Written in 1949 but set in 1984, this is the grandfather of all those dystopian novels floating around the YA shelves today. The world is divided into three superpowers - Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, who are constantly at war. In Oceania, society is ruled over by Big Brother, who exists mostly in enormous posters. Everyone is watched constantly, even in their homes, children are taught to spy on everyone around them, and hatred of The Other is par for the course.
Our main character, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, the middle classes. He's responsible for changing written history to reflect the present - changing production forecasts to make Oceania seem more productive than it is, removing those who've fallen from grace from the official news reports, altering records to show that they've always been at war with whichever of the other superpowers they're currently at war with. In doing so, Winston begins to question the Party and everything they do.
The world that Orwell created is a truly terrifying one, and very much a product of the post-war era. It's clear throughout that Nazism and Soviet Russia were pretty strongly on his mind while he was writing it. One wonders what Orwell would have made of the Cold War and the 1950s...
It's a hard book to review, because I'm kind of on the fence about it. So I'm going to go ahead and bullet point my responses instead of trying to be more coherent.
The good stuff:
- The writing. It grabbed me from the first sentence ("It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen") and didn't let go.
- The feeling of tension that came with reading about this awful society and the risks that Winston and Julia were taking.
- Part three. Yes, I can understand why a lot of people didn't like it. It makes you deeply uncomfortable. But let's be honest - it's accurate as hell.
- The admission that ultimately, it's about power.
The stuff I could have done without:
- Creepily evil children. Yes, the idea of children turning in their own parents is a big part of why the society is so terrifying.
- The insaaaaaaaanely long chapter in which Winston is reading Goldstein's book. Yes, it's giving us a whole lot of backstory, but that chapter is OVER FORTY PAGES LONG. And it was a lot like reading an "Intro to Dystopian Societies" textbook.
- The numerous references to Winston's varicose ulcer. Because gross.
The stuff I had questions about:
- The proles. Do they know that they're being oppressed? Or do they just realise that they've actually got it better than a lot of the Outer Party and keep their mouths shut?
- How and when the social change came about. There are references to the Nazis and their actions, so presumably some time in the 1940s? Which means that in the space of forty years, superpowers formed, society was completely overhauled, the government started watching people 24/7 and everyone just...went along with it? I NEED MORE INFORMATION.
- Were the Party intentionally manipulating Winston into some of the decisions he made? Because it certainly seems that way. But why put so much effort into it? If they knew years ago that he was having doubts - when he saw the photograph - why drag it out so long when others are being arrested for talking in their sleep??
In short: I enjoyed it (inasmuch as it's possible to enjoy a book about an evil government manipulating its population), but there was a lot that I just didn't understand. I guess this is why it's put on so many high school reading lists! Still, I would recommend it, despite my "WTF IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW??" confusion.
Have you read it? What did you think?