Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The How Novel Bookclub, 1984 Part 1

Welcome to the first post of the Maggie Cats bookclub: How Novel! Today we are "discussing" Part I of George Orwell's classic novel, 1984. Oh, and I say discussing, because let's be honest. This is a totally one-sided conversation. AND YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERYTHING I SAY. Heh.

But first, context! I personally feel that context is super important when reading works of classic literature. It's not just what's inside the pages of the 100 Best Novels that makes them so seminal, but where (and how!) they fit into our Western literary canon.

1984 was originally published in 1949. According to SparkNotes (always reliable) Orwell was exposed to a controlling environment from an early age when he attended a prestigious English board school. "Because of his background—he famously described his family as “lower-upper-middle class”—he never quite fit in, and felt oppressed and outraged by the dictatorial control that the schools he attended exercised over their students’ lives." Later, when working as a writer, he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and
"witnessed firsthand the nightmarish atrocities committed by fascist political regimes." So basically Orwell formulated the idea that totalitarianism = bad throughout his own personal life experience.

Along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932), Orwell's 1984 is the gold-standard of fiction set in a fascist dystopian future. This is now a sci-fi/fantasy staple in literature, movies, tv, and comics, and 1984 is basically the blue print for totalitarian world-building. To put it in a modern context, without 1984 there would be no Hunger Games.

Before getting into the meat of Part I, let's review the basic plot up to this point (from Penguin Books):
As the book opens, Winston Smith, the protagonist, is entering his dismal apartment in London. The opening paragraphs convey the depressing tone of the book with a description of the squalid living conditions. The world is divided into three superpowers: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Winston’s homeland, Oceania. Each superpower is always at war with at least one of the others. The perpetual wartime conditions provide a convenient way for the government of Oceania to keep its citizens repressed. Supplies for party members are always scarce and surveillance is a perfected art. In private rebellion against the government, Winston, an Outer Party member, starts keeping a diary. This small, forbidden step begins his life as an enemy of the party he serves. He purchases the diary on one of his forays into the proletarian section. Outside the antique shop where he bought the diary he later encounters a young woman who he has observed watching him for the last few days at his office. Knowing he is not supposed to be there and suspecting she is a spy, he quickly avoids her.
And now for the discussion (yay!): to paraphrase Chandler Bing, could Part I be any more depressing? It was difficult to avoid the trap of thinking that the first 50 or so pages of 1984 is a retread of a story I have already read. As I mentioned above, the whole dystopian future thing is everywhere in our society's pop culture, and that is what makes the context of the novel so important. Because 1984 is the standard against which all the others are measured. So while it seems like a bit of a slog to get through Winston Smith's musings about the squalor of London, the absolute control the Party exercises over people' lives, and the bone-crushing monotony of his work, it's a vital slog.

So I am going to go out on a limb and predict that Part I is all about the set-up. We need to "set the stage" if you will and establish that Winston is never alone. There is always a telescreen or microphone watching and listening, and the past is as malleable as the present. Because that's what Winston's job is in the regime--he works at the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth (insert irony here) and changes the past. "The messages he had received referred to articles or news items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, rectify."

In our modern times, we would call this falsification or lies, but it's actually more insidious. As Winston notes, "...it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another...Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version." In the world of Oceania, there is no truth. People cannot even cling to the righteous anger that can come from being wronged, because nobody even knows that they are wronged. The Party is always right, and there is nothing (not even any past record) that you can point to as proof of anything else.

One of the things that struck me while reading Part I, is that it's clear Orwell loves language. From the very first page, the scene is set with the sentence, "the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats." I don't know about you, but that certainly paints a picture for me of the kind of world we are inhabiting. The Party also uses language as a tool, or should I say bludgeon, of control. They encourage the use of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, which "cuts the language down to the bone." One of Winston's co-workers who helps develop the Newspeak dictionary waxes poetic about Newspeak and how they essentially destroy thousands of words in an effort to "narrow the range of thought." "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it." How can you rebel when the word rebel does not exist?

There's so much more to talk about here, especially just the specific mechanisms of the Party's control, but it's hard to articulate rather than just saying, "oh, oh! This thing here! This is cool! And horrible!" Which makes Winston's act of defiance--the keeping of a diary where he not only thinks but  actually records statements against the Party and Big Brother, all the more shocking. There's no specific law against keeping a diary, but the Thought Police will find you and they will vaporize you. Not just kill. Vaporize. Every trace of your existence is removed, just like you were nothing more than a scrap of paper that is sent down the chute to the furnace.

When we end Part I, Winston is convinced that he is being followed by a member of the Thought Police. He is also convinced that they will come for him in the night...and not because they know about the diary or how he hungers for information about the world before the Party. But because he was walking in the proletariat area of town and went into an antique shop. That's it. Is he going to be vaporized? Is the young woman he sees following him really a member of the Thought Police?? My guess is she is actually a member of the Underground and a follower of Goldstein, Big Brother's arch nemesis. Viva la revolution!

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