My rating: 5 stars
The dystopian society that George Orwell created for Nineteen Eighty-Four lays bare his extensive knowledge about totalitarian regimes, history and political philosophy. Having read it for the first time in Portuguese more than a decade ago, I cherished (re)reading it now in English and recalling why it remains a critical book. It makes absolutely and flawlessly clear how authoritarians operate by showcasing various of their techniques, while also being a prescient novel concerning the possibility of mass surveillance.
Winston, the main character, was a 39-year-old man who worked at the Ministry of Truth in London, a city part of Airstrip One, one of the most populous provinces of Oceania, which was perpetually at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. His job was to reconstruct the past. He changed the texts of news pieces, books, posters and pamphlets so they, irrespective of what happened, continued to suit the interests of the Party, whose central face was the Big Brother, a black-haired man with a moustache.
Freedom was less than a faint memory. Houses came equipped with telescreens that could never be completely turned off. Not only did they transmit information, but they also recorded images and sounds. Through them, the Thought Police could hear and watch everything that occurred nearby. People’s only loyalty should be to the Party. Love and desire were detrimental feelings, so the only purpose of marriage was to conceive. Winston had been married for little more than a year, but his wife left him as she couldn’t become pregnant.
Workers of the various ministries were supposed to attend The Two Minutes of Hate, a showcase of the enemies of the Party (the Brotherhood and Goldstein). At the end of one of those events, whose description is a great reflection on mob mentality, Winston exchanged a glance with O’Brien which he thought meant that deep down both of them felt contempt for the Party. When he got home, taking advantage of the telescreen being in a different position, Winston picked up pen and paper and decided to start a diary. That was not illegal, as there were no written laws, but it was not permitted either.
He was about to be in even more peril, though. Winston started to think that he was being followed by a dark-haired woman who worked at the Fiction Department and whom he believed was a member of the Thought Police. Sometime after, she slipped into his hand a paper that read “I love you”. Only later did he discover that her name was Julia.
Gaslighting is fundamental for the endurance of the society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four. People not only had to say what the Party expected them to, but they were also made to truly believe in the most nonsensical assertions.
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
The opening line of the book, in fact, clearly suggests that people believed in blatant lies and what was considered the truth in this society should be questioned. Readers are told that clocks were striking thirteen. However, only digital clocks indicate the hour using numbers higher than twelve and they don’t strike.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The narration is not a mere vessel to depict the type of society that the characters are part of. The book is full of details about the characters’ reactions, behaviours and mannerisms, which makes all that is being conveyed easy to visualise and believe. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, the events are always presented through Winston’s perspective. When his feelings become more relevant within the story, they are tangible and crucial to the creation of various moments of tension.
The characters are rightly not pure and perfect, even when they exist in opposition to the Party. Winston could be exasperating, which is comprehensible considering the type of society that he lived and grew up in. But, more and more, he started to evaluate his past and present actions within the constraints imposed almost smoothly by the Party. Julia was very resourceful. She didn’t care much about the world around her, though. She was more concerned about living the best life that she could.
More than seventy years after its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains relevant. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s a crucial, stimulating and riveting novel.