Monday, February 22, 2010

Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell's dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four is so ubiquitous on bookshelves, high school English classes, best book lists, etc. that I was sure I had read it before. I pulled it off the shelf recently just for kicks... and when I saw on the first page that both "Big Brother" and "Thought Police" are not just figures of speech - that they are proper nouns in this book - I realized I actually never had read it. Sorry, Dad, I should have taken your advice and read this one years ago.

In this vision of the future, brutal totalitarian regimes have taken control of most of the world. In Oceania, comprised of most of the English-speaking world, the Party and its figurehead Big Brother are in control. Of everything. All aspects of daily life - from clothing to music to food - are controlled by the Party; poverty is widespread though the Party's communiques indicate production and consumption are up across the board. The Thought Police stamp out deviations in thought before they can even become rebellious actions. All citizens live under constant surveillance, and punishment of thoughtcriminals ranges from hard labor to public execution. It's an utterly depressing vision of a government that has beaten its citizens into submission using every means imaginable: torture, surveillance, censorship, propaganda.

Winston Smith lives a dreary, monotonous existence in London. He's a civil servant who is responsible for altering historical documents to further the Party's means. Though aware of the risk, he one day decides to buy a blank diary and begin to write in it. When he learns that the lovely Julia shares his dislike of the Party, the two embark on a secret love affair. Winston finds himself evading the Party to have sex for pleasure, to talk of the Party's fallibility and to otherwise give voice to his inner dissident. His actions are all in vain, of course - the Thought Police have had their eye on him for years.

Nineteen Eight-Four is one of those books that is a classic for a reason. It's superbly plotted and planned, the language and history of Oceania has been thoroughly detailed, and it is a truly fascinating read. I cannot believe I hadn't read it sooner.

Next up: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

No comments: