Nineteen Eighty-Four or 1984 as it is also known, is one of the most famous books ever published. It has inspired countless imitations, cultural touchstones, and introduced language which has become part of our everyday speech such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Doublethink’. It is even one of those rare books which is deemed so powerful that the author’s name becomes a byword for the themes of the text. As such, we describe dystopian surveillance states as ‘Orwellian’.
So what makes this novel so great? Is it the way the book examines the role of truth and facts within politics and the ways in which they are manipulated and in turn manipulate people? Is it for the famous slogans of the political party: “WAR IS PEACE”, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY”, “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” ? I would argue that it is so well regarded not for these things but for how complete the vision of the world is. The life presented in the text is complete and richly detailed right from the famous opening line of “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” At once we are presented with enough jarring information (bright vs cold, clocks striking 13 vs striking 1) and a timeframe (April) in which to place the action. It is a superb example of world-building. But the genius is in the way, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this society is fully realised, fully thought-through. No aspect of how such a society would operate is not directly or indirectly dealt with by the novel. Indeed, for completeness the novel forgoes plot for a chapter to stop and explain the world further through the guise of a ‘found’ manuscript being read by the protagonist, Winston.
It is this complete vision of a dystopian world which is so unsettling and memorable for the reader because it is so easy to accept that it could be a possible future society. This unease when reading it, is further compounded in the modern age where so many elements of the book are present in society. The most prominent feature observable over the last few years has been the utter disregard for facts or science, and ‘truth’ being whatever the political figures or spokespeople tell you is accurate. This has been particularly prominent in governments where ‘alternative facts’ and denial of things said only the day before embody the ideas of doublethink and ignorance being strength.
The vision presented in 1984 is undoubtedly bleak: “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” — Part III, Chapter III, Nineteen Eighty-Four
In such a world the ability to commit a thoughtcrime is of absolute importance to any potential overthrowing of the oppressive regime, which is why the ending of the book is so brutal. (Spoiler Alert) At the end of the book Winston is doodling in dust on a table and he writes “2 + 2 = 5”. This symbolises the completeness of Big Brother’s control over him and, when a few pages later, he is shown to ‘love’ his oppressor it demonstrates how perfect the world depicted is in controlling its citizens. However, this was not always the way the ending of the book was written:
“”Almost unconsciously,” the book goes, “he traced with his finger in the dust on the table …” In the first edition, published in June 1949 while Orwell lay critically ill in a sanatorium, what he writes on the table is “2 + 2 = 5”. But in the second impression he writes “2 + 2 =”. The “5” has somehow disappeared. Big deal, you might say. But when you think about it, it’s a big deal indeed, because the omission of the “5” subtly but unmistakably alters the book’s meaning. By writing “2 + 2 = 5”, Winston has submitted to the Thought Police without reservation; his mind has been irretrievably altered; all hope of freedom for mankind has been snuffed out. But by writing “2 + 2 =” before he is shot Winston shows that he is still capable of thoughtcrime, and that the Party and its totalitarian control can be successfully resisted.” (Glover, 2017)
My version of the book contains 2 + 2 = 5 and when I first read the book I was frustrated by the ending which I thought was too bleak. I wanted Winston to rise and fight again to defeat Big Brother or at least give us more signs that he would do so in the future. But, as time went on, I felt the unambiguity of the ending was brilliant – after all the novel is meant to be a caution or warning against such societies and in effect the novel tells you what to look out for as risk points for the development of such a world. I don’t know if I would have picked up that 2 + 2 = . gives rise to the idea that Winston can still commit a thoughtcrime, regardless, I prefer the 2 + 2 = 5 version as it ends the novel in a way which was devastating to me as a reader – evil won, the good guy not only was defeated, but made to fully embrace the ideals of his enemy. It is uncompromising and in that, it is brilliant.
The novel was written as Orwell was dying, so its bleakness reflects the dark place he was writing from. However, he lived long to see it published and approved the final manuscript. Next time, I’ll write about who had a very unusual motive for writing a book. If you are not already subscribed, why not join my mailing list so you never miss a Great Moment in Literature?
Glover, D (2017) Did George Orwell secretly rewrite the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four as he lay dying? https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/did-george-orwell-secretly-rewrite-the-end-of-nineteen-eightyfour-as-he-lay-dying-20170613-gwqbom.html
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