Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Re-reading this book today, as so many people are doing, reminds us of how gloomy the world looked in 1949. And especially how gloomy it looked to Orwell, who had spent his entire life and lost his health in struggles for what he imagined as a more decent society — one where people care about and care for one another. The book is a biting satire of what he thought of as the muddle-headed reformism of the British Labour Party, heading toward a totally controlled society called "Ingsoc", Newspeak for "English Socialism", but the permanent anxiety-inducement, psychological manipulation through the distortion of language, and crude but effective torture were inspired more by Nazi Germany and, especially, Stalin's Soviet Union. The technology of surveillance by "Big Brother" seems laughably primitive today, in the face of Edward Snowden's revelations about the working of the NSA, but Orwell's vision of pseudo-friendships among individuals too frightened to really connect seems almost to foreshadow those on Facebook and Twitter.
Orwell's great strength was as a moral essayist, a writer with a very definite view of how things ought to be and a critique of all that fell short of that. And it is as a moral essay that this book continues to matter, not as an effort of belles lettres. It is not pleasing to read, the flow of the language is jarring, the characters unlovable and barely understandable as people — and that is surely just what Orwell intended. But those unlikeable characters all serve his two purposes: to point out the dangers of an all-controlling state and to remind us once again of how language can be corrupted in ways not to advance and express thought, but to impede it. And also perhaps to express one faint hope: Winston Smith, by resisting as long as he does, even though he finally succumbs, demonstrates that the system's control can never be absolutely complete.
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