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The Book Club

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

1. The definitive dystopian novel? George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is one of the most well-known dystopian novel in its generation, owing in part to Orwell’s extensive influence upon contemporary and literary culture, and the alarming similarities – in systems and structures – that the Oceanian province shared with the world at the point of publication (in fact, many remain applicable in the present circumstances). Not only have many of the concepts and terminology used in the text entered the English vernacular, but would have – and continues to – warn the reader over the dangers of a totalitarian government and society (the Party, and the control of Big Brother); a world where purported collective security takes ultimate precedence over individual liberty and rights. These concepts are loosely modelled after existing political or socio-economic ideologies – in particular, Nationalism and Communism – though realistically edited to allow the reader to believe that the scenes are possible.

2. How is it distinct from existing dystopian texts? A multitude of the techniques used to control the inhabitants – including but not limited to psychological manipulation and mind control, perpetual surveillance through telescreens and microphones, active alteration and amendment of information and history – has possibly been employed in Orwell’s world (though probably in other satellite states or countries); but he has factored in the rapid advancement of technology to make the intrusive systems more pervasive, and greatly exaggerated this methodologies in design and scope. Nevertheless, the fact that the reader can identify with common perspectives or platforms would significantly raise alarm bells, heighten the fear of subordination – understanding the post-war climate, and the corresponding desires for freedom and liberty – thereby rendering the text more effectual as a form of genuine “warning” (the breakdown of family-based trust and faith is definitely unsettling).

3. Thoughtcrime and Newspeak. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten”.

4. Newspeak and the importance of language. The fact that Orwell dedicated an entire appendix for the explanation of Newspeak highlights the importance that was attached to language, and its relationship with human thought and intellect. The basic premise is that without the ability to articulate or conceptualise points of view – especially ideas that run contrary to what the Party preaches – the citizens would not be able to exercise disobedience, non-compliance or even show signs of dissent. Newspeak is the primary vehicle for this, as administrators and Outer Party members work to extensively simplify the English language (“doubleplusungood” as the worst of the worst). These measures go hand-in-glove with the constant plan to control the past with the continuous editing of the past, with necessary, drastic changes made to editions of newspapers, and the inability of individuals to keep records and anything of the past. Manipulation is never-ceasing, and is a tool of endless justification for the Party. As summarised “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression … but to make all other modes of thought impossible”.

5. The glass paperweight. Attached to the glass paperweight that Winston purchased from Mr. Charrington’s antique shop is symbolism of the lost past that has been altered and relentlessly suppressed by the Party. The paperweight was produced at a time before Winston’s birth, and continued to exist in a past that remains painfully hazy; naturally, it is also a window to a general past that has not been tampered by the Party. Unsurprisingly, as the glass paperweight shatters on the floor during the arrest by the Thought Police, it also represents the discovery of the inconvenient truth, the disappearance of an important link to the past, and cruelly shadows Winston’s submission to the torture mechanisms and eventual subversion through brain-washing.

6. Power: motivations of the Party, expounded by O’Brien. “Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power”, “Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing”, “The old civilisations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred” and “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

7. Julia’s role. Beyond her gender and role as Winston’s lover, her motivations and actions contrast deeply with Winston. While Winston is more scholastic or academic in his rebellion – including the starting of the library, constantly pondering the intricacies of the Party’s rule and “joining” the “Brotherhood” – in general more conscious of the bigger and long-term picture, Julia is more pragmatic and content with living in the moment. This contrast is evidenced by their varying attitudes and enthusiasm (or lack of) towards the manifesto supposedly penned by Emmanuel Goldstein. Julia’s optimism and confidence (she claims to have had affairs and relationships with other members, and manages her dual life supremely) is clearly different from Winston’s pessimism and fatalism, and seems consigned to his eventual arrest and doom.

8. The proles. Although they make up the bulk of the population, their representation – in the form of rights, economic abilities and intellectual capacities – are disproportionate; and hence are scarcely mentioned in the book (except when Winston reiterates his beliefs that the proles hold the key to spontaneous rebellion and the future). Winston is sympathetic – and even envious – of the proles, because he believes that their essence of life have not been negatively impacted, and enjoy the full range of human emotions without the need to be worried about surveillance. O’Brien’s explanation that proles care for nothing but food and reproduction attempts to debunk Winston’s belief of a revolution (in addition to mark downs by the Thought Police); and the possibility of an end to the system – unfortunately – seems nowhere near in sight.

9. Explaining doublethink. “These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. If human equality is to be for ever averted – if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently – then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity”.

10. Doublethink. The entire structure created by the Party is supported by deception; which subsequently means that should citizens realise that all the supposed “facts” and way of life – through the perpetuation of hate and the bombardment of propaganda – have been a sham, the system would crumble from within. These forms of “controlled insanity” is perpetuated throughout Oceania, primarily with the names of the Ministries (Truth dealing with lies and propaganda, Peace with war et cetera), and the three guiding slogans. The contradictions also maintain the obedience and subservience of the Outer Party members, but eventually proves too much to handle for Winston (in the Ministry of Love, he attempts to use doublethink on the “two plus two” question during his interrogation by O’Brien, as the former did claim that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”).

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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