As of yesterday, I began reading 1984. Though I am admittedly jumping on the bandwagon by reading this book now, I’m thoroughly enjoying it and have stumbled upon two pleasant surprises after only one night of reading.
My first surprise was that Orwell’s writing is superb. Each environment can be mentally constructed with the concise descriptions Orwell provides. His characters were also clearly developed with assiduous care to show the tension between their unique personality differences, which are inevitable in any society, and the crushing sameness and intellectual emptiness that the regime tries to impose on them. This is not to say that I expected one of the most heralded English writers to have poor writing, but rather that I suspected the hype might be due more to an ideological preferment than a literary one. An example of Orwell’s accomplished writing – filled with poignant metaphors and syntax designed to match the content – comes as Winston Smith contemplates his isolation:
He felt as though he were wandering in the forests of the sea bottom, lost in a monstrous world where he himself was the monster. He was alone. The past was dead, the future was unimaginable. What certainty had he that a single human creature now living was on his side?
This passage also reveals the second pleasant surprise of 1984: the extent to which Orwell goes beyond merely describing a bleak future, and also diagnoses the causes of it so that it can be avoided. Particularly, I like that he emphasizes human connection and an understanding of history as key elements to avoiding an Orwellian society; Smith’s despair stems from his inability to genuinely interact with anyone else, or imagine a different society than his own. This theme recurs when Smith addresses his diary:
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone – to a time when trust exists and what is done cannot be undone
By laying out the foundations of a decent society, Orwell allows any reader at any time to square his society with the ideal presented here, and ask the question: “Would Winston Smith address his letter to my society? Would he find it gloriously different from the world of 1984, or would he despair at the similarities?” No doubt, this book remains a classic in part because Orwell so clearly poses this question and begs we reflect on it.
I’m looking forward to reading more of 1984. I’m only three chapters in and it’s already captivated me! Feel free to share your thoughts on the book with me in the comments.