Tuesday, January 24, 2012

1984 by George Orwell

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1984.

I'm about halfway into 1984 by George Orwell for November's Autumn Classics Challenge. It's a book that I'm having to discipline myself to read very, very slowly, because it's so terrifying and such a nail-biter that I want to race through it to see what happens next, but it's so meaty that it deserves to be chewed and digested bit by bit -- so much insight and wisdom on every. single. page. Why has it taken me so long to read such a brilliant work? (I now know I couldn't possibly have read it before, despite thinking for years that I may have read it in college. It would certainly have stuck with me the way other great classics I read back then have).

If you've never read it and think you couldn't possibly like it, you might want to re-think that thought. In many ways, it reads like the best of spy thrillers. The reader is constantly worried that the characters are going to get caught: have they made a mistake? Have they trusted someone who can't be trusted? I don't have the answers yet, since I haven't finished reading the book, but I'm hoping everyone, thus far, is what he or she seems to be and can be trusted. Since it's a dystopia, though, I'm guessing that horrible things (as if things can get much more horrible than living in this world in which a good idea -- socialism/communism -- has, in the hands of the wrong sorts of leaders, turned into a horrible reality, a totalitarian world in which no one is free and everyone is kept in oppressive roles) are yet to come.

Anyway, I've got prompts to answer for the challenge, and even though there are different levels, depending on how far the reader is into the book, I'm going to take a stab at answering all three prompts. It will be interesting to see if I change my mind by the time I reach the end of the book, and I'll let you know if I do.

Level 1
Who is the author? What does he look like? When was he born? Where did he live? What does his handwriting look like? What are some other novels he's written? What is an interesting and random fact about his life?

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India. I've posted his picture above. I think he looks intelligent (probably that large forehead makes me think that) and kindly (the look in his eyes and the way he's holding his mouth). He lived in India, England, and Spain (the latter because he had volunteered to fight for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalist uprising). I thought I might have a hard time finding a sample of his handwriting, but I eventually found one here. I'm glad to see that his writing, like mine, isn't exactly the neatest or the easiest to read. I wonder if he suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, too (which is why my writing, which used to be quite neat, has gone way down hill over the years. I think that may be a problem for all those of us who've spent long hours writing ever since we learned how to grab a pen and get to it). He also wrote Animal Farm, which I haven't read, either. During his lifetime, though, he was better known as an essayist. An interesting fact about him is that, during WWII, he wrote propaganda for the BBC (they called it "programs") to gain East Asian and Indian support for the British war effort. He knew exactly what he was doing and said he felt like "an orange that's been trodden on by a dirty boot." It didn't take him long (2 years) to decide the pay wasn't worth it, and he resigned.

Level 2 What do you think of his writing style? What do you like about it? Or what would have made you more inclined to like it? Is there a particular quote that has stood out for you?

Orwell's writing style is crisp and clean without being fragmented or disjointed, and it's seamless. I'm not aware of an author who is desperately trying to write, to get his stitches straight, and to weave in awkward symbolism to make me think. Orwell just glides along like a well-oiled sewing machine, making me think, and I can disappear into his story without worrying about odd stitching. This seamlessness is what I like about it (I am always drawn to seamless writing). There are numerous good quotes, but here's a nice example of one:

'They can't get inside you. If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can't have any result whatever, you've beaten them.' (p. 138)

Level 3
Why do you think he wrote this novel? How did his contemporaries view both the author and the novel?

I think he wrote this novel to portray the dangers of any political system if put into the hands of the wrong man. He'd fought and had been wounded in Spain and had seen what totalitarian socialist and communist dictators like Franco and Stalin could do. He was a "democratic socialist" himself, but he was able to imagine how someone (or a group of "someones") could twist and pound ideologies, using them to fulfill selfish goals and ambitions, to the detriment of those living under them. Again, I come back to the word "brilliant" to describe this work. I imagine his contemporaries who were pro-democratic and anti-communist probably also thought he was brilliant, while communist sympathizers probably loathed him. I found this bit of information here:

In 1949 Orwell was approached by a friend, Celia Kirwan, who had just started working for a Foreign Office unit, the Information Research Department, which had been set up by the Labour government to publish pro-democratic and anti-communist propaganda. He gave her a list of 37 writers and artists he considered to be unsuitable as IRD authors because of their pro-communist leanings. The list, not published until 2003, consists mainly of journalists (among them the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin) but also includes the actors Michael Redgrave and Charlie Chaplin. Orwell's motives for handing over the list are unclear, but the most likely explanantion is the simplest: that he was helping out a friend in a cause - anti-Stalinism - that both supported. There is no indication that Orwell ever abandoned the democratic socialism that he consistently promoted in his later writings - or that he believed the writers he named should be suppressed. Orwell's list was also accurate: the people on it had all at one time or another made pro-Soviet or pro-communist public pronouncements.

You can see why I've been led to believe that probably many of his contemporaries despised him.

I'd like to end this post with one more observation. I don't know why on earth any student would be made to read this book in high school, as many have been through the years. It's one of those books that people need to read after they've lived a while, have observed human nature and emotions in ways most teenagers haven't, and who have a pretty good understanding of different sorts of political states. (Having said that, I know that Bob taught it to high school students, and my guess is that he made it come alive.)


ChrisCross said...

Emily, I like your post - especially your description of Orwell's prose bring like a sewing machine. I've always enjoyed his essays, which I've been rediscovering (for an essay challenge) and his prose is faultless. He never puts a word wrong. However, I hate his novels, especially 1984 and Animal Farm - much too bleak a view of humanity for me. I had always thought of him as being anti-Communist, but apparently he opposed any totalitarian regime, whatever its idealogy.

litlove said...

I love the description of his writing as running along like a well-oiled sewing machine - ha! And interesting to hear more about Orwell, the man, too. I read this last year when my son was studying it for GCSE exams. I found it an uncomfortable, disquieting sort of book, without the shapeliness of a lot of fiction. It seemed like Orwell was portraying a world rather than telling a story, and what story there was is terribly bleak. But it has a shocking power about it, so I'm not at all surprised it has lasted through the years. My son liked it quite a lot - but then I think he had a good English teacher last year and that really does make all the difference.

Stefanie said...

So glad you are enjoying the book. I've read it two maybe three times and love it even more each time. It is hard to not race through it. Looking forward to hearing more once you are done.

Emily Barton said...

ChrisCross, glad you liked he post, and, yes, it seems Orwell's big bugbear was totalitarianism in any form.

Litlove, I remember you're reading it, and you're right, the world he portrays is very, very bleak. Totalitarian regimes do create very bleak worlds, huh?

Stef, glad to hear someone else has loved it as much as I. Stay tuned for final thoughts...

Lilian Nattel said...

I read this book when I was young, and found it so powerful that at the end of 1983, I was really creeped out at the prospect of the real year 1984, as if the book might suddenly come true!