ‘Now be good, and I’ll buy you a toy. A lovely toy—you’ll love it’; and then she had gone out in the rain, to a little general shop which was still sporadically open nearby, and came back with a cardboard box containing an outfit of Snakes and Ladders. He could still remember the smell of the damp cardboard. It was a miserable outfit. The board was cracked and the tiny wooden dice were so ill-cut that they would hardly lie on their sides. Winston looked at the thing sulkily and without interest. But then his mother lit a piece of candle and they sat down on the floor to play. Soon he was wildly excited and shouting with laughter as the tiddly-winks climbed hopefully up the ladders and then came slithering down the snakes again, almost to the starting-point. They played eight games, winning four each. His tiny sister, too young to understand what the game was about, had sat propped up against a bolster, laughing because the others were laughing. For a whole afternoon they had all been happy together, as in his earlier childhood.

He pushed the picture out of his mind. It was a false memory. He was troubled by false memories occasionally. They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were. Some things had happened, others had not happened. He turned back to the chessboard and picked up the white knight again. Almost in the same instant it dropped on to the board with a clatter. He had started as though a pin had run into him.

A shrill trumpet-call had pierced the air. It was the bulletin! Victory! It always meant victory when a trumpet- call preceded the news. A sort of electric drill ran through the café. Even the waiters had started and pricked up their ears.

The trumpet-call had let loose an enormous volume of noise. Already an excited voice was gabbling from the telescreen, but even as it started it was almost drowned by a roar of cheering from outside. The news had run round the streets like magic. He could hear just enough of what was issuing from the telescreen to realize that it had all happened, as he had foreseen; a vast seaborne armada had secretly assembled a sudden blow in the enemy’s rear, the white arrow tearing across the tail of the black. Fragments of triumphant phrases pushed themselves through the din: ‘Vast strategic manoeuvre—perfect co-ordination—utter rout—half a million prisoners—complete demoralization—control of the whole of Africa—bring the war within measurable distance of its end victory—greatest victory in human history—victory, victory, victory!’

Under the table Winston’s feet made convulsive movements. He had not stirred from his seat, but in his mind he was running, swiftly running, he was with the crowds outside, cheering himself deaf. He looked up again at the portrait of Big Brother. The colossus that bestrode the world! The rock against which the hordes of Asia dashed themselves in vain! He thought how ten minutes ago-yes, only ten minutes—there had still been equivocation in his heart as he wondered whether the news from the front would be of victory or defeat. Ah, it was more than a Eurasian army that had perished! Much had changed in him since that first day in the Ministry of Love, but the final, indispensable, healing change had never happened, until this moment.

The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

Interestingly, the Appendix of Newspeak at the very end of the novel, which Orwell insisted be included in the final version of the novel against his publisher’s wishes, serves as sort of the Fortinbras of Nineteen Eighty-Four—that is, a glimmer of hope amidst almost consummate tragedy. The past tense of the Appendix intimates that Newspeak has been abolished, hinting at the eventual end of Oceania itself (though it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t pick up on this until my second reading, prompted by James Benstead’s essay on revisiting the novel).

In Orwell’s 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” he mentions that (and this was after Animal Farm and before Nineteen Eighty-Four) his first purpose has always been to argue for the principles of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism, and to “make political writing into an art.”  Interestingly, the first Oceania parallel that jumped to my mind was not the USSR under Stalin, it was the United States under George W. Bush. I’m referring specifically to the notorious Ron Suskind piece that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2004, where an “unnamed aide” (very likely Karl Rove) coined the phrase “reality-based community.” According to Suskind:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ . . . ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

Clearly, I’m not the first to apply Orwell to George Bush. And now that we don’t have the Soviet Union to kick around anymore, of course everyone’s going to search for appropriate modern-day parallels that are a bit less obvious than Russia or China. That said, I think Orwell, like Huxley in Brave New World, was warning us—us, the West, the supposedly “enlightened world,” we who believe we will never, and could never, become like them. Like Animal Farm’s ruling pigs, we might become indistinguishable from our supposed enemies and not even realize it. And if there’s one lesson we can take away from the Bush years, it’s that Orwell’s predictions came true, if only in part. And—to all those who complain Obama hasn’t “done enough”—dismantling that dystopia is going to take a lot more than two years of a Democratic administration.

But honestly, what puts Nineteen Eighty-Four in a class of its own isn’t its political message; it’s simply its power as a narrative. How to even begin to describe the sensation of reading this book? Of feeling the rest of the world fall away, your body stiffen, the mattress like granite beneath your back (when I was reading in bed), your breath quicken at turning points (“‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them”), your heart ache dully (“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man”), the tears stream down your cheeks? Of that moment toward the end that’s more than just an epiphany: You feel a hundred thousand bolts hit you all at once, like you’ve glimpsed into the aleph and can finally see everything—everything—exactly as it is, how it’s always been and always will be. And then, just as quickly, that infinite wisdom, that feeling of total liberation, is gone, and you’re just another ignoramus fumbling as best he can through life; you’re Winston Smith in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, helplessly trying to recall false memories that you know are ultimately meaningless.

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