I admit it. I finished 1984 by George Orwell for the first time just a week ago. It’s one of those books either you read in high school or you pretended that you read in high school. However, we read Animal Farm (which I really enjoyed) at our school, and until now I never thought to pick this one up. You can wag your head at me, but even if I had read this book in high school, I don’t know that I had the right interpretive enzymes to be able to properly digest the material and themes of this book. So, consider this my adult book report on 1984. Maybe I’ll even mail it in to my English teacher to get it graded…
Life in 1984
If you are completely unfamiliar with the world of 1984, it was written by George Orwell in 1949, during the bewildering aftermath of WWII. He sees the possibility of the degeneration of society into distopia. Years of war, tyranny, and the rise of abusive powers no longer allowed men like Orwell to have the positivity of the early 20th century. The book follows the interactions of Winston, Julia, and O’Brien in a society under complete control by the Party symbolized by the ever present Big Brother. All interactions are monitored, privacy is non-existent, and nonconformity is a mortal sin.
The Party has gained control over society through the suppression of sexual release, elimination of religion, destruction of family relations, and promotion of an atmosphere of continual suspicion. In this world, the lower class, or proles, are powerless not because of their lack numbers, but because of their gullible complacency. The Outer Party–representing the middle class–is within the clutches of Big Brother. These individuals are kept in line by Thought Police, telescreens, and other spy tools employed by the Inner Party (upper class) to ensure full support of party ideals. The Party prevents any authentic fellowship, love, or friendship. Thus, party members exchange true love for hatred, a united hatred of their common enemy.
From the beginning, Orwell’s characters walk a path that forebodes a sinister and dark conclusion. Over and over again, Winston reminds himself that everything must eventually end in obliteration, death, and humiliation. Still, as a reader, you continue to root for Winston, Julia, and other perceived insurgents. Winston’s rebellions proceeds slowly from thoughtcrime to overt crime against the Party. The reader is encouraged to celebrate the illicit relationship between Winston and Julia, his co-worker, as their many sexual encounters are a way of rebellion against Big Brother’s strict abstinence policy. Orwell bends our traditional ethical perceptions, and the reader finds himself ashamed to celebrate Winston’s sins and actions simply because they represent rebellion against the Party’s strangling control. In a society of totalitarianism, where marriage is a sham and sex is distorted, Orwell wants us to wrestle with whether some actions remain ethically black and white.
The novel questions our epistemological presuppositions. Throughout the book, the Party dictates truth. It rewrites history, fabricates facts, and becomes a despot of knowledge. Winston’s internal struggle largely consists in whether he can actually trust his knowledge of anything, since everything he has learned has been filtered by the Party–indeed, he himself has played his part in the rewriting of history. Even further, Winston makes us wonder: Does truth exist outside of our own minds? On what foundation do we build our view of the world? Do we believe 2+2=4 simply because our minds have been taught it, and we can be reeducated to accept 2+2=5 as truth? Winston’s dialectical worldview finally realizes there is no external Truth that can provide a foundation for belief about the world.
I say “belief” because you will walk away from this book realizing that we all make leaps of faith in order to function in the world. Our knowledge of history is based upon authorities we trust. The question is not whether we place faith in authorities to teach us truth, the question is which authority will you place your trust in? Winston finally capitulates to Big Brother, accepting the Party’s truth above all others. In each of our lives, we have to determine whether we will trust the Bible, certain scientists, or other authorities as the source of truth about the past, present, and future reality.
1984 is an odyssey about the conquest of the individual. At the beginning of the novel, Winston slowly separates from his fellow lemmings, but as the novel unravels, Winston endures torture after torture as his individuality dies a thousand deaths. Big Brother represents a collective. Ultimately, the goal of the Party is that all individuals would melt into the all-consuming society. It is quite apparent that Orwell does not support this kind of society, but the thrust of the book is a warning that this can happen.
The society of 1984 has manifested itself in various forms throughout history. Recently Nazism, Bolshevism, and much of the Muslim world have used torture, intimidation, manipulation of the facts, and covert suppression of insurgents to promote the agenda of a specific party. However, I disagree with Orwell’s analysis that members of a society can have their personhood annihilated to the point that they are complicit but no longer personally responsible.
Here is what I mean. At the close of the book, both Winston and Julia have been utterly conquered. The methods of torture and mind-manipulation have rendered them both utterly compliant to Party values and ultimately love for Big Brother. The implication is that individuals are the victims of the Party machine. I do believe that torture and continual repetitive degradation can have vast effects on individuals, but on the whole, I believe that individuals have personal culpability for their participation in these kind of societies. For instance, Bonhoeffer’s analysis of his contemporary environment in pre-Nazi Germany makes it quite clear that the individuals who were “brain-washed” by the rising Hitler were in fact participating in willful idol worship. What I am trying to say is that a Big Brother figure rises to power in a society largely at the willful ignorance and intentional participation of the individuals.
My final critique concerns the book’s hopeless conclusion. The author’s rising action and climax hold out hope for the reader, only to let him down. As the story concludes, Winston and Julia both realize each has betrayed the other. The reader’s last taste is one of disgust and guilt. In Winston and Julia, Orwell wants us to see ourselves. He believes we are all willing to betray even our deepest convictions and loves for the sake of self. He is half right. This is man’s depravity exhibited in its bleakest form. But, the man who has been made a new creation in Christ has the Spirit of God at work in him, and that is the other half of the story. The blood of the martyrs cries out against Orwell’s analysis that every individual, whether Christian or not, is ultimately consumed with self-love. The believers who have willingly suffered torturous death for a man called Jesus are argument enough against his perspective.
Orwell’s futuristic society is lacking something that shall never be lacking in any age: the Church. 1984 is a post-religious society; all religion has been wiped off the face of the earth. What a hopeless world it would be if the Church were to be completely eradicated from a society. I can only imagine what it must be like in countries of the Middle East where there is no visible witness to the Gospel. However, I do not believe the Church can ever be completely prevailed upon by the powers of darkness–and therein lies hope for individuals in society. Jesus promised that even the gates of Hell shall not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18). Now, I do not speak of a church that willfully bends to power–like the German Lutherans in Bonhoeffer’s day–but of a church that fights valiantly under one banner: the banner of the cross of Jesus.
Orwell’s 1984 is heavy. However, I appreciate a non-believer’s perspective of the future. It is amazing how differently I can look at the future knowing that powers rise and fall at the hand of my God. How truly hopeless it must be to feel as though the future is uncertain.
Even so, come quickly, King Jesus.