George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. I first read it back in high school–and it might actually have been in 1984–because a teacher assigned it to me. In fact, I still have the paperback copy that I acquired in the bookstore of a high school that no longer exists. It followed me to college, and has remained in my book collection ever since. It’s not the longest-standing book I have, but it’s certainly one of them.
I read the book again in the mid-1990s, because I was tutoring a high school student who was also reading it at the time. The book had more meaning to me in my 20s than it did in high school. I found that it was still an engaging read.
Yesterday I finished reading the book for a third time, in preparation for a book club discussion at work. I think of this as a perk of working in the publishing industry. The bound version that I have also includes Animal Farm, and I intend to read that shortly, as well. But 1984 was the title at hand, and I re-re-read it, with twenty years of life experience that I didn’t have the last time around.
The funny thing is that I relate to the book’s principal character, Winston Smith, in a way that I never could before. He seemed like a broken-down old man the first times that I read it, and now I’m closer to being him myself. And I found myself frightened of the world Orwell describes, in a way I had never been before.
A world where love and independent thought and departure from social norms aren’t allowed to exist–and the impulses for these things are stomped out through physical torture–is completely abhorrent to me. And yet, as I was reading the book, I found that human apathy and passiveness are the conditions which would allow such a state to take hold. And there’s plenty of those to go around.
Things like science and literature were anathema to the world of Ingsoc, and the ruling Party that Winston upholds before straying from it. The Thought Police was the mechanism that was used to rule society, by any and all means necessary. Winston and his girlfriend Julia hated the Party, and they hated Big Brother, but the Party could not allow them to stray from the societal herd. It’s a vision of society which every single dystopian novel, from The Giver to Divergent, owes an enormous debt.
The book is divided into three parts, and I devoured the final part over the course of a few hours yesterday. I hurtled through the last few chapters, reading of the extreme cruelty inflicted upon Winston in the Ministry of Love. And the final few pages, when the story comes to its heartbreaking conclusion, were read amid the tumult of intermission at a high school talent performance. The bedlam of teenagers greeting the friends and family who had come to watch them perform was exactly the sonic background needed to bring such a compelling read to its conclusion.
At one point in the book, before things go bad for Winston, he states that “Truisms are true, hold onto that!” The book uses the example of “2+2=4” over and over again to impress it’s point on the reader. If the Party says that 2+2=5, loyalty demands that this point be believed. 2+2 could also equal 3, if that’s what the Party decides. And nobody is allowed to think any differently, lest they be tortured as Winston was.
The book broke my heart, particularly when Winston and his former love Julia meet near the end of the book. The Party did a number on both of them, and the result is the type of a numbed existence that no one would ever want to experience for themselves.
Truisms are true, and independent thought–even if it means deviating from what the rest of society believes–is essential. A dying George Orwell posited this many decades ago, and we would do well to keep his words close to our hearts today.