Marty Reeder's Reviews > 1984

1984 by George Orwell
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Feb 06, 2008

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This is one of those books that I had always meant to read, but never got around to. Finally, one of my college classes required it, so I was happy to pick it up, though not without some reserved skepticism beforehand. I knew it was one of those books that is constantly referred to by people who are paranoid about government and distrust everything the government does, which wouldn't really describe me, in general. But, I have to admit that Orwell's writing is masterful. Right from the start, the world he presents is mesmerizing. I think I am safe in saying that in the first third of the book, almost nothing happens. Yet, I can also say that the first third of the book was just as interesting as any of the action that comes later. Every detail, every description, every movement is analyzed in the most fascinating way. Orwell is no idiot. He has that very rare ability of few great authors to show the workings of the inner mind of man in such a true and believable way that you very well believe that he could look at you and know what you are thinking. After the first third of the book, when the story actually progresses, it gets exciting almost in the way that a thriller does. You keep on wondering what move will be next and how the character is going to strategize the demise of the enemy. Then the last third of the book is a devastating, but still masterful analysis of the human mind, free will, and reality. At almost every stage, Orwell presents his ideas with a written clarity that is a language all in its own. In spite of this whole experience and my recognition at how skillful the writing and analysis was, I cannot say that I liked the book, or even if I would recommend it. The main reason for this is that I believe Orwell cheated at the end. The protagonist was putting up a fight against the machine, and in spite of its all-powerful, seemingly omnipotent status, he held off. Now, Orwell had two options. The protagonist either would capitulate under the increasingly intelligent pressure put on by the oppressor, or he would outlast and maintain his own free will to the end. I think that the ending Orwell chose was contrived, and what he did to get the protagonist there was unbelievable. Maybe it's my own principles or feelings, but I suspect that if Orwell had done it well enough, I would have at least respected his approach. But as it is now, I had to shake my head and say to myself: No. That's not true to human nature. I don't buy that. And what's worse, I felt that Orwell must have known that himself. His writing was too brilliant before, too logical, too well-reasoned. The person who wrote all of that can't possibly believe in this moment either. So, I suspect, that in order to get the ending that he wanted, he contrived the tipping point and then returned to his brilliant form to bring the story to its conclusion. One misstep is a harsh way to judge a truly exemplar book, but I believe that it was a key moment and it unravels all the true elements Orwell had so carefully set up before. Overall, however, it would be difficult to say to not read the book, because this type of writing and insight is difficult to come by. So if you are looking for a meaty intellectual treat, read it. But don't let him cheat you in the end.
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message 10: by Adam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Adam Farooqui I like your review, except that this is my favorite book and I will say that when an author as great as Orwell chooses his ending, it is very deliberate, very calculated, and it is exactly what it is supposed to be.

message 9: by Marty (last edited Apr 23, 2008 02:04PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Marty Reeder Adam, I respectfully disagree, and I will explain why:


The tipping point for Winston is rats to the face. Rats. Yeah, this is what breaks down his previously monumental resistance ... no, wait, not just rats, but the idea of rats. Yes, rats to the face would stink. No, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But this is what gets him to capitulate? I don't buy it.

Not that it couldn't be rats. But if Orwell had hoped to sell me on this point, he needed to prepare me for it before just the few pages before the act as O'Brien describes what he is going to do. For this moment to be true to form, for me, I need more than just vague references to nightmares of rats.

Let me give an example. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when they are extracting a "confession" out of Esmerelda, they threaten to break her ankle. Twist it until it snaps and breaks. Again, not a fun prospect, but what Hugo did to make it an unacceptable consequence is that fact that this innocent girl's only thing she has ever known and has ever been good at is dancing. It is her livelihood. So, yeah, a snapped ankle is not good, but when mixed in with this prospect, which the reader is well aware of beforehand, the whole idea of any damage to her ankle is repugnant and unacceptable. And you breath with relief when she gives in, even though you feel terrible later that they got what they wanted. That is what I wanted Orwell to do. Build up some reason for that last scene of torture to have true, excruciating meaning to the character. So that the choice is truly more than just a physical dilemma. It is a dilemma that shakes him to the core and gets him to betray the only woman he has ever (supposedly) loved. Again, it still could have been rats, but I would have needed to see beforehand how rats were a source of true psychological anxiety far, far before Winston is ever captured and far more than some vague references. With this built in to the story, then when O'Brien introduces even a hint of rats, inside I groan, I recoil, I'm ready to give in with Winston because I know that he is about to be unfairly pushed beyond his limits. As it is, the story does none of that. It seems to be anything but calculated. In fact, that kind of creative torture might gain a scene in the most recent horror/slasher movie franchise, but not among the pages of an otherwise intelligent and brainy masterpiece. Maybe now that will help to see why I felt cheated. Why it seems that Orwell got to that point and put no effort into truly extracting the most out of his character before moving on to the heavy and devastating, but ultimately strong finale.

My final caveat is the relationship between Winston and Julia, which also contibutes, I think, to the the cheat of the ending. While it is clear that Winston and Julia had an amicable and obviously sexual relationship, it seemed clear, and Orwell made it clear, that they were not a couple that was committed to each other through boundless, pure love. Julia openly admits that she will see other guys. Is this the kind of relationship that is worth protecting at all costs? Doesn't seem like it to me. So when Winston rats out Julia (no pun intended), it almost seemed like ... oh, that was it? That's what O'Brien was going for? They were never really a true couple anyways. Now, if Orwell had set up Julia and Winston as a truly devoted and committed, in love (not in passion), couple, then the betrayal at the end would have been so much more devastating. Big Brother's victory so much more definitive. And therefore, the lesson truly impactful. As it is, it seems like all that Orwell took us through was the mediocre fight of a mediocre citizen. What good is that? Why can't we witness the best against the worst? That is where the true principles of agency and free will can be played out for the greatest impact on the reader. And that is what is so frustrating. All of Orwell's writing leading up to that point seems to build up to what you would think would be an insightful, raw, emotional finish. Instead, we get a pathetic attempt by what really turns out to be an average character.

Thus, for me, the cheat. If it is any consolation, I think that any other author would have been fine with that type of finish. Orwell was just so masterful otherwise that he lifted my expectations far beyond the abilities of any other author.

Adam Farooqui Brilliant. However, this is my favorite book, and i'm not about to let this go without a fight.

Yes, they were only in passion and not in love, and he did cower before a mild torture whereas other great characters (Esmeralda, John Galt, Captain Picard) have endured more extreme forms of torture.

I think that's his thesis. I think Orwell is saying we are surrounded by telescreens, but we CHOOSE to never turn them off; we are surrounded by shitty products from China, food that is full of chemicals to make it last longer, and fruits genetically engineered to be LESS sweet so they can be shipped over longer distances (Victory Coffee, Victory Gin, Victory Cigarettes); although I support most of American foreign policy, the parallels today are too obvious to point out; architecture is towering, monotonous (I visited the 40 story high NY Marriot Marquee, the floors of the hotel are stacked in an Orwellian fashion, also check out the DC subway!)....

In this type of society, where the State is pervasive... love can only be defined by defiance. Yes, Winston is a coward, but I believe Orwell is making the statement that we are all cowards, none of us are principled or intelligent enough to pull off a desperately needed shift away from totalitarianism (see the trend of barcodes on identification and national ID cards). The State is so oppressive, even if Winston were to carry to banner of freedom and liberty, where would his revolution come from.

This is why Winston broke. Heroes are not irrational playboys. O'Brien's description of how the proles will never rise, makes democracy impossible (especially since the word has been removed in Newspeak, so the concept cannot even exist). The Appendix involving the Newspeak dictionary is there to show the futility of rebellion. No institutions are allowed to exist, save the State, and to challenge the State's propaganda, one must rediscover the principles of human liberty (which we have only articulated within the past century, amidst two world wars, a cold war, and genocides and famines all over the world) and develop free institutions... is this possible in Oceania on that bright, cold day in April when the clocks were striking thirteen?

We love Big Brother, because there is no one else. We cower before power, because it is unassailable. Stalin is God, let us pray to Stalin for candles.

This is a photorealistic description of OUR reality.

Orwell's hero is a coward.

Marty Reeder Adam, I've enjoyed this discussion, even if we don't see eye to eye. Thanks for your comments.

Ruth I enjoyed reading the discussion. It has gotten me interested in reading the the novel.

message 5: by Tintin (last edited Aug 17, 2010 07:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tintin Very enjoyable discussion. I admit I was also thrown a bit aback that it only took rats for Winston to denounce his love for Julia, but I've been thinking about it and I think Orwell did set it up skillfully (though not in a way that I personally liked, especially since the hero wasn't redeemed). We know Winston and Julia don't really love each other in the conventional romantic or even platonic sense. Their relationship was more of a political rebellion. I also believe their relationship signified something else. Many chapters before the ending, Winston and Julia had a conversation wherein Winston said something like "They can take everything away from me, but my emotions for you are my own. They will never be able to take that away" (not the exact words, just the idea). So I believe that more than a love interest, Julia signified Winston's very emotions, which he strongly believed could not be taken away from him. Which is why when he ended up denouncing Julia, we find out that his emotions aren't his own after all, and can easily be manipulated and relinquished to Big Brother. I thought it was a very powerful scene to add to other previous powerful scenes of Winston's very being being stripped away. It also paved the way to the final scene where Winston says he loved Big Brother (his emotions channeled from Julia to Big Brother).

So anyway what I'd like to say that seen in the conventional way, Winston's actions may not have seemed convincing, but in the context of his Big Brother dominated world, it made perfect sense. Even if the hero wasn't redeemed, it didn't seem contrived to me. In fact, it was all set up from the beginning.

Onni Awsome detailed review!

Ellen Keim I think what IS so devastating is that Winston and Julia weren't able to achieve any emotional depths. Orwell kept it just out of their reach. It would have been more powerful in a different way if they'd really loved each other (I don't know if I could have stood it!). I do thin, though, that there should have been more foreshadowing about the rats.

Echo I think it was important to have the rats be his breaking point, due to what Winston had set himself up for. He didn't feel

message 1: by Sevil (new) - added it

Sevil Boz My thoughts exactly.

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