By Rose Brennan, A&E Editor
Few cultural zeitgeists are having a bigger moment than dystopian fiction. Whether in print, on TV or on the big screen, the visions of these alternative futures force readers and viewers to confront truths about our world that could potentially become reality. With that in mind, it is important to pay homage to one of the longest-standing and important dystopian novels ever written: George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” was first published in 1949, but has recently had a resurgence in popularity due to the current political moment and overall renewed interest in dystopian fiction. In George Orwell’s view of the year 1984, England is under a totalitarian government called The Party, where everyone’s actions are controlled, constant surveillance is the norm and freedom is non-existent. In fact, one of the manifestos of The Party is “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
It is in this world where we meet Winston, who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he essentially re-writes history in a way which conforms to The Party’s standards and ideals. If the original history does not conform to these standards, it is immediately destroyed and rewritten.
The irony here is Winston secretly hates The Party and everything it stands for, making him a “thoughtcriminal” in the words of The Party. Yes, you read that correctly. Not only is publicly opposing The Party a crime in Orwell’s world, just thinking negatively about it is a punishable offense.
One day, the Ministry of Truth hires a woman by the name of Julia, to whom he is instantly attracted. Unfortunately, Julia presents herself as an adamant follower of The Party and its supposed leader, Big Brother. But soon, it is revealed that she, like Winston, is also a thoughtcriminal who opposes The Party. Together, they embark upon a journey to find the underground resistance, but the stakes are high and the consequences could prove deadly.
Central to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the power of language. The novel introduces a reworked version of the English language called “Newspeak.” Newspeak aims to limit the nuances of language in order to limit thought. For example, words such as “great” or “excellent” do not exist in this Newspeak. Something can be described as “good,” but if it is better than good, it is described as “plusgood,” or, if it is even better than that, “doubleplusgood.” Likewise, the word “bad” does not exist, but rather “ungood” or “plusungood.”
To Orwell, words and ideas have power over people unlike anything else, and many an empire fell because they underestimated that power. However, Big Brother knows better, which is why Newspeak was created.
Winston, however, is having none of Big Brother’s censorship. Not only is he a thoughtcriminal, he keeps a journal of his anti-government thoughts. Now, most citizens would never have that opportunity, because of “telescreens” in their homes, which surveill every citizen in order to see if they are engaging in anti-government activity. But Winston’s apartment is abnormal, and there is one corner in his home where the telescreen cannot see, and it is here where Winston journals his treasonous thoughts.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is considered a classic, and with ample reason. Part of being considered a “classic” is bringing something new to the reader each time the book is read. Whether read in the time period of the nationalist 1950s or in the political turmoil of the 2010s, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” proves to be a provocative read at any time or stage of life.