Thursday, 5 November 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four


I was in a bookshop with Simon T of Stuck in a Book last month and one of us picked up or pointed out the newly reissued, latest dust-jacket art of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I commented that I read it about a decade ago but that it was fairly fresh in my mind. The following evening, at book group, it was suggested as November's book. I decided to reread it for the less salient details but I found that the majority of it had remained with me.

Tonight is our book group meeting but due to a sudden family event I am unable to attend; instead, I am scheduling this post to publish whilst the others will be discussing the book. I look forward to reading what the others think and how the discussion went from tomorrow onwards. For most of us it was a reread so it will be an interesting dynamic. I didn't think that Nineteen Eighty-Four suffered any reading it second-time-around although I did find the first half of the third section quite dry although Room 101 was just as effective (albeit without the shock-factor).

I love Dystopian literature and the Orwellian model is the father of the Science Fiction sub-genre; I recall it as the first Dystopian novel that I read and it still resonates, especially as it has been immersed into popular culture and contemporary vernacular (which we should just call everydayspeak and have done with it). Orwell's nightmarish vision of the futuristic totalitarian government, the oligarchical inner party of Big Brother with their oxymoronic party slogans, may be outdated in the age of technology but its claustrophobic society of surveillance, where not only Big Brother via the telescreens but everyone else is watching you and waiting to betray you by accusing you of thoughtcrime, is still effective and disturbing.

Winston Smith, protagonist of Nineteen Eighteen-Four, is a member of the outer party who perpetuates party propaganda by altering historical documents so that the past becomes fiction. Meanwhile Winston is in inner turmoil, rebelling against Big Brother without actually doing anything until he meets Julia. Winston is not an orthodox party member, devoted to Big Brother; nor is he an acute threat to Big Brother. His passivity infuriates me but what could he have done? Was Julia right when she asked him if it mattered the evidence that he found -but destroyed- as what could he have done with it anyway? His helplessness is well-evoked and it is that which makes Nineteen Eighty-Four so powerful and terrifying: the inability to act against a totalitarian regime even if you wanted to.

I was struck whilst reading this time by the portrayal of women in the novel, or more strictly their treatment by Big Brother. Women are denied their femininity, they are made to dress asexually and forbidden to wear make-up or fragrance; males and females are sexually repressed with relationships between party members outlawed. Julia regales in her sexuality, she is proud to enjoy sex and embraces the opportunity to be free and wear what she likes beyond the view of the telescreens. Feminism is freedom of choice, not what you wear or how you look.

I enjoyed rereading this classic; it was a welcome revisit and one that reminded me how good a book Nineteen Eighty-Four is. Tomorrow I will have a follow-up post on Orwell.

20 comments:

Rebecca Reid said...

I reread this book a few months ago -- and it's interesting that certain things stood out to me. Just before rereading this, I'd read a biography of Benazir Bhutto (first woman prime minister of Pakistan, immediately after a dictatorship) and it was striking to me on reading Orwell just how realistic totalitarianism could become. It was a fascinating reading in that regard. And also Orwell was horrifying in that context.

Steph said...

I haven't read this one in ages, but would like to reread it, as many of the details are hazy for me at this point (so alas, I can't comment on any of the specifics you mention here). I generally do enjoy Dystopian fiction, too, so this is one I know I need to refresh in my mind. I do remember enjoying it a good deal when I first read it (probably about 15 years ago!).

Sarah said...

I'm ashamed to say that when the subject of 1984 came up at my book group I was one of the voices, perhaps the only one, who wasn't keen. I would always be happy to re-read it, but I didn't think there could be anything fresh to say or discuss.

However, I really enjoyed your review, particularly your observations on the feminist aspect of the book.

Vivienne said...

It never occurred to me that the root behind my love of dystopian novels might actually stem from this book which I read in my teens for school.

Laura's Reviews said...

I read this book a few years ago with my book club. It was disturbing, but good. I still think about it and discuss it with my husband. You see things through an entirely new light when you finally understand "big brother."

Sakura said...

It's a very powerful book isn't it? I read Animal Farm at school which is also a powerful satire of communism, and really brought home to me how easily human beings can turn into their own worst enemies. 1984, on the other hand, showed me that no matter how strong and powerful the enemy, there is something within a human being which will make him/her question and fight (whether they succeed or not). I really need to read this book again, especially after your brilliant review!

Tony said...

Read Ben Elton's 'Blind Faith'... actually, don't, it's just a poor knock off of '1984'.

Read my review instead; you'll waste less time that way ;)

Jeane said...

I haven't read this in ages, but I still remember a lot about it- such a powerful book. I think Winston's passivity was what made it seem so tragic to me- in his shoes, I would probably feel just as helpless to act, afraid of the repercussions...

Kathleen said...

I definitely need to re-read this book. I know I will have much to blog about if I do! I remember having pretty strong feelings about it (the subject matter) the first time around!

verity said...

It is such a powerful book, but I had forgotten the feminist issue - that may not have made so much impression on me when I read it as a fairly young teenager.

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, it would be horrifying to read in context after reading Benazir Bhutto's biography. It is terrifying to think how easy totalitarianism regimes can be created.

Steph, this is definitely the Dystopian fiction that stands out in my mind and I'm glad that I refreshed my memory (I was hazy on the details too).

Sarah, I wonder how well the discussion went last night! I'm not sure whether I could have brought anything new to the table. The member who proposed the book hadn't read it before so I think it was a fair choice.

Vivienne, rereading it, I realised that my love for Dystopian fiction certainly does stem from reading this book!

Laura, the book makes a profound impression and is so inbuilt into public consciousness, which can't be said of many books.

Sakura, I hope you enjoy it when you do reread it! My review barely touched the surface. I think that there will always be that little glimmer of something (hope?) inside humans that will make them want to resist but overall the novel is negative and disillusioning as it eradicates that resistance in Winston.

Tony, will do! Thanks for directing me to it.

Jeane, it is powerful and the reader also feels helpless in face of Winston's passivity and lack of success.

Kathleen, I found it difficult to blog about as there is so much to say and I couldn't coherently say it all! Such a thought-provoking read.

Verity, me neither! That's the great thing about having a chance to reread books that made an impression first time around - they can make a different impression or different things will stand out second-time-around based on personal experience/social and political awareness.

Savidge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
savidgereads said...

Wonderful thoughts Claire, we were sorry to miss you last night as the discussion was fantastic and we would have loved your thoughts in the flesh! Oddly we didnt mention the women issue even though we talked for two hours! 1984 has now become one of my all time favs!

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, I'm sorry that I wasn't there last night and pleased that I could have contributed something fresh if I had been :). It's great that this has made it onto your all-time favourites list! I'm pleased that I had the opportunity to reread it as it is one of my favourite modern classics and reminded me how much I love Dystopian lit.

JoAnn said...

How did I ever make it through high school without reading 1984? Must rectify that soon...

Paperback Reader said...

JoAnn, it wasn't a book that I was taught at school but read it outwith (and possibly a little after, once I'd started Uni).

farmlanebooks said...

I'm sorry that you weren't able to be at the group and agree with Simon that it would have been great to discuss the role of women in this book - we barely mentioned them!

I love Dystopian fiction, but I don't think that this book started my love for it (Z for Zachariah did) I did enjoy 1984, and really admire his ability to predict the future, but I wasn't gripped throughout and actually got a bit bogged down in the writing in places.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I think that goes to prove that everybody brings a different perspective and discussion points to the table. Perhaps it is because I read a lot of women's issues books but the role of women in this novel stood out this time around.

I was certainly bogged down by the book within a book section and found that altogether too dry but I found it incredibly accessible this time (I can't recall last) and quick to read.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

In my first year of university, I had to write an essay on how relevant is 1984 in today's society, and when you look at the book in that sense, it is actually scary. Specially when you consider the "thought police"...

Paperback Reader said...

anothercookie, it is terrifying in some respects!