There are two things I ought to clarify as I start this review. Firstly, although I read Brave New World quite recently, I will keep comparisons between that text and this one to a bare minimum, because cleverer people than I have written more insightfully on the two texts together than I could hope to, and I don’t think I have anything new to add to that discussion. Secondly, and this is important to note: this is not a perfect book. I ought to make that abundantly clear to begin with, because this retrospective will look like an almost unabashed love letter to what at least one eminent critic described as “[George Orwell‘s] final masterpiece”, when in truth I’m not sure I could truthfully say that I even loved the book. The pacing, especially in the first 100 pages, is all over the place – there are whole passages of such dense exposition that the story literally stops dead while the reader is caught up – and as the book progresses Orwell becomes so dogged in his pursuit of reaching the logical conclusion of his ideas that there ends up being very little in the way of narrative resolution by the novel’s end. But thematically, politically and imaginatively, Nineteen Eighty-Four is so uncompromising and so consistently brilliant that one can’t help but feel a sense of awe at what Orwell has accomplished.
I won’t spend too long discussing the plot or characters, given how secondary they seem to Orwell; they are merely vessels to bear the brunt of his ideas, and to communicate them to the reader. Consider the love story between Winston and Julia that occupies the middle third of the book. It’s romantic and it’s sweet, and it’s a major departure in tone from the grim beginnings of the story. But it is not in the story to service the characters in any meaningful way; instead, it is there to drive home the ramifications of the society Orwell has created, to lift up our characters in order to give them somewhere to fall. This is why I find the book so difficult to love – Orwell displays no real regard for plot or character, for pace or tone, and the grim compulsion with which one reads the novel does not derive from any of these things which would ordinarily be the driving force behind any other novel.
The strengths of Nineteen Eighty-Four lie instead in the scope of imagination Orwell exhibits in his ideas, and the detail and care with which he communicates them to the reader. A case in point is his explanation of how the world came to be; it is specific and logical, yet it manages not to divulge the mystery of why the Party clings to power as it does. When a character is tortured, Orwell makes some wonderful language choices to communicate the pain of the torture to the reader in a truly visceral way, while never revealing the torture mechanisms themselves. The imagination of Newspeak and the logic behind it, especially when it’s fully expounded upon in the novel’s appendix, is both ingenious and unsettling.
But the real reason I respect Orwell and this work so much is how much he predicted correctly in his vision of the future. The insidious prevalence of telescreens and civilian surveillance, his ideas about thoughtcrime, the mutilation of the arts in popular society, and the bastardisation of language for political ends are just a few extreme ideas he posits which can be found in watered-down, though still worrying, forms in our world today. Even more than his scarily plausible flights of fancy, I loved the instances where he turned his own experiences into world-building ideas – for instance, the bombing of Guernica and the experiences of London in wartime are clearly paralleled in the constant shelling of the Prole districts, and the constancy of warfare in the novel is simply an extension of how it must have felt to live through WW2 and the Blitz.
The cultural impact of this novel is astonishing, and well-deserved. Reading the Wikipedia article for the book, I was struck by the enormous number of pages devoted to individual and tiny aspects of Orwell’s creation, which I think is a wonderful measure of the brilliance of the novel. The tone, however, is unvaryingly oppressive, and the storytelling itself leaves a little to be desired, so I’m not sure the book can be recommended simply as a novel. Yet as an extended allegory, a dark prophecy or a dystopian caution, I’d say it works beautifully, and cannot be recommended highly enough.