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Orwell’s 1984: A Literary Appreciation

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Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

This past weekend I re-read Orwell’s 1984. Or maybe re-reread since I’m fairly sure I’ve read it twice before. You might expect from the title of this blog entry that it would be an appreciation of the book’s themes and significance and how today’s world is more like Oceania than ever … et cetera. But it (the blog) won’t be.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the significance and incisiveness of the book. I very much do. And reading it again I appreciated it more than ever, even to the point that it didn’t seem all that ‘depressing’ – because it wasn’t all that shocking. The photo posted here was taken yesterday on an NJ Transit train. Note the flat, built-in ‘telescreen,’ the surveillance camera, and the loudspeaker. Seem familiar?

Speaking of significance, as a brief aside, I recently watched The Wire, and I was struck at how well 1984 depicts the drug trade, with its 24/7 surveillance, its complete intolerance for dissention and individual thought, and its willingness to ‘vaporize’ anyone for any reason. The parallel works because 1984 is describing a dictatorship, which is what the drug trade is, and exactly as Orwell writes: a dictatorship not as much about money or luxury but pure power. (We especially see this in drug lord Marlo Stanfield.) But don’t get me started on The Wire.

Reading 1984 this time, I especially wanted to examine the literary merits of the story. Would I see through the story and recognize 1984 as ‘merely’ a brilliant essay disguised as a novel?

Nope. Don’t doubt Orwell, is the lesson. On this go ‘round, I was lock-and-stock sold on the literary quality of 1984. Let’s look at just a few finer points:

First: the long section in the middle, “Goldstein’s book,” might have fallen flat, since that section clearly is an essay and a platform for Orwell to explain his take on dictatorship and collectivism. But it doesn’t, and that’s because Orwell made three excellent artistic choices:

  1. The section is written in a genuinely different voice than the rest of the novel: not as fluid, precise, or lively as Orwell’s ‘own’ prose. But that renders the section believable as an authentic document. In contrast, the long speech in Atlas Shrugged, while it is supposed to be the voice of John Galt, is clearly identical to that of Ayn Rand, the narrator. This takes away from some of the verisimilitude of the novel (though on the whole Atlas Shrugged is a superb literary achievement).
  2. The reader experiences Goldstein’s book as Winston, the novel’s protagonist, experiences it: out of order, starting with Chapter 3 and then returning to Chapter 1. A subtle difference, but an effective one.
  3. Orwell places this section in the perfect location, after the reader has seen the workings of Ingsoc and Big Brother. This ensures that the faux-book is believable and that the reader’s desire for an explanation has been thoroughly stoked. Any earlier in the novel, and the section would lack momentum; any later would interrupt the climax and denouement.

Second: Winston and Julia. The two main characters and their love affair are, of course, not explored as fully as the storylines in novels like Middlemarch or Daisy Miller. One of the first book reviews of 1984, written for the New Yorker in 1949 by Orville Prescott, went so far as to state that “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not impressive as a novel about particular human beings.”

But this, I think, is an overstatement. Winston and Julia are explored enough to make them far more than simply mouthpieces for Orwell. The small details of Winston’s past, his selfishness as a child (which parallels his rebelliousness as an adult), his phobia of rats (which of course foreshadows Room 101, a literary device Orwell uses effectively) – all of this makes Winston more than an idea and into a person.

The same goes for Julia, despite how little time the reader actually spends with her. Her industriousness in procuring chocolate and coffee, her simple-minded rebellion (depicted perfectly by her proclivity to fall asleep during intellectual discussions) – makes her, for the reader, real and fun-loving, sexy and attractive, and therefore the doomed romance between her and Winston is a point of human connection to the story, rather than merely a plot device to show the evils of totalitarianism.

I could go on. For example, I haven’t even mentioned the crystalline prose and dialogue, Orwell’s calling card, which also heightens the literary quality of the work. But I don’t want to give too much away or drag this out.

Orwell wrote in 1947 that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Reading 1984 was a reminder for me that great novels can convey definite ‘political’ viewpoints without being preachy tracts – provided the storytelling decisions, the depth of characterization, and the prose quality is up to snuff.

When I set down 1984 this time, I thought that Orwell had to have realized that even if the book is meant as a warning, it might well be used as a handbook for any ruling group that wants absolute power. But he published it anyway. Why? Because that was his duty, not as a political dissident or even a citizen – but as a novelist and artist. That’s why the passage I quote above is my favorite from the novel. Orwell – who is Winston – was writing his own story. And he was writing not merely with his powerful, systematic brain, not even “merely” with his heart, but from the place where great art comes from: his ego.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He recently published Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, a companion novel to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Visit his blog at

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