You’re watching a film or playing a game, or reading a book, and the villain’s motives are laid out. Perhaps they’re the kind of villain who lusts after power and little else, who want to reign at the top of the heap and crush all opposition. We don’t often get to see exactly the kind of world the villain wants to make, other than the supposition that it’s a markedly worse one than what we currently have; invariably, the heroes burst in at the last minute and foil the evil plan, preserving the status quo.
1984 is the absolute, quintessential account of the ‘what now?’ after the villain wins.
Specifically, this, Orwell’s finest hour as a wordsmith and as a speculative fiction writer, discusses the kind of world that a power-mad villain would create in order to prevent all forms of rebellion and dissent. It is a world where humans have been robbed of the right to the thoughts in their brains, of any form of self-expression (this is a world where music and novels are produced mechanically) of the idea of taking pleasure from even an act as essential as sex, and even of the immutability of objective fact and history. In Orwell’s vision, the world has become a coffin lined with spikes on the inside, so tight and rigid that the slightest lateral movement is punished.
In broad strokes, Orwell’s vision has gone from futurist to alternate-history as the implied time-frame of the novel has come and gone, but it retains every bit of potency with which it first was written. Perhaps even moreso, as we can now look back and observe how it foresaw the modern surveillance state.
In short, 1984 is the ultimate political dystopia story in any medium. The Inner Party, who exist like barons in servant-tended mansions while all others languish in ratty flats drinking swill, do not have a particular distinct flavour to their form of oppression: there are no Quarter Quells or Death Stars here. Rather, their stranglehold over media, surveillance, and every other facet of life is so absolute that they need not demonstrate brutal force or pepper the masses with false hope.
Rather, they instead are hard at work perverting, suffocating and ultimately destroying the very idea of human communication, creating Newspeak – a linguistic form that trims down language into extremely narrow forms. It is explained in exhaustive (but never boring) detail that, within a few generations, they will have ‘bred out’ even the notion of rebellion through what can only be called linguistic eugenics. Within generations, the concept of rebellion will have been destroyed at its core, because the language will no longer broker the concept. Orwell understands the sublime power of language, of meaning and speech-acts, as much as the theoretical master Saussure himself, here applied to show how these sublime things can serve as a tentpole of an evil empire just as much as a world-destroying space station.
So this is why the Inner Party needs not explicitly threaten or make cruel sport to keep the masses in line. (Although, the Ministry of Love, with its Gulag-esque torture chambers, make a strong impression on those who diverge.) No, their game is linguicide, and with it comes the intellicide of all who could make a difference. This is the Inner Party’s grand plan to grind to a halt the gears of human history, which have shown that there will always be those lower in society who rise, and those at the top who fall. This is their endgame to ensure that those at the top never, ever fall.
For us writers, 1984 has something very important to teach us: if I might butcher a famous line from another series, a great story is never too long, nor is it too short. It lasts precisely as long as it means to. Orwell’s prose goes on at great length about the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism, the Evil Empire in this tale), as well as about what it means to rebel in a twisted world where even objective history is mutable and the thoughts in our heads are not granted to us. In most other books, this kind of pacing might be seen as meandering, or (insert horrified scream here) didactic. But it is not, because the ideas being expressed are in this case just as important as the actual movement of the plot. Ironically for a series about a society as suffocated as Airstrip One, Orwell knows how to let his scenes breathe.
The actual plot concerns protagonist Winston’s romance with fellow Outer Party member Julia, and their encroaching on the inside of a possible conspiracy to take down the Inner Party from within, to spark a rebellion amongst the downtrodden proletariat. It’s archetypal, yes, but there’s nothing wrong with archetypes. Quite the opposite, really: it’s a tale that’s been told time and time again, these totems of oppression and rebellion, but I think it’s because these stories awaken something fundamental in us, and remind us that there are things worth fighting for, and that there are sides worth choosing.
But – without delving into straight-up spoiler territory – things retain a gloomy tone throughout, and what spots of hope you may cling to will soon chime a bitter tone. Even before chunks start hitting the fan, the forbidden lovers regard their own fate as sealed, as corpses marching onward to the grave. They regard any move they make towards liberation as creating only tiny ripples, even if that, which will not amount to waves within their own lifetimes. As they resist the doublethink of the Party – the process of willful hypocrisy that a true Ingsoc believer must submit to – they engage in their own self-deception (or is it?), that of hope in a world where the concept is anathema.
Because, after all, this is a world where the traditional definitions of hero and villain in a narrative have been shifted: this is a world where the villain has already emerged triumphant, and it is a reflection of the cruel, unthinkable machines that would be required for the villain to keep their power. Perhaps the cruelest thing to happen to our protagonists here is that – again, no specifics for those who haven’t yet read it – there was no struggle at all at the end of the day, any more than that of a grain of sand struggling against a violent tide. The climactic ‘confrontation’, if it can be called that, is a struggle of minds, of ideologies, but the Party has well and truly thought out its systematic annihilation of the human spirit. It may well be the most ‘successful’ villain in the history of fiction.
That is one reason why I choose to view the novel chiefly in this way, rather than chiefly as a critique of Communism or Naziism, as some commenters have said over the years. Rather, it’s a look at the villainous nature of extremism as a whole. All extremes, no matter what ideology originally spurred them on, tend to meet in the middle, where torture and thought-control are the nature of the machine. They all meet in the place where there is no darkness.
Incidentally, if you value 1984 as much as I do, you absolutely must check out the film Brazil by Terry Gilliam. To me, it’s Gillian’s finest hour as a filmmaker. While some elements are different, it really does feel like the best major film adaptation of 1984, even if it’s not “quite” 1984. Check out the Criterion edition, which includes both the ultimate director’s cut of the film, as well as (for curiosity’s sake) the 90-minute version that the studio butchered in a baffling attempt to make it more palatable to ‘the average moviegoer’.
As for the novel, I first read 1984 in high school, recommended to me by my teacher when we had a choice of reading material and I found myself unsure. I first read it as a teenager, and most recently read it eight years after that first time, and it has only grown in importance and relevance. I am struck as I read these pages with the impression that I am reading something fundamental, if not to the very progress of our species as a whole, then to the society that we’ve spent the last several centuries building up.
Let us as a society always keep the light lit, to never become Airstrip One.