1984 by George OrwellAuthor: George Orwell
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1992) [First published in England in 1949 by Secker and Warburg]
Number of Pages: 310
How long it took me to read: 6 days
Where I got this book: It followed me home from the library and waited a month past its due date for me to read it.
ISBN: 0-679-41739-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

I first read 1984 under my desk in my tenth grade geometry class. I normally shy away from anything remotely political, but one of the things I remember about 1984 is that even though it deals with politics, it isn’t critical of a specific viewpoint, but of the seduction of power and what comes along with it. At a time when my country is stiffly divided, angry, and its citizens are suspicious of one another, I can’t help but think of Orwell’s classic, and wonder whether there’s something to be learned from reading it again.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line, her powerful mare-like buttocks protruded, it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an over-ripe turnip, could be beautiful. But it was so, and after all, he thought, why not? The solid, contourless body, like a block of granite, and the rasping red skin, bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to a rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?” (p.228)

4. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s own will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” (p.16)

3. “A curious emotion stirred in Winston’s heart. In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him: in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone. Already he had instinctively started forward to help her. In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm, it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body.” (p.111)

2. “Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” (p.276)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from outside. It would not have occurred to her than an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love.” (pp.171-2)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: pedant (noun)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): 1) obsolete: a male schoolteacher; 2a) one who makes a show of knowledge; 2b) one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge; 2c) a formalist or precisionist in teaching
Origins: Middle French; from Italian ‘pedante’; first known use 1588
As in: “He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion.” (p.54)

New Word: cadge (verb)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): beg, sponge
Origins: c.1812; back-formation from Scots ‘cadger’ carrier, huckster; from Middle English ‘cadgear’
As in: “Great areas of it, even for a Party member, were neutral and non-political, a matter of slogging through dreary jobs, fighting for a place on the Tube, darning a worn-out sock, cadging a saccharine tablet, saving a cigarette end.” (p.77)

New Word: simian (adjective)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): a remission of sins pronounced by a priest
Synonyms (Source: Thesaurus.com): anthropoid, ape, baboon, chimpanzee, gorilla, imp, lemur, monk, orangutan, rascal, scamp
Origins: c.1607; Latin ‘simia’ ape; from ‘simus’ snub-nosed; from Greek ‘simos’
As in: “For hours at a time she would sit almost immobile on the bed, nursing his young sister, a tiny, ailing, very silent child of two or three, with a face made simian by thinness.” (p.168)

New Word: inimical (adjective)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): 1) being adverse often by reason of hostility or malevolence; 2a) having the disposition of an enemy: hostile; 2b) reflecting or indicating hostility: unfriendly
Synonyms: adversarial, adversary, antagonistic, antipathetic, inhospitable, hostile, jaundiced, mortal, negative, unfriendly, unsympathetic
Origins: c.1573; Late Latin ‘inimicalis’; from Latin ‘inimicus’ enemy
As in: “Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions.” (p.206)

New Word: solipsism (noun)

Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing; also: extreme egocentrism
Origins: Latin ‘solus’ alone + ‘ipse’ self; first known use 1874
As in: “The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing.” (p.279)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Even if you’ve never read 1984, you probably know Orwell creates a distinctly frightening furturistic world where it’s dangerous to so much as have a personal thought. This, I remembered. What I’d forgotten was that Orwell showcases desensitization as an additional sign of dystopia at the beginning of his book.

“Towards the beginning, there’s a brief but intense scene at a movie theatre where the audience is laughing at footage of people being gunned down and bodies being dismembered by bombs. I could almost swear I’ve been in that exact setting. I wish I could say that one thing that doesn’t line up with reality is that in this scene, there are children at the movie theatre—yet we all know many parents will bring their children to see violence without a second thought. Our culture glorifies the ever-mounting intensity of violence in films. Audiences want to be shocked and it is getting harder and harder to do this as we, as a society, become desensitized, or start to think of certain violent acts as being okay: killing zombies and aliens is okay; justifiable revenge is allowable; humorous horror movies or films with artistic, stylized violence—somehow, these are fine.

“I know there will always be arguments back and forth over what really hurts people and what doesn’t, and I can’t say what is right for everyone. I will say, though, that growing up, I was unlike my peers in that I didn’t watch a lot of violent films and we never watched TV, not even the news. When I was in high school Spanish and the World Trade Centers were hit, teachers immediately turned on the classroom televisions. I sat there in shock, tears coating my cheeks as I watched live footage of people jumping out of burning buildings. Around me, my classmates laughed at the scene. I realize now that they had no idea how to react to the horror. They hadn’t been taught to; they had been taught to be entertained by it.”

“Orwell experiments a lot with what humans are willing to do when they cease to think of each other as humans. It’s a terrifying truth that people can objectify each other when encouraged. When you stop thinking of a person as a person, but as an ideal that you despise or an object to be owned, all sorts of tortures are possible.

“Over a couple of autumns, I worked at a Halloween theme park that boasted several haunted mazes and wandering costumed characters. The park was always crowded in October. The mazes were all fairly dark. While I was never hurt myself, I began to get very frightened working there after I realized that my costumed co-workers were getting harassed and even assaulted. Many of the girls were dressed in sexy costumes and were getting groped in passing, often without a clue as to who did it, and had no way of protecting themselves. Sexiness wasn’t a prerequisite for assault, though—even fully clothed workers were being fondled. Many people wearing masks got punched in the face. Plenty of guests who kept their hands to themselves had no problem calling out lewd remarks. Given the density of the crowds, victims were almost always unable to catch and report their offenders. It was disgusting to see how easy it was to turn a human being into an object for one’s personal enjoyment; all the park-goers needed to do was to pretend we didn’t have faces.”

“In Oceania, there is no privacy. All thoughts are picked up by cameras—an unpleasant look, a word barely muttered in anger. Even worse, neighbors spy on one another and sell one another out to the Thought Police. One way or another, the government is aware of every intimate thought and act of Oceania’s citizens.

“Is this much different from our own society? Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know the extent to which the government is privy to our phone calls and emails. We already know our physical location is being tracked through our cell phones and our cars, and so in many ways, we’re not unlike the citizens of Oceania as we stand aside and allow ourselves to be monitored for the sake of our protection, as if we were children.

“But even without that invasion, we spy on one another. With the help of social networking sites, we invite this invasion into our lives as we publicly post intimate details about ourselves, despite the number of stories I’ve seen where Facebook photos have gotten people in hot water. My favorite example is of the college students in New Mexico who broke into the Rio Grande Zoo and later posted pictures of themselves posing with the animals. They were quickly turned in to the police by other Facebook users and have since served out their punishment. There is also the example of Shawn Moore in New Jersey, who didn’t do anything illegal, but who posted a photo of his eleven-year-old son holding his new (and legally owned) rifle. After someone who saw the photo anonymously called the child abuse hotline, police raided his house without a warrant and threatened to take his children. It should be noted that Shawn Moore is a firearms instructor, a range safety officer, and a hunter education instructor; his son has passed the gun safety course and has a hunting license of his own. Perhaps that’s why the police left and haven’t returned (though it may have had something to do with the phone call from the family’s attorney).

“In spite of all the negative possibilities, our culture is welcoming of the lack of private moments—elaborate proposals and wedding dances work up our virtual selves into a frenzy. Private emails are shared to invite speculation and, in some cases, humiliation. Even though we know something as innocent as a cute pose in a new bathing suit could fall into the wrong hands and end up on a porn site, we continue to plaster the Internet with personal moments.

“Now that I’ve said all that, it occurs to me to ask: why would federal snooping bother America when so many of us are ready and willing to give out our private information along with that of our neighbor’s?”

“When Winston’s comrade Syme says, ‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,’ I grimace. There is something so important about words, beyond the obvious that we need them to communicate with each other. As a writer, it hurts me when people don’t use their vocabulary to its fullest, when they rely on abbreviated forms of words, or think that only cussing will get their points across. Just as Oceania’s government takes it upon itself to destroy the English language, it seems many people today are gladly volunteering for the job. If we try, we can accurately describe a perfect sunset, what it means to love, or the act of giving birth—yet so often we say, ‘You’d have to be there,’ or ‘You’ll understand someday,’ or even, ‘There are no words.’ Take the challenge! Use all the words you know to describe the agony of your losses, or the height of joy you experienced when you achieved your greatest goal. What did your body feel? What did your mind do with what you saw? Honor words by using them and by using them correctly. Being able to pull a person into an intimate moment by an articulate string of words is what separates us from the animals around us.”

“One of the other key features of the Party’s tyranny is their desire to remove pleasure from sex, and, as much as they can, to discourage sex entirely, except for the purpose of creating more Party members. I’ve met many people who think that this is the main goal of organized religions: to portray sex as disgusting and passion as a sin, removing all joy from the act. With that in mind, you’d expect Orwell (who, though a church-goer, was loudly skeptical about it all) to have created a religion-ruled world…but he didn’t. On the contrary, Oceania strictly prohibits the worship of any deity. There is no religion, no God or gods. If you think about it, what better way is there to crush a people? For centuries, the world’s religions have ignited beautiful music, inspiring poetry, amazing art, and books upon books upon books. If you want to kill creativity, a good first step is stripping a people of their ability to worship. If you want to kill hope, take away the idea of a greater purpose. Cultures and religions all over the world find beauty and art in the act of sex. Oceania’s decision to remove the pleasure and joy of sex already begins to remove all gods from the scene…and taking their place is an omnipotent government: Big Brother, always watching, desires control of every passion in the body, with no reward in this life and no promise of an afterlife. Without something beautiful to believe in, there is no faith, no hope, and therefore, no fight left in the people.”

“Stories about brave rebellions, even small rebellions, leave me feeling weak. I know that we all want to be heroes, that we all want to go against the grain, to be the people who chain themselves to the columns of a government building in protest, but it isn’t possible for all of us to play that role. It isn’t possible for me to play that role. If a situation were to arise where I would have the opportunity to take to the streets with an angry mob screaming for justice, I know that, for the sake of my family, I couldn’t. I would have to stay at home in quiet disagreement in order to stay out of danger and out of jail. There are things I won’t risk if it means putting my child in harm’s way. And putting myself in harm’s way is the same as endangering my child.”

“I felt this the first time I read 1984 and I’m feeling it again this time around: I don’t believe in the war outlined in the book. For a people to want their government’s obsessive protection, there must be something for them to be afraid of. No one will agree to being constantly monitored and stripped of basic rights unless they see it as being for the greater good. Therefore, there has to be an outside source to band together against so that authority is never questioned. In the case of 1984, the citizens of Oceania, blindly trusting their government, have traded civil liberties for protection against the country they have been told they’re at war with. An actual war isn’t necessary once they have given up their rights; the belief in war is enough to keep the citizens in a constant state of surrender to their authorities.”

“As Orwell describes the cycle of history through Goldstein’s book, he explains that the three classes of people—Low, Middle, and High—are in a constant struggle. The High would like to stay there, the Middle would like to trade places with the High, and the Low, when they do want something (as they are usually crushed beyond consciousness by the others), want equality. Over centuries, the Middle and the High classes continually switch places, while the Low help out in rebellions with the promise of equality but always end up on the bottom again.

“I wonder sometimes whether equality is possible. As it stands, it’s often something to be monitored, which makes it impure, and therefore, false. A small-scale example: when I was in high school, we were playing tag football in gym class. One spunky field hockey girl shouted, ‘Let’s do girls against boys!’ All the other girls began to shout, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it!’ and taunted the boys because we were going to pulverize them.

“After the teacher okayed it, the girl added, ‘But to make it fair, our points are worth two to their one.’

“ ‘So you’re saying equality just means being better than the other team,’ I pointed out.

“I absolutely believe in equality in terms of our basic rights, and especially in terms of respect. Deep down, I think that is what we are all after, to not be walked on and to be spoken to as if we matter. I make an effort to that end every day. But I also believe in being recognized for our personal achievements in absolute honesty. I don’t want extra points just because I’m a woman. That is special treatment, not equality. Absolutely, if the fourteen-year-old girls want to beat the boys fair and square at tag football, good. They can. They should. But not on a rigged system; that is an illusion, not a victory.”

“One major part of the story is that newspapers and books in Oceania are often recalled and ‘fixed’ to fit the purposes of the Party. After that, there is no way to prove they were ever falsified. Additionally, the country’s statistics are regularly made up to boost their image. How easy would that be to do today? Inaccurate things are often published and then recanted. With so much content being published online, different versions of stories are always floating around, and people tend to only trust statistics that suit them, sometimes without having a clear idea of how the numbers were reached. Even pictures and videos fall under suspicion, as everything can be edited to look a certain way. When I first read 1984, the Party’s attempt to recreate reality seemed impossible, but now I think it would be very easy to dupe a country that was shut off from the rest of the world.

“Winston muses that the best books are those that tell you what you already know. I think this is largely how people decide which statistics to quote and which to ignore, which news sources they trust and which they don’t. We hear the news we want to hear, we accept what will back up our own beliefs and ideals.

“I know many people who choose a favorite news source and then trust that one only, accusing all other news sources of lying. Especially since the last presidential race, people are growing more suspicious of ‘the other side.’ But I think the nature of this suspicion belies danger, hubris, and even naivety. We know people are capable of bribery and of being bribed; we know that in this economy, one does what it takes to hold down a job; if you believe ‘the other side’ is using the news to its own advantage and ‘the other side’ suspects your side of the same, shouldn’t that call both sides into question? It can’t be possible that half the country is entirely moronic, but that is the conclusion each side comes to. We’re not living in the Oceania of 1984, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we’re being lied to. In fact, it’s almost definite that we’re being manipulated—what other purpose does a ‘spin room’ have?

“Logically, if the news doesn’t match up or add up, both sides should be examined. If two kids were telling you two different stories about a broken lamp, it would be unjust to blindly affirm one child and punish the other. I know there are older examples in other presidencies, but most recently, the Benghazi incident stands out as an example of, shall we say, shoddy journalism. No matter which side you’re on, you can at least agree that there is something you don’t believe in the way the matter was handled. Why does the press’s dishonesty turn average citizens against each other?

“We should all be truth-hunters, willing to hear one another out. Something that upsets me is when, on either side of an argument, someone is pre-dismissed. You know what I mean—at the start of an argument, when one person says to another, ‘You’re too close-minded. I can’t have this conversation.’ That is close-mindedness! After the last election, I got so sick of the word ‘bigot’ being tossed around by so many people who really only meant, ‘I disagree with you.’ A ‘bigot’ is simply someone who is partial to his own beliefs and won’t listen to those with different thoughts. So hypothetically, if you decide someone is a bigot before listening to them, based on what your perception of their views is, wouldn’t that make you the bigot? Hypothetically, if you don’t listen to the other side, if you dismiss them as close-minded, then mightn’t you be, too?

“Let’s quit name-calling and hear each other out! Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s stop vilifying each other. I believe that the common man has the best intentions in mind, be it a radical belief that everyone has a right to marry whomever they choose or a radical belief that from conception, life is worth preserving at all costs. Let’s do things with respect instead of vandalizing and mud-slinging. Let’s hold each other accountable, get to the bottom of things. I believe in truth, not gray areas. Is it ever okay for thought to be manipulated? For lies to be printed as truth? No, not even with good intentions. Let’s seek honesty and not believe what we hear just because it’s comfortable. A pleasing lie is still a lie.”

“I’m not interested in living in a society where I have no personal thoughts, freedoms, or even permission to sing a silly love song. I’ve often wondered, though, whether the way of life described in 1984 would actually be a safe way to live if all personal thought were wiped out and there would no longer be the need for thought police? One hundred years into their future, when there is no chance at rebellion and no one who has ever had a decent steak or piece of chocolate remains, if science creates children and there is no sexual impulse, only comradeship—would the citizens be happy or would ancestral memory tell them they are missing something? If you live in ignorance of a corrupt system your entire life, blindly follow rules and believe all you see and read, never create anything you weren’t told to—would happiness be possible?”

“O’Brien says, ‘One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.’ Here is where I think Orwell’s warning lies. Anyone who seeks to strip any person of any rights, regardless of whether they are rights you care about, should be held in suspicion. Any organization that gets so large as to be able to control a person should be held in suspicion. Politics are nasty, but politics are not just reserved for politicians. Orwell gives the old warning, ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ I’m no expert on politics abroad, and I am hardly an expert on my own country’s, but I will say that in a time when Americans grapple for power and struggle to be heard by their government, the thing to remember is that the government should fear us, not the other way around. If we cannot trust them to act in everyone’s best interest, we should be worried. And we should be heard. We are all on the same side here.”

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