by George Orwell
When I finished the first chapter of 1984, which introduces the very intrusive society of Oceania dominated by Big Brother and the Party, I was disquieted by what was happening in that society and the easy comparison to current events in the U.S. and around the world in 2020-2021. I knew I would return to the book, but immersed in the intensity of the total lack of personal freedom in this totalitarian regime, I allowed myself a few hours respite. I was only reading about it; what if I had to live it? George Orwell had my complete attention within the well-crafted words of the first few pages.
Winston Smith works in the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites the past to align it with current events. This process involves multiple revisions over time with all documentary evidence of a different previous reality immediately destroyed. He has a shabby existence—never enough food, a cold, dingy apartment, and most importantly the monitoring of every movement, facial expression, and utterance 24/7 by Big Brother through a telescreen. Even Big Brother’s eyes on giant posters seem to follow him. In this society, sex is allowed occasionally, but only for the sole purpose of procreation. Children belong to groups called “Spies;” and as they mature, they advance to the “Youth League.” Both organizations encourage their members to denounce their parents and other adults to the Thought Police for crimes of unorthodoxy. Party members engage in Two Minutes Hate daily to keep their loathing at a high level and focused on the internal threat, The Enemy of the People, and on the external threat, whatever group of countries is supposedly currently at war with Oceania.
Winston internally rebels, and 1984 charts the expression of his rebellion as well as the consequences. His parents were disappeared when he was ten or eleven. Using doublethink to convince the population that what is, isn’t and Newspeak to provide a minimal language in which it is impossible to express certain ideas, Big Brother (the Party) gains control of minds subtly, but effectively. We are, sadly, seeing a version of that today with censorship and mind control by main stream media as they tell us what to think and say and try to shame those who disagree. It is echoed in our educational system that stresses rote learning, eliminates creativity, and insists on social, political, and religious “correctness.” We are in a season that calls us to read or reread 1984 before this work of fiction becomes reality and is banned.
Notes: 1. In the Signet Classic version, there is an afterword by Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst who moved from Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1934. This essay is about several books, including 1984 that warn us of the future unless we change our direction.
2. I strongly recommend reading Orwell’s Animal Farm first (and especially for younger readers) as an introduction to the ideas found in both books. As an allegory, Animal Farm is more gentle and less descriptive of the violence that is part of the control of the populace.
3. A reader’s guide is available at penguinrandomhouse.com
Publication: Originally it was published in 1949. I read one of the many reprints. My copy is a Signet Classic published January 1, 1961 by Penguin Random House.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink.
…no change of doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted…And if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered.