In Search of Better Stories

My Thoughts On A Very Troubling Classic

I read this famous George Orwell classic without doing any research on the context of why it was written. In the following review, I will burden you with the basic details of this bleak, grim, and depressing story and then offer my best guess for why it was written.

Winston works for the government of Oceania. The world has become three primary empires constantly at war with one another. The government of which Winston is a part exercises total control over its citizens. “Big brother is watching you” is a common phrase. Secret listening devices and “tele-screens” cover the country. Anyone who goes against the will of the empire is incarcerated, tortured, and eventually vaporized. One has to be extremely careful of one’s own thoughts. Law enforcement has honed its ability to ferret out dissent to such invasive levels that a wing of the department carries the ominous title The Thought Police.

The government’s version of reality must be accepted as absolute truth. Truth is a flexible thing to be bent and twisted whenever necessary to suit the purposes of power. In the interest of truth-bending, the Ministry of Truth was formed. Winston’s job in the ministry is to constantly rewrite historical documents, past speeches, old newspapers, or anything already written that might contradict the current government version of the truth. Rewriting the past is the way to control the future.

No one is allowed to keep their own record of events, and no one from the past is exempt from the party line. Even Shakespeare is regularly overhauled. The ministry of truth is a massive bundle of constantly evolving lies. Children in this system are indoctrinated early and taught to hand over their parents to the authorities if they hear or even suspect that something about their parents might not be in lockstep with the government. The family bond is intentionally diminished. Sex is permitted but only as a duty to the state to produce more children. To enjoy sex too much or develop a strong bond with someone is a dangerous maneuver that could get you vaporized. All passion is to be funnelled toward the state.

The Ministry of Truth (Which is actually lies) is flanked by the Ministry of Plenty and the Ministry of Freedom. It becomes easy to see that what goes on in these ministries is precisely the opposite of what their names indicate.

Winston can’t figure out why, deep down, he feels unhappy. He is part of an organization that claims truth, plenty, and freedom, and yet he doubts, but doubting is dangerous business; the thought police are very good at what they do. Finally, Winston secretly buys a journal on the black market and starts recording his thoughts. He hooks up with a co-worker, and they go for massively risky sexual romps in the woods. He has heard that a resistance movement exists to fight the government. He tries to find it and join it. All the while, he knows that he will eventually be caught and vaporized, but still, he pursues his suicidal course. Sure enough, he is captured and ultimately vaporized. Incarceration is where the government does its finest work. They have no wish to make martyrs out of non-conformists. So they don’t just torture and kill; they torture slowly and methodically. There is no time frame for torture. Sometimes, it can take years, but eventually, every prisoner confesses that they are wrong and the government is right. If the state says two plus two equals five, then so it must be. Words and truth are entirely moldable in the strong arms of Big Brother. The confession is made public so the masses see yet again that the truth is always on the government’s side. The repentant criminal is released back into society so all can see they are walking in the way of truth again. After a year or two, the person is taken back into custody and quietly vaporized. But what makes this plan effective is the complete erasure of the person from existence. All proof that the victim existed is eliminated. They are deleted from the historical record and scrubbed clean from the hard drive of society. If anyone even remembers this person, the thought police are quick to step in.

What a horribly depressing book! Why did George write it? My best guess is it was an anti-communist rant. Surely, it is a cautionary tale against the dangers of big government and mass surveillance. On the flip side, perhaps he is saying humans are meant to be free, meant to love, meant to have truth be an absolute concept and not a flexible tool used to control people.

I’ve always had a distaste for totalitarian regimes. This book helps to nurture my animosity towards them even more. I am for freedom, truth (as an actual thing) and love.

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