Late to the Book Party: 1984

This is a difficult book to experience and I wanted to like it, but I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. It is heavy stuff. But as much as I wanted to finish it, I didn’t. I can no longer connect with the story and couldn’t see where it’s leading to. I ended up watching the film to finish the story, and I’m glad it was a faithful companion to the book. If you find the book too difficult to finish, but would like to know how it ends, please watch the movie instead. John Hurt was impeccable as Winston Smith, so don’t flake out and cheat by reading just the book’s end.

It’s hard to find the right words to express my honest review. I don’t want to be too negative nor feign positivity because I respect the book and Orwell. Overall, I still think it’s a masterpiece. It was like a manifesto of how totalitarianism and fascism can eradicate humanity’s essence. However, it just became too overbearing for me. The dystopia, I didn’t mind so much, but I became too tired of the characters themselves, except Winston, whose plight I understand. I used to think Norwegian Wood was the most depressing book I ever read. This takes its place now.

But hey, in hindsight, what are we to expect from people living in 1984’s conditions?

This is the purest dystopia I’ve ever read. How far characters could “develop” is hindered by their circumstances, and so the running in circles/living in a box theme works. Still, it was fiction, and maybe I was just used to the redeeming qualities of the stories I read.

Reasons to Like It

Negative Utopia a.k.a. Dystopia

In his afterword, Erich Fromm explained that 1984 is an example of negative utopia. Its main themes were hopelessness, loss of freedom, and nihilism. In the grand scheme of things, 1984’s negative utopia is a big scar from wars fought.

I like how the book delved into dystopia from a political and historical perspective. It added an element of fear and haunting based from factual events. Most of the dystopian content I watched and read before dealt with moral conflict. Sure, there were political undertones too, but this was the first time I’ve seen dystopia showcased with such strong ties to politics and how it could scarily shape the future of human lives.

1984’s negative utopia starts from the individual, spreads scarily into a whole nation, then when you zoom out you’ll see that it infected continents. It reminds us to remain vigilant as citizens, knowing both our rights and responsibilities, or we may just wake up one day to the sound of our own telescreen, living in a drowned world of propaganda.

A Harsh Reminder

I think what resonated with me most while reading 1984 was that I think Oceania exists right now as a country. Yet, knowing that, there’s not much the world can do to stop it from existing. And sometimes, if not most of the times, we in the free world, in democratic societies, so easily forget that it is there.

It is scary to think that the world still falls for the charisma and pull of strong leaders. But it’s also notable how the world fails to stop such leaders from gaining a massive foothold among the oppressed. I think it’s not these leaders that are the problem in the first place, rather the oppression and lust for power that spins out of control. And whenever it does, the pedestal for authoritarianism inevitably clears and, boom. Then we start to complain about the wrong leader being elected.

I can’t help but think of my own country, and how people from opposing fences are shaping it. I voted for someone who others thought would bring back Martial Law, now being touted as an “authoritarian.” But when I think of the alternative, it’s worse. I used to think that if this President didn’t win, it would just be a matter of time before civil war is triggered. Ironically, it took someone like him to counter it because there were so many unanswered questions and unaccountability that the previous governments did. The voice of the masses finally got heard. Do I think he’s perfect? No. But do I think he is necessary? Yes. And that is a conflict that to do this day, I still can’t fully solve myself.

Orwell’s Prose

It reminded me so much of Ayn Rand’s technique. It could be intimidating to see a full page filled with words from border to border, but because of the depth of his writing it becomes bearable to read. The conversations between characters were laden with his political philosophies and even though they can be wordy, I think they’re too important to overlook.

I also appreciate how you can see Orwell’s thought process in moments of Winston’s internal struggle. There’s a vividness to peripheral details, like the woman doing the laundry near his rented room, the church bell song, remembering his mother with remorse, that are all consistent with the world he’s writing, if not the only moments of emotional reprieve. There’s always a hint of melancholy and sadness that works for the novel as a whole.

Also, the amount of details that Orwell goes off in a descriptive paragraph is a gift. It could be wordy, but allow it to stitch itself to form the final picture. Though Orwell has a habit of going off into various directions in a prose, jumping to different issues, somehow (at least to me) he finds a way to tie all loose ends together.

And that gift of prose was wicked when Winston’s luck ran out.

Why I Didn’t Finish It

Character progressions became monotonous to me and I grew tired of absorbing the same political principles over and over again. I’m like, I get it. But can we please go back to the people and the eventual future of Oceania? Halfway through the book, I started to ask myself what the main character’s goal is. And when I was about half of it and still couldn’t answer that, I decided maybe it’s not for me—the book that is. I still read it every now and then, but there are parts that I’ve skipped. One example, Goldstein’s book.

But, before you chew me out, it’s probably because I read the book in a different context and time frame. I live in freedom, democracy, and self-expression. I asked a British colleague why Orwell wrote such a political novel in London. He said that, aside from Orwell serving in the military, they once had Mosley who became popular and championed fascism. There was a scary point in their history that Nazism and Socialism would triumph. Upon learning that, I finally understood the hopelessness in 1984. Orwell was trying to save his countrymen from something that was imminent and very much possible then. The negative utopia works in such timeframe and in that context it may be so powerfully moving.

In my reality, however, the most it could do was caution me when voting in the elections. It is a wake up call as to strong leadership. I guess, at least, it still achieved its purpose in me. But I wish there was more to it than politics. I wish it could have left something in me that I can use in everyday life, aside from generalities that I already knew.

1984 is still a powerful reminder, timeless, whose threats are always just around the corner if we let our guard down. It’s a scary possibility. And, like I said, Oceania does exist as of the moment.

I may not finish the book ever, or I may, but either way, my best take away from this reading experience is learning that freedom can’t exist without vigilance, and hubris is dangerous when left unchallenged and unchecked.

And, yeah, it is a timeless reminder of how humans can degenerate if we stop understanding the whole spectrum of society, and not just what we think is right.

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