LINK: FREE PDF
“1984” Audio Book (Recorded 1986)
“1984” Movie, 1956, starring Edmond O’Brien, Michael Redgrave and Jan Sterling. (See below.)
The following book review originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, on July 9, 1949.
The chief qualities of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are those of a nightmare. It is vivid and terrifying. Even as a nightmare is supposed to spring from an upset system and also to throw light on the subconscious, so the picture of 1984 which George Orwell draws has its origins in the disorders of the present day and also singles out, at least for those who stop to interpret it, the forces which are, like the subconscious, working on the character of the future. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a nightmare about a completely totalitarian world, and if the readers aren’t frightened enough by its seeming reality to do something about present disorders (economic, social, moral and mental) that world may indeed become a reality. It is the obligation of readers of this book to wake up screaming.
There have been numerous books about the world of the future. The two which will most likely come to mind to many readers are Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and “Ape and Essence.” “Brave New World” showed the ludicrousness of scientific materialism if it were followed to its logical conclusions; “Ape and Essence” gave a picture of the after-the-atom-bomb world–one quite remote from today. Mr. Orwell’s book has a greater impact on the reader than either of these, and, while it lacks the brilliant satire of “Brave New World,” it has an intensity which Mr. Huxley’s book did not possess. It is not just a clever novel based on the dominant twentieth century trend toward totalitarianism, nor is it just a scare book to startle the apathetic; it is an absolutely serious book, and it is its seriousness which gives its intensity and its nightmarish reality.
To place the story in 1984 was a brilliant stroke by Mr. Orwell but one which called for more labor and ingenuity on his part than if he had set the date at a later time. The present generation will still be alive in 1984, and persons are always more concerned about their own fate than about that of their great-grandchildren. They are asked to believe that they may be living in Mr. Orwell’s nightmare within 35 years. If that seems incredible to them, they have only to look back 32 years to the birth of the great totalitarian state today, to the Russian revolution in 1917. The existence of persons who remembered a time before totalitarianism was necessary if totalitarianism were to be clearly explained, as readers of Mr. Orwell’s book will certainly see, and that those persons could be the readers makes the book that much more compelling.
A reviewer could suppose that “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has been a recurring nightmare for Mr. Orwell. Two years ago in an article on “The Future of Socialism” in the Partisan Review, he stated that he believed that one of the possibilities ahead of us was:
“That the fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them. This seems to me the worst possibility of all. It would mean the division of the world among two or three vast superstates, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by an internal rebellion. In all probability their structure would be hierarchic, with a semidivine caste at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world, and by a continuous phony war against rival states. Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years.”
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the imaginative elaboration of that statement. The scene is laid in London, which is then in Oceania, one of the three major world states. The other two are Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is in a state of continuous warfare with one of the two divisions. With what can only be termed as brilliance, Mr. Orwell establishes the psychological atmosphere of that vast superstate. The crushing out of liberty is beyond even most nightmares and yet Mr. Orwell analyzes and explains it so vividly and logically that to persons who remember Buchenwald and Dachau, and many other examples of the crushing of liberty, his presentation is unfortunately and tragically convincing. The superstate is divided into three classes, as from time immemorial, the high (the inner party), the middle (the outer party) and the low (the proles — Newspeak for proletarians), with Big Brother, a too familiar phenomenon now, as the head of it all.
Winston Smith is the miserable protagonist. He is a member of the outer party and works in the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue in Newspeak. “Newspeak” is the language which is being developed in Oceania so that no one will be able to have thoughts beyond the ideology of the State. Winston’s main work is to help to erase the old past and to create a new. Winston disobeys the Rules of the Party. Mr. Orwell describes what happens to him in a method so electrifying that unless the reader is on guard his hair will stand on end. The technique of the book as a horror story could not be improved.
Only a person of Mr. Orwell’s experience, political consciousness and high seriousness could have conceived the detailed picture of totalitarianism which is presented in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and only a writer of his calibre could have executed it with the perception, depth and brilliance with which it is painted in this book. One sees in this book elaboration of ideas which he expressed in earlier books and in many articles. He has long distrusted any revolutionary group which sought power, as he saw the Spanish war turned from its real purpose by the desire for power on the part of revolutionary groups. He described his attitude to power-seeking groups on “Homage to Catalonia,” a book about his experience as a soldier in Spain, and in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” he shows where the love of Power can and will lead.
He has filled in many details in his book from his knowledge of Russian politics. Hitler’s regime supplied facts too. Indeed, Mr. Orwell sees any society in which the ideal of equality is not uppermost as a potentially totalitarian one. And this is his warning to the so-called democratic countries where money or class distinction, separates groups of men.
He has expressed the idea at different times that education is the great equalizer. If the masses are kept ignorant, they can be controlled. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Winston writes in his secret diary: “If there is hope it lies in the proles.” Winston sees it as his duty to help to enlighten the “proles.”
Totalitarianism can only be avoided if the governing body does not seek money or power but strives for the good life for all. Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” explains how this can be achieved only by the proletariat.
Brilliant as “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is, it is not a great novel; that is, if one demands an analysis of life or of character in a novel. Alex Comfort, whose book “The Novel and Our Time” was reviewed on this page a few weeks ago, holds that the novel has a special function today and need not conform to traditional ideas of its form. The novelist, he says, should interpret the times to the readers. Mr. Orwell does not even do this, for he does not show why totalitarianism is inevitable. His book is a grim fantasy, rather than a novel.
To understand why Mr. Orwell chose to write a fantasy rather than a novel, one would have to understand the problems confronting novelists in England today. Much has been written on the subject. One critic ventured the idea that the writers are too involved in adapting themselves to a new social order to be able to see the significance of it. A long period of war and its resulting disorganization does not provide a propitious atmosphere for an interpretation of life.
One hopes, at any rate, that Mr. Orwell’s next book will be a novel — a novel which will show why he thinks that world totalitarianism may be a fact within the next few decades. What aspects of life now lead him to what might be called such a failure of nerve? One cannot say of him as he said of Arthur Koestler in “Dickens, Dali and Others” that his disillusionment in the decadence of revolutions owing to the corrupting effects of power, “has driven him back into a position not far removed from pessimistic Conservatism,” for he has only written a description of what might be and not an analysis of why it could be. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is so powerful as to leave the reader curious as to the author’s ideas about an alternative fate for man. If he is a complete pessimist, then he is a sadist to have inflicted this view of the future on his readers. But he shows too much sympathy for men to be called a sadist, so he cannot be a pessimist. What is he then? He has a duty to tell his readers how he thinks Room 101, the room in his book which holds the ultimate terror, can be avoided.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” remains a terrible nightmare. Like all nightmares, it really hasn’t happened (at least not to us). The nightmare may recur with frequency unless the disorders are cleared up.