Wednesday, 6 August 2014

1984 by George Orwell

review (or ramblings) by Maryom


"Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal."

We all know - or think we know - George Orwell's 1984; the story of dull office worker Winston Smith who rebels against The Party and ends up in Room 101....with rats.....  I first read it many, many years ago as a teenager and at some point between then and now I've re read it a couple of times but my memory of it was a little vague so as it was lying around the house (daughter's A level reading) I picked it up...

I remembered a gripping dystopian novel full of tension, but this time it just seemed flat and boring - in fact my overwhelming thought was 'How dull!' For a long while, the most exciting thing to happen was the un-blocking of a drain! Left to my own devices it would easily have succumbed to the 50 page rule - if it's not grabbed me by then, I don't feel there's any point in continuing - but there was a certain amount of nagging in the form of "I've had to read it, so you should" from my daughter, so I struggled on. And to be honest, it was a struggle.
Orwell's dystopian, totalitarian future might have been shocking back in the day but it's too familiar now and lots of spy thriller or sci-fi novels have given a better portrayal of life under such a regime. Aspects have migrated into popular culture, and suffered on the way; Room 101 has become a BBC comedy programme, consigning celebrities' pet hates to oblivion; Big Brother's now a TV reality show; and parts of the torture scene seem to have been directly lifted to appear in Star Trek TNG (ep 137 Chain of Command II) where they actually appear more terrifying.
  1984's main problem for me though was that none of the characters to gained my sympathy. Neither Winston nor his lover Julia appeared fully fleshed out, and I cared about neither of them; O'Brien's role seemed obvious from his first appearance, though, ok, I've read it before, but Winston must have been extraordinarily naive to trust him; the torture scenes were mild in comparison to many I've seen on TV or film; and what happened to the rats? In my memory they'd had a much larger, far more terrifying role.

My reaction would probably have been very different if I'd read this back in 1948 when it was published, and I'm sure it was different when I first read it in the 1970s but now it just seems tired and showing its age.

Not so long ago I read Yevgeny Zamyatin's  "We" , a much more engaging read, with a very similar plot and written earlier than Orwell's novel.

Publisher - Penguin Classics
Genre - adult fiction, dystopian, classic

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting. I haven't read 1984 since I was a student and my memory of it mirrors yours - the ghastly cynicism of doublethink and its effectiveness in disguising what's really going on, the horror of the torture scene, the rats... I'm afraid I didn't see O'Brien's betrayal coming and I was truly shocked by the end! Notwithstanding the sad, hopeless atmosphere and the grimness of life for all the ordinary people, I'd been unconsciously expecting Winston to triumph and the downtrodden proles to overcome the Evil Empire in the best Hollywood tradition. I was the classic naïve thinker who needed shaking up and 1984 was groundbreaking for me.
    Now that everything that was original and startling in Orwell's depiction of totalitarianism has become commonplace - predictable ingredients of dystopias, as you say - I suppose 1984 can never have the impact it had in the decades after it was first published. I should reread it and see if my experience second-time round is the same as yours.
    He's still a great writer though. I read Homage to Catalonia recently - a beautifully written account of his experience in the total chaos of the Spanish Civil War.