My political science teacher during bachelor second year suggested a list of books to read to better understand political thought. Most of the books in the list of recommended books were about political system and political thought of England, USA and India. But there was also a novel in that list. That novel was 1984: A Novel. It caught my attention. I immediately went to the central library and got hold of the only novel in that list. To me reading a novel seemed like far more interesting than reading textbooks on political thought and political philosophy. That was my first introduction to and interaction with 1984: A Novel. That was year 1994.
However, I could not complete it. Probably it was my lack of comprehension that prompted me to give up after reading maybe about 15 pages. The same novel was suddenly in news with its sales skyrocketing after the election of Donald Trump as the President of The United States of America. The Trump team made certain false claims about the number of people attending his oath taking ceremony. When confronted with facts, Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway said it was ‘Alternative Fact’. The social media was immediately abuzz and people started connecting the catchphrase ‘Alternative Fact’ with the word ‘Doublethink’ used by George Orwell in his novel 1984. The sales of 1984 suddenly picked up and it was in the top selling books on Amazon in USA. The jump in sale was astronomical 9500%. The only other time when there was such a huge interest in the novel was in 1984. The reason at that time was very simple: it was 1984. I read the news and forgot about it. Sometimes back while travelling to India from Muscat, I saw the novel at Airport. I don’t know why I just went ahead and bought it.
Once I started reading the novel I couldn’t keep it down. I kept reading the book while waiting to board the plane. I kept reading the book during my entire journey. I continued reading the book while in taxi from airport to home. By the time I finished the book I was home.
1984 is a classical dystopian masterpiece by George Orwell. Since its publication in June 1949 by Secker & Warburg, it has been regularly included in the list of best novels and must read books. It’s a cold war period novel that still evokes interest and fear among readers in equal measure. Although it is a cold war novel, unlike other books of its genre (a good example could be Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” written in 1940 describing life under communism), it does not describe what was happening at that time but rather what modern day liberal democracies can do with the freedom of their citizens in the name of saving democracy. 1984 tells us how liberal democracies can take away the freedom of their citizens disregarding all the rules of law in the name of saving democracy by trampling the very freedom given by the same democracy.
While reading the novel the first feel you get is that yes I know what Orwell is talking about. Words like Doublethink, Ministry of Peace (in the novel it actually wages war against everybody including its own citizens), Ministry of Love (deals in pain and despair. Its job is to annihilate any dissident in the country), Ministry of Truth, Thought Crime, Thought Police, Unperson, Memory Hole, Big Brother etc. And yes it talks about novel writing machines which dish out pornography to buy off the masses by keeping them busy in trivial pursuits. The novel actually tells us how regimes work. It opens our eyes to the modus operandi of regimes.
Regimes work by juxtaposing perception over reality and constantly lying until the lie becomes the truth. This is also done by systematically stripping the meaning out of language. The regimes eradicate ideas and meaning from the words unless they are out of dictionary or their meaning is changed. States real enemy is reality itself. Regimes do everything in their control to make it impossible to understand the real world. Reality is replaced with phantoms and lies. If anyone gets caught saying or believing the truth, he should be ready for torture unless he agrees with the regimes version of reality. The protagonist in the novel finds out that after torture the state could actually “get inside you” and “something was killed in your breast; burnt out, cauterized out” until you agree that two plus two is five.
Another all-time favorite method adopted by regimes to control power is by shifting blame to a designated scapegoat. Every effort is put to make people hate and channelise the anger, hatred and violence towards the designated enemy. Toward achieving this objective is the Ministry of Truth which is responsible for constant updation of history to suit modern circumstances and shifting alliances (doesn’t it sound chillingly familiar with history being rewritten all over the world today). In the novel it is Winston Smith, the protagonist, who works as a censor in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to suitably update history. To make sure he and others do their job properly, they are always watched and controlled by the all-knowing and all-seeing Big Brother.
The most bone chilling and hair raising aspect of this is the Two Minute Hate. It is the daily public period during which all the members of the Outer Party (ruling party) of Oceania (imaginary country) must watch a film. The film depicts the enemies of the state. Party members are required to openly and loudly express hate for the enemy shown in the movie. The purpose of the daily regime of Two Minute Hate was to allow party members to vent their existential anger and hate at the state enemy shown in the movie. Orwell has beautifully described two minute hate. Just read the passage and enjoy and feel worried at the same time.
“The horrible thing about the Two Minute Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in…A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current”.
This also shows how the state deals with the so called subversive people. “People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, and your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word”
Over the decades since it was written, 1984 has been dismissed many times over as past its sell by date. Yes, things have not gone bad to the extent as discussed in 1984. Did Orwell really get it all wrong. As very beautifully described by Lynskey (2019) “By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four,”. However, the darker tendencies detailed in the novel about the state and the pupil come to the fore again and again in some form or the other. The way regimes try to mould public opinion using media is no secret. Similarly, the use of internet and mobile technology, particularly social media, to spread fake news and ‘Alternate Facts’ is a reality. Yes, there is no Big Boss directly watching us but the technology makes it possible for the powers that be to monitor each and every move that we make. Still it is not entirely correct to blame the state. People are equally guilty of falling prey to the base instincts. We regularly hear news about discrimination against refugees, people of colour or women from different parts of the world. However, there is no denying the fact that reading 1984 decades after it was first published still sends chill up one’s spine and makes the hair stand on the back of the neck. Whatever way we look at it, without doubt, 1984 is one of the best 20th century literary work which will continue to amaze readers for a long time to come.
Interesting Quotes from the novel
- “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command”
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”
- “Big brother is watching you”
- “War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength”
- “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic”
- “The past was dead, the future was unimaginable.”
- “Who controls the past”, ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”
- “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
- “A nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face”
- “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me: There lie they, and here lie we under the spreading chestnut tree”
- “She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead, that from the moment of declaring war on the Party it was better to think of yourself as a corpse”
- “The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention … It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant … the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons”
- “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s”
- “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”
References and for more details see:
CNBC (2017)’1984′ Sales soar after Trump claims, ‘alternative facts’, CNBC, Janaury 25, 2017. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/25/1984-sales-soar-after-trump-claims-alternative-facts.html. Accessed on 5 October 2019
Freytas-Tamura, K. de (2017) George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller. New York Times, January 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/books/1984-george-orwell-donald-trump.html. Accessed on 6 October 2019.
Lynskey, D. (2019) The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. Doubleday.
The Gaurdian (2009) The masterpiece that killed George Orwell. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell. Accessed on 25 August 2019