Thursday, February 17, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: 1984

Of course, I could never do a series on apocalyptic literature and leave out George Orwell's 1984.  I've placed him third in my list because he published it after both Huxley and Rand, in 1949.  Yet over the course of time, Orwell's novel has arguably become the most recognizable and celebrated piece of apocalyptic literature in the canon.  The term "Big Brother" has seeped into popular culture and is referenced all the time, and the novel has even produced a term just for George: "Orwellian."

I hardly know how to address this book because I don't want to make my entry too lengthy.  To summarize quickly, the world in 1984 is in a state of constant war and oppression.  The government controls the news and maintains 24/7 surveillance on all of its citizens.  The main character is Winston Smith, who like all dystopian protagonists, has defied the restrictions of the government and rebelled against the rules.  Significantly, he writes down all his unfavorable thoughts about the government in a private journal and he carries on a secret and forbidden love affair.  There are so many different layers to analyze within the text, including themes of totalitarianism, power, individualism, love, and betrayal.

For now, I want to focus on the role of language in this totalitarian society.  One of the most powerful ways the government controls its citizens is by controlling the information they receive.  Winston's job, in fact, is to rewrite records and change history so that people don't know about the former way of life.  Orwell created a language called "Newspeak," in which grammar and vocabulary are simplified and stunted.  He was so thorough in this invention that he even attached an entire appendix to explain it in depth.  In the story, Orwell indicates that when verbal creativity is taken away from people, they lose the ability to express themselves and thus to even think for themselves.  Big Brother has compelled people to accept terms of "doublethink," in which two contradictory words are combined and expected to be equally accepted as true, such as blackwhite.  Eventually, people become so accepting of blaring contradictions that they accept the government's slogans of "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength."

As a great lover of language and literature, I passionately believe that our access to language affects every aspect of our lives.  I've heard people try to dismiss the liberal arts as impractical components of society, but the formation of language and the ability to express oneself is absolutely critical to individuals.  This is how we come to understand our identities and position ourselves in society.  If it is controlled or restricted, we - as Orwell indicates - are lost.  In fact, the language becomes so embedded within the people that they have succumbed to it in their thoughts, which infects them at the core.  And in Orwell's dystopian novel, it is nearly impossible to regain personal strength when confronted with this level of total control and oppression.

There's a reason 1984 is so widely esteemed in apocalyptic literature: it's fantastic.  There really is much more to say about it, and I encourage you all to read it if you have not done so yet.

4 comments:

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I read in while I was in high school and wasn't a big fan. I know there are some wonderful messages contained within it and I can objectively admire Orwell for that, and for his wonderful writing, but I will admit that the story didn't really grab my attention in any special way. I will re-read it one day though

Esoteric Muse said...

This is easily my favorite Orwell book. I think it should be re-read every few years because its message is so important!

Laura Katherine said...

Finally, one I've read!
I LOVE this book! Hands down, one of the best books I have ever read. Newspeak is so interesting! I like your analysis of it. If you haven't already, read some of Orwell's personal essays--they're on george-orwell.org.
Also, I've brought up 1984 at least 3 times in JAF this semester, and most of the people in my cohort have not read it! Strange.

Veritable Whitetail Deer Hunting Lodge Ohio said...

Great book, but its already happening in real life. This is a book that should be taught in our schools, but of course they dont want to teach this side. For a possible outcome after 1984, read "Truth's Blood."