Want to feel scared and depressed? Read 1984! Want to feel scared and depressed but maybe a little hopeful? Read 1984 with your book group!
Last month my book group read Finding George Orwell in Burma. I had almost no prior knowledge of Burma/Myanmar and my recollections of Orwell were sketchy. We decided to follow up with 1984 to compare our new found knowledge of Orwell with the book. I thought I had already read it because so much of it is referenced in day to day use. I knew about Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth and surveliance cameras everywhere, but when I sat down to read I realized this wasn’t a reread and it was a little weird. I’ve read and heard so many references to 1984 that I honestly thought I had read it, which is so very meta since it’s all about rewriting history to make what’s happening right now the only truth.
This is one of the most depressing of dystopias because we know from the very first page that Winston has never been happy. This isn’t a story where everything is wonderful until the ugly truth is discovered. Everything is already ugly and Winston is miserable.
There has been a global war and now the world is divided into three superstates and one giant contested area. Winston lives in Oceania where the population is roughly 2% Inner Party, 85% Proles, and 13% Outer Party. The Inner Party is the most powerful and the most comofortable. The Proles are the uneducated, mostly ignored lower class. The Outer Party is the middle class and is kept under strict control to make sure the Inner Party stays in power and the Proles are kept ignorant.
The party is led by Big Brother and the Outer Party is constanly under survaliance. Cameras are everywhere and at any moment you can be turned in by someone for crimes against the Party. You never know if you’re being watched, yet you always know that you’re being watched.
Winston is solidly Outer Party, but he finds himself hating the Party and Big Brother. He knows he’s commiting Thoughtcrime with every breath, but he can’t help it. He’s miserable and he knows nothing he does makes sense. His job is to rewrite history so the Party is always correct. He can’t forget the original articles and books and he wonders if anyone else knows what the truth is and when the lies started. He doesn’t even know what the correct date is since everything is written and rewritten until it matches the current day’s truths.
As Winston journeys further and further into Thoughtcrime and acts against the Party, it’s impossible not to compare his world with ours.
I’d like to be able to say that the world in 1984 is too absurd to be real, but I see examples of it every day. A politican will make a statement and then only one or two sentences will be used to make it look like he stated the opposite. The masses are kept distracted with stories of celebrities in the hopes that we won’t pay attention. There are cameras everywhere. We are told to believe one thing while finding stories buried online that contradict what’s being said.
It’s confusing and depressing and frankly it is a lot easier to get upset about what some celebrity wore last night.
One of the best topics out group discussed was what it means to be happy and if the Proles were lucky because they were ignorant or if the Inner Party was the best because they were in control. Ignorance is bliss and if you’re able to keep blinders on, it is easy to be content, but do we want to be the undeducated, illerate, ignored majority? I want to say no and that knowledge is power, but there are times when I get frustrated to the point of tears at the oppression in this country that I wish I could stop paying attention. And there’s been more than one Saturday afternoon that I’ve watched an all day marathon of mindless TV so I can forget about things I should be fighting to change.
We also wondered how today’s celebrity culture would work with the Party. Our celebrities are looked on as experts on topics that people have gone to school for years to understand. We listen to what they haev to say because they are rich, pretty, and on TV. Why listen to an uber-educated scientist when George Clooney can make a quick statement? There is no celebrity in 1984 and it’s strange to see.
I wanted to hear different stories. For me, Julia was almost pointless in the book, other than to move Winston into an active rebellion. She shows up and gives him permission to act against the Party. At first she seems like the one to overthrow everything, but then she gets bored and wants to sleep. As things are revealed, she seems to get caught up in the ideas, but she doesn’t want to educate herself about anything. I’d like to get inside her head to figure out what she thought her role was in all of this.
We were also curious about what this story would look like if it took place in Kansas. Is it easier or harder to control people in a packed city like London or in the middle of nowhere in the States? Which people are the easiest to fool? We know it’s easier to ignore war when it’s not happening next to you. Bombs are being dropped in London so people are always on alert, but what’s happening in what used to be the USA? It’s easy not to care about Afganistan because it’s way over there somewhere and we don’t have to see the results of what we’re doing.
Finally, we wanted to know what the Proles thought of all this. Winston states several times that change has to come from them. They’re the ones that need to know the truth and they are the only ones that can change things. We wondered if they would even care or what it would take to get them to rebell. This brought us back to what’s happening in the world now. We have access to more information now than ever before and yet few people are doing anything. Turn on the TV, sit back and zone out.
The most depressing truth for me in all of this was the acknowledgement that the middle class wants to be upper class and they will always use the lower class to make that happen. They’ll tell the lower class that things need to change for them, and that they’re the ones who will make life better. They’ll use them to overthrow the upper class, then ignore all their promises and let them stay put. They’re now upper class, a small portion of the lower class gets to climb up, but the rest of them stay the same. Why would you want to work for change when there’s no guarentee that you’ll benefit? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Reading this was an interesting split for me. On one hand it made me want to sit up, take notice and move to action. On the other hand it made me want to crawl back into bed because nothing is going to change.
Thanks, George Orwell for predicting so many truths when you wrote this in 1944. (I can’t tell if I’m being sarcastic right now.)