For one reason or another everyone has that one novel (or hundreds, let’s be serious) that the world has decided everyone should read and yet we just haven’t. Sometimes we specifically defied assignments and/or directions and chose not to read it in spite of being supposed to for school (Wuthering Heights, The Sound and the Fury… both to this day), other times we were never assigned the book in the first place and had no drive to make up for that lack (for now I have yet to read To Kill a Mockingbird for this very reason, which I acknowledge is a serious problem). As someone who wasn’t raised in an English speaking country I have several of this holes in my reading history, in spite of holding several literature degrees and being on the verge of earning a Ph.D. in the field. Over the past few years I have attempted to fill in some of these empty spots on my mantle, but have been a but underwhelmed by some of the classics everyone seems to love: I really really don’t get The Great Gatsby, someone explain it to me? Is it so many people’s favorites simply because it’s one of the only books (or one of the first books) they’ve ever read? So in spite of loving Animal Farm, I was afraid I wouldn’t like George Orwell’s 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) and avoided it. Until I had to teach it this semester, and was forced to crack it open. I shouldn’t have feared, because it’s such an incredible and alarmingly prescient novel by a phenomenal author.
The protagonist of the novel is a man named Winston Smith who lives in what used to be London, but after a world war is now called Oceania. He works for the Ministry of Truth, whose ironic role in society is to erase any incongruities with the story the party wants the people to believe. So if the daily message is at odds with anything that came before, it becomes Winston’s job to erase any indication that history used to be different, and Winston must rectify and resolve the problem by literally rewriting history. Big Brother rules and watches over all, everyone is constantly being watched and kept in check, everything is controlled, nothing goes unnoticed. People are given the opportunity to release any hate or emotion through a daily ritual directed at imaginary or exaggerated enemies. Freedom is being told what to do, how to think, how to behave. Absolute freedom is seen as a prison – having a structure and a code of conduct is what freedom truly is. Being in a constant state of war is more peaceful than no war at all. Connections amongst party members are acts of service towards the party and the nation. While so many of these concepts sound like a dystopia, it is incredible how much they really speak to our current state of society.
At first glance the novel seems to be set in a horrific version of the future (or past, at this point, given Orwell’s choice of date). But the parallels are impossible to ignore. The CCTV culture in which we live in would induce even the most even-keeled amongst us to frets of paranoia from time to time, and yet we accept it without even batting an eye lid. Just yesterday I walked into a building on the university campus I teach in and a sign read that by simply walking through the door, I granted the university permission to use my image for commercial purposes and any other use the university would deem fit. It troubled me, but I walked into the classroom and taught my lesson. We assume we are under constant watch. We make jokes on the phone about the NSA. We are afraid to pick our nose, because it could forever be captured by who knows who, who knows where.
What about the ritual of hate as a way to control the masses? It may not have been its original intent, but it seems like this is the role that Twitter now serves in today’s society. People get to direct all kinds of hate and horrific language at complete strangers, destroy their lives, and then move on. It’s a catharsis where we do not see the victim. It helps us get out the frustration we should be directing at the government or institutions that benefit from our subjugation. We also rile against imagined enemies, or at least ones we know very little about. Just saying words like Muslims, Iran, and the like provoke such vitriolic passion in so many, but I know from personal experience that when pressed, people cannot truly elaborate on why they actually hate these groups other than by saying something along the lines that the government told them so.
I could write about this novel ad nauseam, and I barely scratched the surface of the actual story contained in the narrative, but I wanted to really focus on the parallels that the novel draws between this horrific society and the one we live in now. The world isn’t awful, but it’s also important that we keep our eyes open to our rights being taken away and any time we risk getting too close to the warning Orwell wrote us almost seventy years ago. Surveillance has already taken over our society, and we have started behaving accordingly. Extreme nationalism and patriotism and ignorance are gaining ground, all in the name of loving who or what exactly? Not Big Brother, but our country? Our now mythical founding fathers? Let’s be careful. That is all.