I first read this book when I was a teenager in the 1970s, and while I recalled some of the basic concepts, most of the story and plot had faded into nebulous memory. At the time I first read the book, the year 1984 was still a decade or so in the future, and as a teenager, that’s a long time. Utopia.
Then 1984 actually came. I still remember New Year’s Eve 1984. One of the guests at our house was Terry and I can still hear him saying:
Can you believe it’s now already 1984? Do you realize that the year 2000 is as far away as 1968?
Meaning, of course, that to all of us flower children, 1968 was just recently around the corner and very fresh in memory, and 2000 would therefore be here in no time.
Winston Smith is the protagonist. He lives in a society where 15% of all people belong to The Party, and whose lives are completely controlled and monitored by the state. The other 85%, called the “Proles” as a short for proletarians, are the uneducated masses who are pretty much ignored by the state and do and live as they please. The world is divided into three superstates: Oceania (the state Winston Smith belongs to), Eurasia and Eastasia. The three states are continuously at war with one another. The party members are under surveillance day and night, to the point where the state tries to control their thoughts. “Thoughtcrime” is a common offense, and can have the death penalty. Sex for pleasure is a crime. Reading or writing materials that are not approved by the state is a crime. Children are brainwashed to report suspicious activities of their parents. Once a person is arrested, he may never return. An elaborate process of editing and re-editing old news to match the new reality keeps thousands of people busy. Not only does the state control the future, it controls the past by continuously re-writing it.
There are not many books that have had the cultural impact of 1984. The year 1984 itself has become an icon for “Big Brother.” The term “Big Brother” or even “Big Brother is Watching You” comes from 1984. The term “Orwellian” has become an adjective to describe a system of control or government. Terms like “thoughtcrime” or “doublespeak” were first introduced in 1984. Orwell predicted monitors for the entire population by installing telescreens everywhere. This was written in 1949, and he foresaw what we would describe as flat screen televisions that not only showed images, like a television, but that also contained cameras, where the state could observe the people. Telescreens were two-way communications devices installed everywhere, including in the various rooms of people’s homes or apartments.
At times the book was a bit slow for me. I enjoyed the first (of three) parts the most, since it described Winston’s life and environment. The second part, his affair with Julia, brought some action and tension. The third part, his arrest and rehabilitation was too detailed politically and ideologically for me. I didn’t need to get all the background. It kind of felt like I was reading Ayn Rand, following monologues of endless pages that didn’t really interest me anymore.
Overall, however, 1984 is an absolute must read book for any educated person. It was written almost 65 years ago but it is as authentic and important now as it ever was.
With the recent privacy scandals and the general upheaval that the Internet brought, 1984 is ever more important and impactful.
Watch out – Big Brother is watching you.