A Grim Vision

In 1999, Dutch media tycoon Johannes Hendrikus Hubert “John” de Mol Jr. masterminded a reality competition television show. The success of the this reality show led to its global syndication and in no time, Big Brother has become an international franchise. The premise of the show is simple. The reality show features a group of unrelated individuals casted to become “housemates”. They are to spend live in a house, isolated from the outside world. The housemates are then monitored, through cameras and audio microphones, from the moment they entered the house until they are booted out through eliminations or voluntary exits. The last one remaining is declared the winner. Two decades in, the reality show lost some of the luster it had on its initial broadcast but it is still broadcasted all over the world.

The concept behind the reality show was inspired by one of the most popular literary masterpieces, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The reality show is a microcosm, a projection of the grim vision Orwell captured in his monumental work. Originally published in 1948, Nineteen Eighty Four depicts a civilization that is on the cusp of collapse. After years of civil unrest, wars and revolutions, civilization of 1984 is a far cry from the world that we once knew. It was a world was hanging on a tiny thread. The once free world was now dominated by three totalitarian super-states which has restricted the liberty once experienced by everyone.

Formerly known as Great Britain, Airstrip One is a province comprising one of these three states, Oceania. Airstrip One was solely controlled by the “Party”, with the enigmatic “Big Brother” at the helm. Little was seen of Big Brother in public but his presence was ubiquitous and mention of his name strikes fear in everyone. An intense cult of personality, he was an omniscient presence in the lives of the denizens of Airstrip One. With the Party and Big Brother in purges the citizenry of everyone who refuses to conform to their regime, with the aid of the Thought Police. Like the contemporary reality show, everyone’s actions are monitored through Telescreens (two-way televisions), hidden microphones, and cameras.

“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 terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power.”

~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

To give an intimate account of what it feels like to live in the dystopian future, the novel follows the story of Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party. An everyman, Winston lives in London and was a diligent and skillful rank-and -file employee of the Ministry of Truth. He was tasked to revise historical records, and make them compliant with the Party’s perpetually changing interpretations. The revised versions of historical texts were kept while the original documents were dropped into the memory hole where they are eventually destroyed. Whilst he was taught to be conformist, , he can’t help but resent the Party’s ideologies. He secretly dreams of rebellion but had to keep it to himself for harboring such thoughts was tantamount to “thoughtcrime”, subject to punishment by the state if caught.

Largely a political and social narrative, Nineteen Eighty Four was Orwell’s bleak prognosis of the future where totalitarianism, perpetual war, and civil unrest prevailed. Modeled after Stalinist Russia, the 1984 society was dominated by the ideology of “Ingsoc”, a newspeak shortening of English Socialism. The enemy of the state, Emmanuel Goldstein, described Ingsoc as anti-socialism that rejects the principles of the Socialist movement. In Ingsoc, the citizenry is required to submit – physically, mentally, and morally – to the teachings of the state. Submission to the Party’s various policy was paramount. Dissent, regardless of how minute, was subjected to punishment, including reeducation by the Ministry of Love.

With the control the state have over its citizenry, Orwell’s Airstrip One was the antithesis of the lawless state. Total liberty was never fully achieved under the Party’s regime. Many freedom the we partake of in the contemporary were suppressed by the state. What we deem as essential was a luxury for the denizens of Oceania. Demonstrations and any other forms portraying expression freedom of speech were mere concepts. The most mundane human forms of interactions are banned. Sex, except with the view of procreation, was a taboo. Sexual and romantic relationships were viewed as forms of rebellion and were meted with the highest level of persecution.

In a state where the most basic rights were suppressed, where the past is constantly erased and revised, where the truth is twisted and information is filtered, dissent nonetheless exists; it is inevitable. There are groups of people and individuals like Winston who were, in clandestine, plotting the downfall of the Party, whether in formal plans or in their imaginations. Planning the collapse of the Party was the Brotherhood, an underground resistance movement formed by Big Brother’s political rival, Goldstein. In ways, the Brotherhood was like Big Brother, it was equally enigmatic and its presence was rarely felt.

“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

The Party was cognizant that resistance from the citizenry was always a possibility. It cannot rest its laurels. It was then imperative that, in order for it to maintain control, it has to rein in the state’s citizenry by all means. It filters the citizenry, separating the “bad apples” by employing various methods such as heightened surveillances, espionage, and even baiting its citizens into admitting their personal ideologies. It was no secret that citizens suspected of harboring anti-Party sentiments disappeared out of the blue. With the Party’s tentacles crawling all over facets of the society, everyone was on their toes. It was difficult not to be paranoid. Trust is a commodity that is hard-earned. One cannot simply act rashly. By sowing distrust among the citizens, the Party is assured of some level of control.

Whilst Orwell’s vision of a dystopian world was never fully realized, the novel’s portrayal of the future was nevertheless prophetic. With the rise of Stalinist Russia, various dictators and strongmen from all over the world rose from the ranks and started wresting control over their own states. Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and Libya’s Muammar Gadafi are just among the long list of Big Brother like personifications in contemporary history. But despite the majority of the world enjoying liberty, one is never rid of the thought that one is under surveillance. The proliferation of the CIA, the NSA, FBI and other government government agencies also strikes fear, especially in a period where information is more accessible than ever.

Nineteen Eighty Four, albeit being published in 1948, was a novel that transcended time. Within its ambit are themes that remain relevant in the contemporary. Censorship, one of the most notable themes explored in the novel, is still prevalent in the contemporary and is practiced in various ways. Despite the increased accessibility to information, there still exists a shortage of truth as various elements try to alter or change information. The most important depiction in the novel is how a select group of people are trying to revise and rewrite historical documents, relying on the general public’s obliviousness and tendency to forgive and forget. It is quite alarming for the oppressors are now being portrayed as the oppressed.

The ninth and final work of George Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair in real life, Nineteen Eighty Four is a powerful and ageless literary classic. What made it a triumphant masterpiece despite the passage of time was its prophetic albeit bleak outlook of the future. Going through the text and Winston’s experiences, there were eerie similarities between the published text and one’s experiences in the contemporary. Orwell’s vision was complimented by his atmospheric writing. The narrative came alive because of his writing which gave a sufficient mix of intuition, insights, emotions, shock, and feelings to project his desired impact.

“Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the Earth goes round the Sun; today, to believe the past is inalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong.”

~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

In hindsight, our contemporary lifestyle is a reflection of Nineteen Eighty Four’s society. We are slowly inching towards the collapse of society and civilization. With insatiable appetite for power and the authority shifting from the people to a select group of people, it does not take a lot of imagination to envision that Orwell’s vision might be realized and that we’re moving ever closer to a totalitarian state overseen by Big Brother. The Big Brother series is a sketchy but a close projection of the novel. But even in the outside world, an omnipresent Big Brother monitors our every action sans our knowledge. Social media has shown us this. We have to conform to society’s idea lest we bear the brunt of everyone’s policing. In a way, we have become Big Brothers or Thought Polices. “He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.”

Although Nineteen Eighty Four was published in 1948, its influence will, without a doubt, transcend time. It is a towering literary achievement that has contributed a score of words that has become part of our vocabulary – thought police, doublethink, newspeak, thoughtcrime to name a few. However, what linger are the realities that Orwell has captured in his final major literary work. With the world slowly descending into chaos, the novel’s prophecy is just lurking over the horizon. Even with the passage of time, the realities of politics and society vividly painted and explored by Orwell in the narrative remain and will remain seminal as it echoes on a universal scale.

Ratings

94%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 30%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

Going through must-read lists, one of the books that kept popping up is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Whilst I held back on the novel’s unusual title, it didn’t escape my attention. My curiosity about the book was further piqued when I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and learned that it is a play on Orwell’s literary masterpiece. I then realized that it was a book I had to read. After years of waiting for the right time to purchase a copy of the book, I finally managed to snag one. Nineteen Eighty Four is my first novel written by George Orwell; I later on learned that George Orwell was a pseudonym used by Eric Arthur Blair. It was in reading the novel that I learned about its references to the contemporary reality series, Big Brother albeit the reality show is nothing but a microcosm of the message that Blair subtly underscored in his novel. Imagine living in a world where a being, invisible and unseen but whose presence is manifested through other means, controls everything. It is not actually not difficult to imagine that we are currently living in a world that is controlled by a small group of individuals. It is because of this that Nineteen Eighty Four remains one of the most popular and most read works of literature out there.

Book Specs

Author:  George Orwell
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 342
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopian, Science Fiction, Political Fiction

Synopsis

First published in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has lost none of the impact with which it first hit readers.

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent – even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101. . .  (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Eric Arthur Blair was born on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, Bengal Presidency, British India. A year after his birth, his mother, Ida Blair, moved together with her children to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

When Blair was five-years-old, he was sent as a day-boy to a convent school. Because of his family’s poverty, Blair had to earn scholarship to enter St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, East Sussex. From September 1911, he boarded at the school for five years, going home only during school holidays. During his stay at St Cyprian’s, Blair wrote two poems published in the local paper, Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard. Earning another scholarship, Blair entered Eton College in 1917, boarding at the school until December 1921. Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, Blair traveled to Burma (present-day Myanmar) to serve as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. After five-and-a-half-years of service, Blair returned to England after contracting dengue fever.

In 1932, Blair was employed as a teacher at The Hawthorns High School, a boy’s school in Hayes, West London. He also started working on his first major literary work Down and Out in Paris and London which was published a year later, in 1933. To avoid embarrassing his family, Blair asked to publish under a different name, settling with the nom de plume George Orwell. In 1934, his first novel, Burmese Days was published by Harper and Brothers. Slowly gaining momentum, he published in succession A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Homage to Catalonia (1938), and Coming Up for Air (1939).

Unfit to serve military service during the Second World War, Blair still managed to get involved in war activities by joining the Home Guard. He also worked on various periodicals, writing reviews and plays. IN August 1941, he was taken full-time by BBC’s Eastern Service. A year later, he started writing regularly for Tribune, a left-wing weekly and in November 1943, Blair was appointed as its literary editor. In 1945, he made a long-awaited literary comeback with Animal Farm. His final work, and perhaps his most popular, Nineteen Eighty Four was published in 1948.

Blair passed away on January 21, 1950.