What made Orwell’s 1984 a classic? The language of this high-school required reading isn’t particularly memorable, with the obvious exception of phrases like, “war is peace,” and “ignorance is strength.” The plot swings rustily on an ill-fated romance in the first part. The lovers, Winston and Julia, are unlikable, one-dimensional, selfish anybodies. In the second part, Winston’s torturer O’Brien, like Milton’s Satan, steals the literary stage for a bit, but, even so, his evil nature lacks style, compared to, say, Medea or the Judge. Remarkably, however, I will say, that, as tragedies go, 1984 pulls its hero down lower than any Greek drama or Cormac McCarthy novel that I can think of. Winston Smith ends in total dehumanization when he accepts Big Brother into his heart as his savior.
It may be the bleakest book.
What made the book so popular—beyond its utility to American Cold War propagandists targeting Soviets—is that the literary naturalism brought the imagined surveillance state into reality. The gritty dismal future was made concrete and literal. Fully realized fear powerfully attracts readers. This is your future. Here we are.
Thirty-seven years late, 1984 has been moved to the non-fiction section. It seems our oligarchs misread the book within the book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, as a handbook. The hysteria of the two-minutes hate directed at Goldstein has been fully realized in Trump Derangement Syndrome. Our Alexa and Siri have friendlier voices than Winston Smith’s telescreen announcer, but the destruction of our privacy is perhaps even more complete since we carry the telescreen with us everywhere we go. Orwell was spot on about the endless wars being used primarily to waste natural resources and human labor, so as to keep the proles down, even in the face of technological progress. Many things have come to pass. There are differences, though. Our idiotic supervillains—whom so many readers love to hate—tyrannical technocrats, Gates, Bezos, and Zuckerberg, Fauci, Biden, Schwab and, of course, Time-Traveling Trump (who somehow used warp-speed to “cut the red tape” and overcome the need for long-term vaccine studies), are so much more colorfully drawn figures than Orwell’s villain.
What I really find missing in Orwell’s 1984 is ironic self-awareness in the narrator. If only Orwell had written 1984 with the voice of the first-person narrator of his beautifully complex essay “On Marrakech,” in which he betrays his own British classism and fear, “How long before they realize they outnumber us and turn their guns in our direction?” That essay reveals the first inspiration of 1984. Orwell knew the elites fear us ordinary proles. We are many; they are few. Had he continued in that vein, he might have given us an artful comedy, in which the protagonists rise from desperation and bring about a resolution. Orwell was just too much of an elite himself to really understand how the ordinary laundry woman singing in the courtyard could have the wherewithal to save her children, her neighbors’ children and even the civil servant who looked down upon her.
V. N. Alexander, author of Covid-1984, the Musical (forthcoming)