1984, written by George Orwell, was published soon after World War II and imagines a dystopian future in which “Big Brother” a figure-head of a totalitarian government controls the piece of the world that the main character, Winston Smith, lives in. The world is divided up into three divisions Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia with something like large swaths of populated no man’s land in between. Much of the book is spent describing the concepts and strategies of the totalitarian government as well as the details of the people and places in this dystopian world.
The Power of Fear & Pain:
- The listener is provided an internal view into the protagonist mostly, so assumptions must be made about the internal feelings of the other characters. However, one thing immediately recognizable in this audiobook is the fear present in the people controlled by their government. Fear seems to prey on the instincts of the characters by encouraging them to do whatever they can to survive. Citizens of Oceania seem jovial when traitors are caught and deposed through jail and/or death, but it’s hard to believe that the citizens can truly feel jovial and secure in such a controlled environment. Much like the main character, Winston, other citizens of Oceania may be internally conflicted about their government. But, unlike Winston, many citizens seek to improve their loyalty to “Big Brother” through enthusiastically encouraging the capture and conviction of comrades found to be disloyal to the totalitarian party.
The Power of Words:
- The citizens are always being watched through “telescreens” or something like a TV set that both records and displays visual and audible information. Whereas these “telescreens” likely seemed improbable in the 1950’s, they now seem feasible. Besides the “telescreens” there’s the “Thought Police” who monitor any signs (e.g. speech, body language, facial expression, etc.) of disloyalty to the party. There’s also “News Speak” or the effort by the government-controlled media to limit the amount of words used in Oceania’s language. The concept of “Newspeak” seems to emphasize the importance of education and language in expressing human individuality and promoting intellectual growth and freedom. In his book, Orwell seems to be emphasizing that words are powerful, and a society that diminishes the power of words diminishes the power of its people.
The Essence of Freedom:
- The underlying tone of 1984 seems to be related to the destruction of freedom. As the book progresses it becomes clear that freedom exists solely in the mind, in the realm of human choices. One may be physically overpowered, locked up, or chained, but there is still the freedom of thought and choice. Even if the sum of a person’s thoughts and decisions are simply the totality of his or her genetics and environment, the ability to choose seems to be what makes people, at least in part, free. In order for one person or a small group to rule a multitude, there must be a way to control people’s thoughts and choices.
Misunderstanding Professed Beliefs &/or Their Implications:
- In 1984, the ruling minority seems to be largely successful, and most citizens seem to either embrace the regime’s propaganda or take the viewpoint that ignorance is bliss. One character makes an effort to give the appearance of “orthodoxy” or conformation to the regime’s ideology without truly understanding the implications and true nature of the ideology. This character’s ignorant dedication to rules and beliefs reflects an attitude that some people may embrace in life. It may at times be easier to embrace beliefs that have been inherited from family or conform to societal expectations and standards without really examining the merit of those beliefs. Furthermore, one may not even understand how to live out those beliefs in the proper way.
The Importance of Authenticity:
- While some people may struggle to live out their beliefs due to a lack of understanding, others like Winston in 1984 may be afraid to reveal who they really are. While Winston hides his true beliefs out of a fear of imprisonment and death, individuals in modern society may hide who they really are out of a fear of disapproval or relational rejection. Failure to meet societal expectations can prevent people from being authentic. As Winston confesses both the positive and negative aspects of his inner self, he shows us a valuable part of his humanity. In a society that expects perfection, or at least the ruling party’s definition of it, Winston comes to grips with his imperfections.
- This serves as a lesson to individuals of modern society. The individual must determine for herself what is right and wrong and judge herself by that standard. The governments of the nations in which that individual chooses to reside will hold that individual to a collective standard of justice along with the rest of the individuals in those nations. That individual will likely judge herself imperfect by both the standards of those societies as well as her own standards. However, that realization aids in understanding the necessary responsibilities and privileged liberties of living in a mutually beneficial community. Realizing one’s imperfections while taking responsibility for one’s actions is an essential part of what it means to be human.
The Existence of Absolute Truth:
- Late in the book Winston goes into a self-reflective monologue about the insecurities of truth. He wonders if two plus two really equals four. He asks what truth really is if it exists in our minds and our minds are only a perception of our surroundings. Winston turns to the fundamental laws of the world around him such as the law of gravity to help reinforce his belief that truth exists outside of his own mind.
1984 may be an uncomfortable book to read or listen to at times, but Orwell covers some important concepts. The questions and challenges that arise from reading a book like 1984 are more beneficial than the story and its characters. The details of this book need not be remembered as long as the general ideas and questions relating to choice, community, and truth are internalized. Are people really free to choose? What is the individual’s and government’s role in a community? Is there such a thing as absolute truth? Those are some of the questions that seem to get to the main points of 1984.