books you should have read by now: nineteen eighty-four
This year, channel nine is bringing back, in a fashion reminiscent of Tim Burton, the dog which already died – Big Brother. For those who don’t know, Big Brother shows a cast of random unpaid people who are surveyed during every moment in a house filled with film cameras and microphones. The title ‘big brother’ role is played by a bodiless voice who asks the housemates to take part in random activities. Creepy? Yes. Tedious? Also yes. But, perfectly benign.
I’ve often thought that the show could benefit from some injection of the spirit of the original Big Brother, as depicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this society, Big Brother is watching and listening, at least probably, one cannot be sure if the surveillance is constant or intermittent. He wants to make sure you have full intellectual and emotional allegiance to him. It’s not because Big Brother gets off on low-budget reality TV either – it’s just because Big Brother is into power for the sake of power.
The party (i.e. the totalitarian government, headed by the figure ‘Big Brother’) is very good at enforcing their power. It starts from the indoctrination of children who ‘adored the Party and everything connected with it’. If any potential dissenters speak out, they will be heard by the Party and duly punished; in fact, merely thinking up a dissenting opinion is a crime. But such thoughts would soon become impossible with the implementation of Newspeak, a bare-bones language which erases concepts such as freedom. The Party literally controls everything.
But some people, such as Winston, are not particularly good at accepting this. They are thought-criminals and it’s up to the Thought Police, or suspicious citizens, to seek them out. Though it’s not clear whether the Thought Police can read thoughts, one’s thoughts can nonetheless become apparent. For example, ‘it was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in public space or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself.’
Nineteen Eighty-Four follows the story of Winston. Winston lives alone (except with a telescreen, which monitors his movements) in London, a part of Oceania, and works at the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history to coincide with the Party’s preferred reality of things. Which nation Oceania is at war with, the current and previous sizes of the chocolate ration, and whether or not an individual ever existed, is all up for editing. Every record is precisely reviewed; the Party’s preferred reality literally becomes reality.
When I first read this at age 14, this idea was equal parts incredible and horrible. In fact, reading Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time feels like a radical act. It is like you’re in the same boat as Winston and Orwell is describing to you your own government (in a very exaggerated sense). He’s telling you to be vigilant, and cynical, and to question the distribution of power and feel suspicious of those who want a lot of it. It stays with you.
Re-reading it after a solid tertiary education peppered with post-modern thought and readings of Descartes which questions whether there really is a reality outside one’s own mind, it is relatively non-radical. ‘Yes’, I said to myself, reading along, ‘it’s obvious that what we think of is truth is a fiction that has been consented to’. There is a part of the book where it is said, ‘reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else’ and earlier, ‘nothing exists except the endless present in which the Party is always right’. Well, duh.
Suddenly, Nineteen Eighty-Four moves from being dangerous to part of the intellectual establishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a powerful and influential work of fiction. However, it’s slightly disappointing that I couldn’t bring back my initial breathtaking fervour with which I first read the book.
Usually people recommend that the age of the main character should point to the age of the book’s demographic. The rule is thrown out the window (perhaps ironically) with Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston is 39, but this book is best discovered in youth. Marieke Hardy seems to agree. On an episode of First Tuesday of the Month Book Club she said, ‘I feel like you have to read it at 15 to have that impassioned pull to it because I find it hard just not to read as a book and then have this giant cloud of ideas and influence over it’.
But, if you’re no longer a teenager there are still many reasons to read it. Orwell has painted a world in intricate and impressive detail and he is a master of good, simple, but powerful English writing. The novel is haunting and, at times, violent and distressing, but in a good way (if that’s possible). Moreover, aside from perhaps Brave New World and a couple of others, there’s probably only limited need to look at any other dystopian totalitarian government novel. The genre has been mastered already.