“1984” (1949) by George Orwell is a novel set in 1984, then in the future. The world is divided between three cruel empires which fight each other in endless wars. People live under the evil eye of the state, their every move watched through two-way televisions that can never be turned off: “Big Brother is watching you”, as the saying went.
Meanings of words are turned upside down: the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Peace fights wars and the Ministry of Love breaks down your door in the middle of the night to take you away. Newspapers and books are controlled by the state: “Ignorance is strength.” The state rewrites history and makes the dictionary thinner and thinner to make “thoughtcrime” impossible and “duckspeak” natural. Newspeak replaces English.
Those who speak out against the state are taken away by the Thought Police. Sometimes they are never heard from again and become unpersons: every record of their ever having lived is wiped away and no one ever speaks of them again.
Winston Smith, a 39-year-old Londoner, tries to escape the complete control of his mind and heart by the state. He keeps a secret diary in which he writes down his true thoughts – things he would never say in public out of fear of the Thought Police. He also has a secret love affair with a woman named Julia. The state is also trying to control sex and love – in fact, all human thought and feeling.
Spoiler alert: I am about to give away the ending.
But there are no secrets: the Thought Police knew all along just what he was doing. They take him away. Not to shoot him in the head, as he feared, but something far worse: to brainwash him, to kill him not on the outside but on the inside and then return him to society as a happy citizen.
I was amazed that:
- Winston Smith trusted Julia: she is 13 years younger and, barely knowing him, said she loved him. I thought for sure she was working for the Thought Police. She was.
- Winston Smith could spend his days working at the Ministry of Truth changing back issues of the Times to fit government’s lies and yet still wonder whether the government was telling the truth about the past! And whether lies could become the truth if everyone believed them.
The book is particularly good on the relationship between truth and power:
- He who controls the past controls the future: The powerful tell lies and try to control the facts and the framing of history and the news.
- The powerful try to paint a happy face on the present that does not match one’s own experience. They try to get you to doubt your private judgement and trust their public one.
- Crimestop or protective stupidity: The powerful are capable of subtle reasoning and command of supporting facts and yet at the same time utterly miss the point of the simplest argument if it goes against their interests.
– Abagond, 2011.