A 70-Year Old Fiction Classic Much Relevant in Today’s Political Environment
George Orwell’s name would be resonant to intellectuals of a bygone, mid-20th-century era, as well as to enthusiasts vouching for the significance of his articles, essays and political commentary to modern English. A key witness of the political turmoil of both before and after the Second World War, Orwell was a man whose scathing views of social inequality, injustice and totalitarianism reflected through his works of exquisite writing.
1984, along with Animal Farm, are two novels by the celebrated author that play on prose as much as their criticism of fascist regimes. While Animal Farm chronicles the events that turned Russia into a brutal dictatorship, 1984 is largely a fiction tale narrated from the point of view of Winston, an independent thinker, or “double thinker” in a dystopian society. Through the book, Orwell introduced readers to other terms such as “Big Brother,” “Thought Police,” and “Thoughtcrimes,” which have now entered common English usage. Set in a futuristic world controlled by a party that restricts free will and gets people with independent thoughts executed, 1984 is tense, engaging, claustrophobic and atmospheric. Winston is a paranoid, lonely man, working as an editor in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, which deals with manipulating and falsification of historical records to suit the agenda of the party. The other Ministries, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Plenty, and the Ministry of Love, have established (contrary to their names) a culture of fear, unquestioning loyalty and obeisance through systematic brainwashing, hidden nests, unnecessary and exaggerated production of arms, and broadcasting news that depicts how Oceania, the superstate, is dominating every war and winning battles continually.
The author, through his blunt depiction of dictatorship in a technologically advanced state, makes a sweeping statement: how our own individuality, thought process and sense of wellbeing can be defined by and, in turn, affect the political landscape of a nation.
Oceania is a place you wouldn’t want to be part of, despite your political ideology. It is ruled by a party that has gained control of most of the world, yet that hasn’t prevented wars. While it is busy fighting the revolutionaries and territories not under its control, it has made life miserable for its people.
So, every move of its citizens is recorded through a television screen strategically placed inside every home. Your everyday activities, from the time you leave your home till you’re back in the evening after work, are monitored continuously by the watchful eyes of the party members. There is no sense of privacy, even for your most personal thoughts, and every move is scrutinized. Anything odd, vaguely suspicious or beyond your routine might give you away as a “thought criminal,” and then there are high chances of your execution even when you are not “plotting” in any way against the Government. It’s a world where people go missing by the dozen every moment, a place where even a slight hint of rebellion has people tortured for months and then vanished, the proof of their existence altogether removed. This is a world where elections are a sham, and there are spies at every turn who may report even your tiniest behaviors to men in power. Marriages are “formed” in the interest of the State, and the act of lovemaking is a “sin” and a roadblock to achieving the greater purpose of reproducing comrades for serving the party.
Does that sound disconcerting? Or vaguely familiar?
Considering the book was written as early as 1949, we can see the world created by Orwell manifested in certain so-called “socialist” states of the present world. It is not just a tale narrated with a commanding grasp of language and prose, but Orwell pulls off something spectacular: simultaneously creating a political environment and presenting it as a mirror of a rotting social structure. It is replete with sardonic flourishes and a tragicomedy amusing and devastatingly tragic at the same time. More importantly, it takes a no-holds-barred political stance. It is a hypothesis he builds and shows how a logical perspective and a “thinking” mind/disposition can be dangerous to the political reign of a megalomaniac fascist regime. This is contrary to how blind faith of ignorant, brainwashed party members and citizens who accept without question its “solidarity” can contribute largely to its increasing power.
In a political milieu as this, the character of Winston must break the rules, dodge luck and risk his life just so he could fall in love with another rebel, and experience life as he desires.
The tale combines several themes: of free will, of love and lust in purest form, of the true meaning of liberation, of our fears pandering to our survival instinct of “fitting in”, of hope in the darkest of hours, of desperate desire for freedom even while death stares in our faces, and of the true value of freedom. The reader is encouraged to focus on things that matter: how our version of the truth may not be the ultimate truth after all, but a carefully implanted lie in our subconscious by the government.
How I see it – may be an unsubtle commentary on nationalism, but maybe that’s precisely because of the times in a so-called democracy we are now living in. How the meaning of the word has often been misconstrued in many societies today and is more often confused with jingoism! Is jingoism the true essence of a party’s foundation? Is being a nationalist more about catering to the basic concerns of the common folk, or is it about being subservient to the Centre? And if I observe myself as an idealist functioning as a responsible member of the society and not of the political party at the Centre, does that qualify me as a threat to the country? It is for these introspections that 1984 is an important book and needs to be discovered again in a digital age where the youth have taken to discussing politics over trivial matters.
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