I’ve quoted it many times; but until last week, I’d never actually sat down and read George Orwell’s 1984. Now I want to share my thoughts on this literary masterpiece.
Calling a novel from the past “amazing in its relevance” is pretty cliché; but still true. First published in 1949, the vast majority of 1984’s frightening predictions have come true in some way. Much of it has described the trajectory of the Western world. But the book gives an almost-certain window into what life is like in North Korea. I also cannot recommend it enough for any Christian interested in end-times prophecy and how the world will operate under the antichrist’s rule. Many things considered impossible in Bible days are now common-place, and technology that Orwell never dreamed of is now preparing the way to make his frightening dystopian vision reality.
Let me start with the plot, but first a warning; this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, what are you waiting for?
The protagonist in 1984, Winston, is only guessing at the year. Decades ago, a nuclear war (a real possibility during the Cold War) changed the world forever. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic London, now part of “Oceania.” Life is completely totalitarian and freedom is a thing of the past as citizens are monitored constantly. Every room of every home contains television screens that constantly broadcast images of “Big Brother” with a reminder that he’s watching.
Society is divided into three parts; the majority is the proletariat, or “proles,” the ignorant and unwashed masses who live in filth and poverty. The Outer Party are the middle class, who do mundane administrative tasks for The Party (the only source of employment). The sinister and secretive Inner Party are the rulers, operating within huge, heavily guarded fortresses.
Winston yearns for freedom but knows even the desire is a crime punishable by death. However, he suspects that an underground rebellion, called the Brotherhood, may be operating within the Party to bring it down, and that his own supervisor at work, O’Brien, may be one of them.
Thinking he’s found hiding places where Big Brother’s cameras don’t reach, Winston begins a passionate love affair with a coworker, Julia (romance is forbidden, as only love for Big Brother is allowed). They travel in secret to a quaint antique store in the proletariat neighborhoods owned by the kindly old Mr. Charrington, who lends them an old bedroom upstairs.
The couple eventually approaches O’Brien, who reveals that he is in fact a member of a secret rebellion led by the mysterious “Goldstein,” (who, like Big Brother, may not actually exist), devoted to destroying the Party from within. The pair are eager to join, and are told to await further instruction.
During their next encounter at the room, however, the book takes a dark and nihilistic twist. They weren’t safe after all. Mr. Charrington, it turns out, is a member of the dreaded Thought Police and cameras have been watching them all along. Guards crash in, and they are brutally beaten and arrested.
O’Brien wasn’t the helpful ally they had thought; he is in fact a loyal member of the Party, and has been carefully watching Winston for years. There is no Brotherhood, and it has all been a trap. The brutal final act of the book details Winston’s horrific torture at the hands of O’Brien in the deep dungeons of the dreaded fortress, all the while revealing the terrifying reality of the Party’s true intentions.
Orwell described himself as a socialist, but 1984 was largely based on the horrors of life in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and serves as a warning against the direction in which his movement was headed. The Party in the novel was originally known as the English Socialists, or INGSOC. As the plot breezes forward, Orwell paints a picture with amazing detail. Like his previous work, Animal Farm, human characters are often referred to with animal-like characteristics: “gorilla-faced” guards and “frog-like” social workers. Humans have been reduced to animals.
The people live in fear of the different “ministries” of The Party. The Ministry of Truth produces propaganda for Big Brother. The Ministry of Peace is the war department. The Ministry of Plenty oversees economics. But the most dreaded of all is where the most gruesome torture and brainwash is said to occur, the ironically-named Ministry of Love. I found this to be a prophetic warning against political correctness.
Recently, conservative commentator Ann Coulter recently having to drop out of making a speech at UC Berkeley due to fear of violent riots over so-called “hate speech.” Trump supporters were beaten by riotous gangs holding “Love Trumps Hate” signs. Thugs will violently attack people in the name of “love.” Being suspected of being a “racist” or “homophobe” is starting to become less about actual racism and homophobia, and more about defining Orwellian “thought-crimes.”
In the book, this was taken to such a degree that facial expressions could lead to imprisonment and death, “face-crimes.” Big Brother was watching all the time, and even a look of disinterest during a brave announcement could lead to suspicion and arrest.
America today is enduring a racist witch hunt, our generation’s McCarthyism. It ignores actual Klu Klux Klan or Neo-Nazi rallies and focuses on opposition to liberal social programs. Pointing out that welfare has destroyed and re-enslaved the black community leads to a quick accusation of “racism,” a thought-crime to our social justice warrior overlords who are ready to punish anyone who threatens their power.
In 1984, thought-crime leads not only to death, but “vaporization.” No chance is given to make the accused a martyr. They are simply taken quietly in the night, never to be seen again. Their names and pictures are blotted from the record books (this was a common occurrence in the Soviet Union, and still is in North Korea today). They never existed. To even ask what happened to them is to place oneself next on the list.
Big Brother controls language. The Party has been slowly reworking English into the official language of “Newspeak.” Words must be eliminated that could be used in any way to criticize INGSOC. This is exactly why our enemies have taken over America. Only fifteen years ago, no one had ever heard of a “homophobe.” Now, opposition to the homosexual agenda is fast becoming a thought-crime (Canada and Europe are already there). Christians are helpless to the onslaught of “phobic” accusations, many of them recently invented words that they can’t comprehend: homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.
But what can we do about it? As O’Brien so cynically reminds Winston, the proles will never revolt against INGSOC. The Party has carefully made sure they will always remain too stupid, lazy and comfortable. In Newspeak, prole-oriented entertainment is appropriately called prolefeed, “the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses.” Sound familiar in today’s hour of reality TV?
Orwell was also very insightful in how totalitarian regimes will always brainwash the young into the most fanatical supporters. Separation of families was one of the key components of Nazi Germany. As Winston observes, “It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some little eavesdropping sneak—‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.”
As the threat of riots at Berkley showed, the younger generation are the most vicious supporters of totalitarian political-correctness. Free speech has become an inane concept to be destroyed in the fanatical war against whatever they consider “hate speech” (which is usually just other opinions). All that matters is creating a false altruistic utopia under the guise of “hate/racism/bigotry/homophobia/Islamophobia/transphobia/xenophobia has no place in America (though I’ve noticed anti-Semitism is largely getting a free pass).”
I don’t doubt for a second that most Millennials would have no problem selling out their own parents and grandparents to Thought Police to be imprisoned and vaporized for whatever phobia-of-the-day is in vogue. This is how children turn out when brainwashed in public schools at a young age to accept perverse lifestyles.
The real mastery of Big Brother’s propaganda is the way it is able to distract people from the realities of their miserable lives. The proles live in sheer poverty, yet INGSOC daily inundates the telescreens with triumphant announcements that productivity is up, jobs are surging, people have more than they’ve ever had and happiness is greater than ever. Negative news is strictly forbidden.
And yet Oceania is in a perpetual state of war with the other two world zones, Eastasia and Eurasia. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. It never wins or loses. The war may even be a myth staged by the Party, designed to make people constantly feel feverish patriotism with daily news of victories on the battlefield.
The Party is also constantly reminding its citizens to hate Goldstein and his mythical brotherhood of traitors. Science and religion, both leading to curiosity and free thought independent of Big Brother’s control, are banned.
In the war, or Goldstein, I see the invisible enemies the left demands we take action on, with no real clear explanation of how. Global warming? Bigotry? Discrimination? Misogyny? Questioning the narrative is a thought-crime. I think of this every time I hear a prominent scientist call for legal action against climate change deniers. Independent thinking is not allowed.
And meanwhile, during our daily broadcast of hate, we are subjected to late-night comedians who laugh at conservatives and Christians in shrill tribal public shaming of anyone who dares think outside the system. In any broadcast of the Daily Show, Samantha Bee, or Stephen Colbert, we can hear echoes of O’Brien promising the tortured Winston: “Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever….The face will always be there to be stamped upon. The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again…Goldstein and his heresies will live forever. Every day, at every moment, they will be defeated, discredited, ridiculed, spat upon—and yet they will always survive.”
The most compelling moment in the entire book for me, however, was in the answer to Winston’s only final question in the depths of his torture. O’Brien challenges Winston to why he thinks the Party demands absolute power, and his answer is akin to what conservatives believe about liberals.
“You are ruling over us for our own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves, and therefore—“
This is met with the pain of electro-shock therapy, and in his most chilling speech, O’Brien explains: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power… The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
Socialists have always pretended that their interest is in the good of the people. “Give us power, and we will solve global warming/racism/income inequality.” But it’s all a lie. They are not misguided or naive. It isn’t just some grand experiment in equality that happens to fail every time. Leftist overlords could not care less about saving the environment or healing racial divides. The object of power is power.
The ending is truly as bleak and hopeless as it can be, a perfectly fitting for such a cautionary book. We’re led to believe that Winston will be shot for his heresy. Undesirable thoughts cannot be tolerated. We assume that our hero will at least become a martyr for his cause. He even plans on whispering his hatred of Big Brother before the trigger is pulled, a final act of defiance that the Party will never be able to take from him.
But Winston is spared and released back into the world, the grimmest conclusion the story could follow. He will not die a hero. The torture has worked. The human spirit can be crushed with enough manipulation. The Party doesn’t even spy on him anymore. They don’t care. They know he won’t utter any more treason. He even encounters Julia again, who bears the scars of her own torture. But they feel no attraction any longer. Each is capable of only loving INGSOC.
And Winston, who at the beginning questioned the daily news of Oceania’s mythical military victory, now rejoices triumphantly with the cheers of everyone else. He has been made to think whatever the Party wants him to think. His reverse character arc is complete, and the novel concludes with four chilling words: “He loved Big Brother.”
It never ceases to amaze me how happily Americans today will hand over their privacy, freedom, and personal information as long as they get to keep their smartphones and Facebook pages. As I’ve said in a previous blog, when the real mark of the beast is introduced, this world will happily embrace it as long as it’s packaged as the latest, neatest technology gadget to make life more convenient or to keep in touch with friends.