First published in 1949, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four has lost none of the impact with which it first hit readers.
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent - even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101. . .
Student Review by Liam Hoare, Royal Holloway, University of London.
The twentieth century can best be characterised as a one-hundred year-long debate – punctuated frequently by fissures and eruptions of violent conflict – over the relationship between the state, society and the individual. To that extent, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four must be the core of the anti-totalitarian argument. Christopher Hitchens triumphantly asserts in Why Orwell Matters that on the three great questions of the era – imperialism, fascism, communism – Orwell was right, and certainly his masterful critique of the unchecked power of the state remains unsurpassed.
Evidently, and as Orwell freely admits, Nineteen Eighty-Four draws heavily on previous tomes of the dystopian genre: parallels can be drawn between Orwell’s monolithic étate and Huxley’s World State of Brave New World and Zamyatin’s One State of We. However, for its clarity of thought, elegance of prose, astute analysis and socio-political prescience, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the superior work. Orwell had never visited the Soviet Union or any other Stalinist state; that he was able to capture the texture of communistic society so deftly is remarkable. He could not have seen first-hand the chronic nature of shortages, or the crummy nature of goods manufactured and distributed by the state: coffee made from chicory and tea derived from blackberry leaves. Nor would he have witnessed the appalling condition of state housing, and yet he is able to conjure up evocative images of corridors rotten with the smell of boiled cabbage, and of decaying buildings rife with burst pipes and flaking plaster.
Nineteen Eighty-Four also displays a remarkable level of historical foresight, though not as some attempt to claim that Orwell predicted the Britain of CCTV cameras and ID cards. Rather, Orwell was able to outline the direction in which the socialist states of Eastern Europe and Asia would eventually tumble. It is impossible to read the scenes in the novel’s final act – of imprisonment and interrogation, physical and psychological torture – and not draw comparisons to the Stasi and Hohenschönhausen. Moreover, there is a remarkable similarity between the Two Minute Hate and the Ossie television programme The Black Channel – as detailed by Anna Funder in Stasiland – in that they both display bursts of spewed, directed vitriol toward their enemies. North Korea presently is as near to Orwell’s Airstrip One as is visible in contemporary society: the ever-present Dear Leader, who Koreans must praise eternal for the little they have received in their fruitless existences, as they parade about their barren, hopeless land, faces grey, dull and listless.
Orwell’s magnum opus, then, is not by any means a relic, an anachronism of a by-gone age when dictators and one-party states perched on the doorstep of democratic Europe. Rather, as the most outstanding literary condemnation of totalitarianism, it is a warning from history from an author who always strove to tell the truth. Striking, dramatic, shocking, significant and awe-inspiring, Nineteen Eighty-Four must be considered the greatest work of the twentieth-century.
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