War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
In 1949, it would seem ridiculous to make this quote the central tenet of a story. After all, this was an era coming out of World War 2, still recovering from the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazi Party. The Cold War had already started and thus was proclaimed a battle of ideologies. The American Dream, or the Soviet Equality. Capitalism, or Communism. George Orwell at this point had already become a popular figure for his publication of Animal Farm, irrespective of its mixed reception at the time, and was known for his staunch stance against communism through tremendous satire. But when he wrote 1984, no one, perhaps not even he, would realise the magnitude of that piece of literature would one day come to hold. In creating an ersatz utopian fictional world, he unknowingly (and almost eerily) predicted the nature of government actions in the coming world.
The story is set in an alternate reality, where revolution prevailed and turned into a global war decades ago, and led to the creation of three intercontinental super states – Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia - that would cover the entire world. “Our” protagonist, Winston Smith lives in the territory of Airstrip One in Oceania, formerly Great Britain, in the city of London in the year 1984. Oceania has a One-Party Government, is on the cusp of transitioning to the new language of Newspeak, has created and applied the ruling ideology of English Socialism (IngSoc in Newspeak), has conceived 4 Departments – Truth, Peace, Love, Plenty - and is headed by the indomitable Big Brother. Winston works in the Department of Truth, where he is tasked with rewriting history to mirror the current Party line. Thus follows a society of repressed populace who are unaware of their repression, truth that can be moulded any which way, surveillance systems which have developed to such an extent that privacy is not only a sham, it has no existence; and Winston in the middle, tangled in a love affair with Julia – a young woman who works with him for the government – and a promise of friendship with O’Brien, a fellow higher ranked employee, all the while nursing a desire to be free from the perennial oppression and dreaming a future without the Party.
The literature is immense; so much so, that it is nigh impossible to summarise. The storyline, character development, ideas of right and/or wrong, the worldbuilding. the social commentary at each step of the way, all packed into this 300-page book extremely effectively and efficiently. The greatest strength 1984 achieves is presenting the ideologies of the time in black and white. Yet, as the readers read and imbibe the content, they come to find that everything is shrouded in ambiguity. Given time, all sides seem right. All ideologies seem viable. And most of all, it presents to us the concepts of totalitarianism, hypocrisy, blatant lies, brutal truth, clandestine workings of a government, lack of awareness of the populace, the influence of media on the people in such a unique and subtle way, that it bends the past and present theories of conformed ideologies - on which all extinct and existing societies have been formed – to show a future of terrifying widespread dystopian and collared civilisation.
The plot elements created in 1984 are discomfortingly close to today’s reality. The language being created for compulsory use – NEWSPEAK (amalgamation of New, Speak) – gives the ultimate idea of the importance of the bond between requirement of language and the scope of identity. In the book, Newspeak is the language replacing Oldspeak (King’s English) and is the only language in the history of the world which is reducing the vocabulary substantially every passing year. A word connects and communicates an idea; for example, the idea of “treason against the Party” expounds on the idea that an undesirable action is being acted against the governing policies. But, if there is no word called treason, then there exists NO path for that idea to be communicated, or better yet, even be thought of. So, every removed word essentially deletes part of the conscience of the masses, making it easy to hammer-in desired policies and ideas. There exists the Thought Police, a fictional corollary of the Japanese Shisō Keisatsu, who apprehend citizens (Comrades) for even thinking about an action that is against the policies of the Party. How do they understand a thought crime is being committed! Remember the massive surveillance systems? They come in handy in noticing facial tics and hearing undesirable inflexions in voice when speaking about…. well, anything. A thought crime is punishable by something worse than death – disappearance in the night. One never knows if the “criminal” is killed or being tortured in the ironically, and yet aptly named Ministry of Love.
One of the biggest notions pushed in the book is the phenomenon of doublethink and doublespeak. This term, coined by Orwell in this book, has become the universally accepted definition of indoctrination where subjects are supposed to accept two divergent trains of thought, two conflicting beliefs often at odds with their own sense of reality or their memory, as the absolute truth. It is an idea universally known and understood by all citizens in Oceania, and yet, even acknowledging it is sacrilege of the highest order. The slogan mentioned at the start is the result of this particular path of thought process. Here, where each line contradicts itself, the resultant idea still makes perfect sense, for in this fictional society, due to the combined efforts of Thought Police, Newspeak, and doublethink, the idea of contradiction itself does not exist. This very postulation creates a massive dilemma for present times, and more alarmingly, suddenly puts into question the exactness of many opinions that are thought to be standard. The notion of terrorism, for example – “I wish to proffer peace, salvation and everlasting happiness upon all innocent people in this world, so I will blow up buildings and kill innocents in droves to hasten that process”. Hidden agendas stay hidden, and the serving soldiers are all under the spell of doublethink, where they openly acknowledge two different ideas as separate and the same simultaneously.
17 years previous to this work, Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World, which described the world in a similar state of unknowing compliance as 1984 does. And yet, Orwell wrote his piece rooted in brutal realism and made sure the readers would walk away from the book off-kilter. He created a sublime-on-the-surface, horrifying-at-the-core dystopian society which would mesmerise and perturb readers for generations with its on-point satirical commentary of future governance and notions of acceptable, acclaimed hypocrisy by people wielding tremendous influence. He gave life to characters such as Winston, O’Brien, Julia and Big Brother that would survive the test of time, and would go on to become defining and immortal examples of tribulations, multifaced nuances, headstrong ambitions, and ruthless governance respectively in the present tête-à-tête. While receiving reception to this was mixed at the time, the new age has gradually warmed up to this book, as its quasi-predictions started holding more truth with the advent of technology and the herald of capitalistic imbalance in society. In today’s world, 1984 is a cult classic, a revered text of ideas proposed before its time, a brilliant and timeless attack on current social and political structures of the world, and one of the most definitive texts of modern literature.
Read this timeless gem before you die !