I read George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), number 8 on the BBC book list, last summer for the first time. This surprised a student of mine, one of the only students I have encountered over the years who was actually majoring in English. I teach English 1010, Introduction to College Writing, and my students usually consist of people who dislike writing and reading. Those who major in English tend to have taken AP English in high school or test out of my class. Anyway, this particular student always brought a book to class with her, and we had great fun discussing her other classes and papers together after class. But when I mentioned that I had just read Orwell’s classic for the first time, she gaped. I can’t even exaggerate how long her mouth was open or how visceral her reaction was to my admission. I supposed I should have read it sooner. But I didn’t.
I always knew what the fuss was about. It’s a dystopian novel in which Big Brother watches everybody and everything. Rule breaking is not allowed, and one will be caught if trying to change things. The premise is actually quite frightening, and Orwell’s vision of an all-seeing government is often used today to argue for privacy laws and rights. With technology as it is (cell phones, security cameras, satellites, social networking, and search engines), all of us are being constantly monitored. (No, I’m not paranoid.) This reality doesn’t bother me, but maybe it should.
Despite the creepy premise of the novel, the real theme is that of human connection. In this environment of big government and control, Winston Smith longs to connect with somebody. He wants to be called by his name instead of “comrade.” He wants to touch other people and interact with them in genuine ways. To counter this sterile environment, he takes up with Julia and they find happiness together. On the surface, this connection seems to be about sex, but it isn’t. It’s about trust and love and belonging and happiness. As John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” Yet, that’s what the totalitarian society is trying to create. Isolation doesn’t work for us; we’re social animals.
I recently heard this idea best vocalized in Brené Brown’s TED talk. She is a sociologist and researcher, but her work is qualitative, which means she collects and evaluates stories as part of her research. Her TED talk focused on the idea of being wholehearted, and what people who claimed to be living this way did to achieve it. Her results were fascinating, and what stuck with me most is that people most secure accept vulnerability in themselves. They connect more fully with others because of this. They aren’t constantly worried about their appearances or mistakes, but they accept those as part of being human. This in turn allows them to connect and to be well adjusted.
This theme is explored in 1984. Everybody is disconnected because of fear. Everybody is vulnerable, but this human trait cannot be embraced because it is artificially imposed and there are severe and real consequences from Big Brother if betrayed. One will be made more vulnerable by connecting with others. In fact, one will disappear. Existence is erased, and if the missing person is asked after, nobody will acknowledge that they even existed. I think this plays to our deepest fears. Nobody wants to be a nobody. To have one’s entire life negated is the ultimate punishment.
I contend that we often do this to each other, no matter how painful. I’m thinking of the silent treatment. I’ve suffered at the hands of a few people because of this passive-aggressive style of anger. Years after an alleged incident or offense, I am still being punished by silence. I am being ignored, unacknowledged, and silently told that I do not matter. Why do we do this to each other? Probably because it is the most effective way to communicate the fact that we are disconnected and that we have been deemed unimportant, enough so that we have been “forgotten” or that we are not worthy of acknowledgement.
Orwell’s novel is an entertaining read, and obviously there is a lot of room for philosophic ideas and human themes. However, it is not my favorite piece of his writing. My favorite is “Shooting an Elephant.” The personal essay is a true story of Orwell’s time as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma, and what happens is exactly what the title suggests. He shoots an elephant. He does so out of peer pressure and to avoid looking like a fool. Again, he addresses humanity’s most common themes, that of acceptance, belonging, connection, and appearances. This essay is full of conversation-worthy ideas, which is why I often use it in my English 1010 classes. Students tend to enjoy it, and they also tend to have a lot to say about it. They can connect with Orwell’s weaknesses because they too are human.
Overall, I admire Orwell. He’s brilliant. His books are easy to read, but full of depth, excitement, and humanity. 1984 portrays all of this, but it also plays to our deepest fears, that we are insignificant and that we cannot connect with each other. Although the main character ends up connecting with many others in the novel, his most important connection is a romantic one. This relationship represents the need that we all have to be loved unconditionally. Sadly, though, the main character’s fate is sealed by his search for this inherently human feeling. He does not overthrow the oppressors nor save others from the terrible community in which they live. Instead, he is caught, punished, separated, and seemingly killed, but some argue that this execution should be interpreted as his reintegration into the Party and a false memory, not his actual death.
This is my kind of book! It’s depressing.
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A fine book! And very timely. You put it well: “Everybody is disconnected because of fear.” Something for each of us to think about. Great blog, Emily. Thanks 🙂
It is a wonderful book in a scary way. Thanks for reading!
I’m a bit stunned that 1984 is unpopular. What is the matter with today’s students? Perhaps it touches too many nerves, but such was Orwell’s intent. It’s a fine book, and Orwell an excellent writer. Orwell was off-base on his prediction that totalitarian gov’t would dominate, but many of his ideas and predictions are uncomfortably true. The “double-speak”, the state of perpetual war, the domination and intrusion of the media. Big Brother isn’t the government. He’s a salesman and he has all my personal information. The book is a bit scary and depressing, but people should be able to handle it. Otherwise…….
A salesman! You are right. And I love your point that Orwell’s predictions didn’t exactly come true, but in some very real ways they have. Great comments! Thanks.
Great point. I think what scared me the most in reading 1984 was that Orwell’s totalitarian government system COULD exist in our country..and if you think about the people of Oceania and their imposed ignorance, it could very well exist in some areas of the World without any outside awareness of it.
I haven’t read this one yet. I’m constantly amazed at how many “classics” I still haven’t read when I read so often. It’ll probably get to it eventually, but I am less concerned at checking books off “the list” than I am at reading many good books and enjoying myself along the way (although I admit I am still hoping to complete “the list” before I die, since there’s a reason the books are on the list, I’m sure).
I don’t think my list will ever be done. There are too many great books out there. You really should read this one, though. It is worth it. Sometimes those “classics” are such because they are so darn good.
It is a great novel, and I love how you connected it with Brown’s TED talk. I loved that talk!
Thanks! It really was a great talk. I thought about it for weeks after watching it.
It’s time to reread 1984, as I haven’t read it since I was in middle school, and I just listened to some fascinating lectures on digital identity. Dahlia Litwick, senior editor at Slate, made some scary points about how tech companies track us and save our data, especially the big ones like Google and Facebook. She said if we aren’t paying for the service, then we are the product. Wow. Scary, right? (I wish I had all my notes and verbatim quotes from her lecture, but they were on the back of a knitting pattern, and I left my knitting on the airplane, so here’s hoping it returns to me…)
In any case, several lecturers made the point that technology is supposed to connect us but it fosters the same sort of disconnect that Winston experiences. We are so busy trying to share with each other that we don’t know how to be alone, and that ruins our ability to have a conversation. I could go on… but my point is the themes you’re talking about are totally relevant to today’s society in more than just the Big Brother way.
And one more thing–I think I mentioned flipback books to you and said I’d notify you when I had another giveaway. There’s one going on all week–Rejection Week!–over at my blog in honor of two writers who never gave up and finally found success. The shortlink is http://wp.me/p1bhaB-Ln.
Wow! Everything you mentioned from the lectures is fascinating. I am sure there are consequences to all of this connectedness that we aren’t even aware of. I find that I love to connect with old friends on Facebook, but it also gives me anxiety to feel pressure to connect with people that I had hoped to forget. I think there’s also a lot of psychological pressure to have everything you say or post be liked 30 times or you are somehow not worthy or up to snuff. Those are my strange psychological grapplings with social media. That is scary what you say about us being the product. Will our identities on Facebook soon be patentable by the company? Do we lose a part of ourselves by posting so much information online? I am sure there will be more discussion to come on the matter by actual experts. Thanks so much for sharing!
You make some great points, Emily, and the idea of losing ourselves is exactly what one of the speakers talked about. I also found out that we haven’t done much in America about these companies’ policies about keeping our identifying information on file. Other countries have fought back.
One of them (I think it was Dahlia again) said it used to be “I think therefore I am.” Now it’s “I share therefore I am.”
I’m putting together a blog post about one of the talks. I got it started and transcribed some quotes before I lost my bag. Her name is Sherry Turkle and she is one of the experts in this field–a professor at MIT.
I’ve read some of Turkle’s essays. I look forward to your blog post. This is definitely a hot topic and one that should be of interest to everybody. Thanks for your insight.
Great post – I also came to 1984 later than most. Had a huge impact – and your review has reminded me how fantastic, complex and insightful it was. Scary how much of it seems applicable to the way we live today
It is scary. Although some say Orwell was off, I tend to think he was spot on. I’m glad to know that I am not the only latecomer to this book.
we have to be late to some things! Not enough time to read everything we’re meant to have read in a whole lifetime, let alone before the end of uni!
Hi! I’ve never read 1984 as well. Thanks for this post. I’m likely to pick it up soon in the near future.
I think you should. It’s a great read!
I didn’t enjoy 1984. I got what it meant, I got the idea of human connection and the constant observance by government and all that…I just found most of it incredibly boring. I felt that Orwell sometimes gets bogged down in the politics of it, which to me just made the story drag. Still, I find I can appreciate it for what it is; it’s so iconic that I really am glad I’ve read it. I did prefer Blind Faith, however, a novel by Ben Elton. It’s very much worth checking out – almost a modern retelling of 1984, and it kind of creeped me out more. Although I can see how we’re leaning towards the world in 1984, Ben Elton (with the luck of having written it later) uses the present to really create the future, and I think it just struck more at home with me because of it. Like I said, worth checking out, especially for the comparisons between the two.
That book sounds interesting. As to enjoying 1984, one probably isn’t supposed to enjoy it, but rather be freaked out by it or appreciate it. I guess I am trying to say that there’s nothing wrong with you for not enjoying it or loving it. It’s pretty bleak, and like you said, slow and political in places.
I read the book a few years ago, in a Dutch translation, and was greatly impressed by it. Some time later, I wrote a (probably not very original) essay about it for a local writing contest.
You have a very interesting blog!
It is an interesting book! Thanks for following my blog. I am glad you found me.
1984 was one of my favorite books from high school. Along with Fahrenheit 451, (which if you haven’t read it, I’d highly suggest it..since it’s about a society without books) 1984 is among the top books I’ve read that make solid statements about the condition of human nature in society. Loved your analysis. A unique take, considering most critique focuses on the Orwellian government and isolationist political theories. I very much enjoyed this post 🙂
Thank you! I am glad you liked it. As to Fahrenheit 451, yes, I have read it. Burning books is just not right! 🙂
As the late Bradbury is quoted saying, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
That’s an amazing quote. I concur!
Re-read 1984 this year and appreciate your reading. I’d add another thought which can be taken away as well: the ability to control language leads to thought-control (there can be no ThoughtCrime if there is no language in which to think it). That which is recognized as ‘grammatical’ and ‘true’ is funneled through the eyes of those with perceived power.
So true. I guess that could apply to women’s issues and patriarchy as well. He who has the gold makes the rules!
I am glad to have found you. Your blog is really stunning.
I leave here two links related to 1984, one of them about the tv show Big Brother in Argentina & 1984´s reflections.
I was also thinking about Haruki Murakami´s book “1Q84!, which plot I believe is probably also induced by Orwell´s previous book.
Here they go:
Thanks for sharing, Aquileana!
I recently read 1984 for the first time and had the same kind of visceral reaction to it. I felt just as isolated as Winston, and I interpreted the ending as his literal death, once he had been brainwashed enough to love Big Brother. Orwell meant for his work to be a warning for those in his era and for years after, and here we are, over sixty years later, and his work is more relevant every day–that’s the real brilliance of his work.
It is brilliant! It has certainly withstood the test of time. I think most of the great books, in my opinion, have that quality: relevance in any age.
I completely agree. It’ll be interesting to see which works are still widely-read and relevant twenty, thirty, fifty years from now. As an aside, I love your blog. It’s comprehensive, personal, and so interesting! I just started doing book reviews and I find yours inspiring.
Thank you! I appreciate your kind words so much. 🙂
This is a brilliant book, I really enjoyed the novel, I felt it posed questions that really needed to be considered carefully. I also felt that Orwell’s book has become more relevant now than it ever could have envisaged back at it’s publication with the huge involvement of social media in people’s lives.
Absolutely! It is still relevant and perhaps even more so. Great insight!
I prefer Animal Farm. Have you read it?
Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey's Writing Blog and commented:
A book I’ve always meant to read…
Thanks for the reblog.
I love this blog post, well written.
Dreadfully actual in the final days of 2020…