I haven’t read 1984 since high school, and yet, it has stuck with me for nearly 20 years. I had never read anything quite like it before – nothing quite as thoughtful and intricate in its horrifically cynical view of the future. And its ideas about language – how controlling language, to say nothing of the past, could be used to control the population – floored me, and inspired me to think about media and literature in new ways.
And yet, over the years, what I had mostly forgotten about was how 1984 worked – or didn’t work – as a novel. I remembered the rich ideas, the complicated politics, the rich version of an all-powerful government that controlled its populace through manipulation of every facet of life, but what I didn’t really remember much about was Winston Smith, his inner conflict against Ingsoc and Big Brother, and his burgeoning relationship with Julia.
It turns out, though, that there’s a reason for that. It’s not that any of it is bad by any means; indeed, it’s hard to overestimate the impact 1984 has had on modern fiction, most notably on a cavalcade of YA fiction that borrows from its dystopian outlook. Without 1984, it’s hard to imagine having The Hunger Games, much less any of the slew of more generic YA knockoffs that came after that. Orwell immerses us in Winston’s worldview seamlessly and quickly, not only forcing us to understand the reality of life under Big Brother, but to see why he might want to rebel, as well as how difficult the very idea of rebelling is. And while Julia never really fully comes to life as a character, that’s almost intentional; she’s a symbol to him, and not a huge amount more.
But really, 1984‘s plot is far more simple and somewhat perfunctory than I remembered. Winston considers rebelling; he meets Julia and they begin an affair; things take a bad turn. That’s about it, really. So, sure, the plot is fine – it’s engaging and keeps you reading. But more than that, the plotting is there to underline the complex, fascinating world that Orwell has constructed. As we follow Winston’s journey – not only his physical one, but also his mental trips through his memories, his political evolution, his occupation, and more – Orwell is able to construct his horrifying dystopia, using every incident and detail to underline the power that Big Brother truly represents.
That comes to a head in the book’s final third, which only works as a result of understanding what this government is capable of – and what they seem to want. Without that, Winston’s final trials in the Ministry don’t work, nor does Orwell’s brutal ending. And yet, thanks to the construction of the world he’s invested his time in, it all feels…not right, exactly, but sadly plausible.
1984 undeniably has some issues as a novel. It’s occasionally didactic to an extreme, most notably in a long section in which Winston finally gets to read the official theories of the rebellion – a multi-chapter transcription of political theory. And, of course, there’s the appendix, in which Orwell combines world-building with a discussion of how language could be used to control thought – a long discussion which I found fascinating, but of course, I’m an English major, so I’m biased that way. And yet, even with those flaws, I can’t regard the book as anything less than a masterpiece, an incredible dystopia that’s more thought out, nuanced, pondered, and horrifically plausible than just about anything out there. More than that, it presents rich and complex ideas in an understandable, even entertaining way, and one that allows you to see their intention, their execution, and their impact on a society – something that an essay of political theorizing could never accomplish. It’s an essential piece of literature, one in which any shortcomings as a piece of storytelling are more than made up for by the importance and power of the ideas.