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‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 352 pages; 2004.

How do you review a book that is a true 20th Century classic like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four without simply regurgitating all that has been said before? Is there anything more I can add to the mix? Probably not, but that won’t stop me from telling you just a little about this brilliant dystopian novel, first published in 1949, and why I love it so much.

A dystopian masterpiece

For those of you who have never read Orwell’s masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly), it’s set in London in 1984. The city, which belongs to one of the world’s three superstates, is under Totalitarian rule and at perpetual war. Everyone lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, children are encouraged to spy against their parents, and to even think “bad” thoughts is considered a crime.

Winston Smith, the narrator, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Times articles so that the ruling Party’s version of history, which changes on a daily basis, is always correct. But Winston is not like everyone else and considers that the continual surveillance and collective worldview is oppressive and stifles individuality. He’s also alarmed by the number of people who are “disappeared” and re-written out of history because they haven’t toed the Party line.

When he meets the intriguing Julia and begins an illicit romance with her, he discovers that he is not the only secret “rebel”. But this liaison does not escape the Thought Police, and Winston is thrown into prison, where the “secrets” of the Party are finally revealed to him.

A blast from the past

I first read this book at school in 1984, but I can’t recall what I thought of it back then. But when I re-read it, circa 1994, when I was studying journalism, I remember, quite clearly, the oppression resonating off the page.

It was a dark, incredibly thought-provoking story, and with every turn of the page I could feel my whole worldview being challenged on many different levels: was history a true record of the past? Was the news media so corrupt? Were wars just a means to stimulate the economy and keep people in jobs? Were the enemies of the West just a conspiracy invented to keep us living in fear?

Fast forward 15 years and I re-read the book as part of my book group last month. This time around, my brain, having already grappled with these new and alarming concepts, now concentrated on whether Orwell’s “predictions” had come true. And because I was less caught up in the overwhelming brilliance of the book’s scope and vision, I enjoyed the narrative, which is quite fast-paced, and the eloquence of the prose, which is sparse without ever becoming boring.

The thing that struck me most, however, was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book, not the least in the following passage:

He remembered better the rackety, uneasy circumstances of the time: the periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour, the enormous queues outside the bakeries, the intermittent machine-gun fire in the distance — above all, the fact that there was never enough to eat.

A prescient novel

Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK (in 2006, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people).

By contrast, Orwell’s prediction that the future would be sexless didn’t quite come off, and even the notion that you only had to alter The Times newspaper to rewrite history seems laughable given today’s preponderance of media outlets and formats, including the internet and mobile phone technology.

But, on the whole, this is a remarkable novel, a warning shot from the past, that still resonates and which will continue to resonate long into the future. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to do so, and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting just to re-experience Orwell’s amazing vision.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, by George Orwell, first published in 1949, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “one of George Orwell’s most powerful politically charged novels, a beautifully crafted warning against the dangers of a totalitarian society, and one of the most famous novels in the dystopian genre”.

16 thoughts on “‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell”

  1. Superb review Kim makes mine pale in comparison but loved it. This for me as a first read was just amazing, I am looking forward to reading it again in a decade or so and seeing what I get out of it then and what else has come true.


  2. Thanks, Simon. I enjoyed your review … and still can’t believe that you read the entire book in one day and still managed to sound wide awake to discuss it at book group!


  3. Well, I hope you do enjoy it when you finally get around to it, Kailana. It’s one of those books that stretches the brain matter, not because it’s difficult to read but because it presents so many amazing concepts in the one place.


  4. Hi Isabel, I’ve never read Down and Out in Paris and London, and for some reason I always clocked it as non-fiction, but I see from the wiki entry and your review that it’s actually an autobiographical novel. He seems to do a nice line in those, as I’ve just read Coming Up for Air which looks like a thinly veiled memoir to me.
    I think you’re right: Nineteen Eighty-Four does get creepier as you get older. I think it’s because you realise how close to the bone some of Orwell’s predictions were.
    I’ve only seen one version of the film, the 1984 one starring John Hurt. I remember it as being very dull and very depressing.


  5. This is serendipity to find this cover displayed. I am currently reading this same edition for my bookgroup meeting in early December. I have come to this fresh having never read Orwell before and I can say it has me hooked…… line and sinker! Orwell’s vision is quite remarkable and the unease is building with his view of a future world and is he sending a warning of what possibly lies ahead?


  6. Ah, great minds think alike! If your book group discussion is anything like ours, it’ll be a really interesting one. There’s so much to talk about, consider and cogitate on with this one.


  7. Masterpiece is a term that should never be used lightly but your use is entirely justified. I loved having the opportunity to reread this, even if I missed the resulting discussion. The resonance it has with today’s society is disconcerting to say the very least.


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