1984by George Orwell
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George Orwell’s 1984 offers a thought-provoking learning experience for high schools students. It provides challenging reading, stimulating themes of dehumanization, isolation, repression, loneliness, social class disparity, and abuse of power, and a basis upon which students can form their own opinions about today’s society. 1984’s relevance to today’s world makes it an excellent choice for secondary school readers who hold our future in their hands, whether as tomorrow’s leaders or as followers.
Some years ago, Americans envisioned a future that would evolve predictably from the past as a type of extension of the familiar. With the sixties, however, our idyllic dreams were shattered and new visions began to form. 1984, written in 1948 and published in 1949, was intended as a warning against totalitarian tendencies rather than as a prophetic work. Now that the year 1984 has passed, many may scoff at the warning, but those who do would be wise to look at the present a bit more closely. Currently, we have subliminal messages, two-way televisions, computer viruses threatening to endanger our much depended-upon information systems (with possible global impact), and countries all over the world committing atrocities against their own people. Recent political campaigns have shown us explicitly the extent to which propaganda has corrupted our own language. Politicians have perfected their own type of "Newspeak."
Examine our postmodern style in literature and you will find themes of isolation, repression, and loneliness. The characters of postmodern literature lead surface lives that are mere facades put up for the benefit of appearances. Unfortunately, this is the only fantasy to be found in the writing. It is as if imagination has given up, crushed by the weight of the world’s problems. Like the citizens of Oceania, many postmodern writers have become mere recorders of a hopeless world rather than creators of a new one.
Of those of us who do not scoff at the warning, few think that we will actually be overtaken by a totalitarian intruder; rather, it is the creeping, small things that scare us. Like spiders and snakes, they approach unnoticed. 1984 depicts a dystopia, a world that went wrong, a world of manipulation and control which uses its people against themselves like pawns. A look at our corporate business world today provides a startling comparison to 1984’s world of control and power plays. On the international scene, it has always been easier for us to sit back and criticize the Soviet Union than to deal with our own problems. Perhaps the changes coming about in that country and in the other Soviet bloc nations will force us to be introspective. In the meantime, we should remember that the mindless citizens of Oceania are given neither the opportunity nor the encouragement to think or read. With a study of 1984, we have a chance for both.
As the book opens, Winston Smith, the protagonist, is entering his dismal apartment in London. The opening paragraphs convey the depressing tone of the book with a description of the squalid living conditions. The world is divided into three superpowers: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Winston’s homeland, Oceania. Each superpower is always at war with at least one of the others. The perpetual wartime conditions provide a convenient way for the government of Oceania to keep its citizens repressed. Supplies for party members are always scarce and surveillance is a perfected art.
In private rebellion against the government, Winston, an Outer Party member, starts keeping a diary. This small, forbidden step begins his life as an enemy of the party he serves. He purchases the diary on one of his forays into the proletarian section. Outside the antique shop where he bought the diary he later encounters a young woman who he has observed watching him for the last few days at his office. Knowing he is not supposed to be there and suspecting she is a spy, he quickly avoids her.
The next day, much to Winston’s surprise, the woman, Julia, slips him a note which says "I LOVE YOU." They arrange to meet secretly and soon become lovers. They rent a room above the antique shop from the kindly owner, Mr. Charrington.
At the height of Winston’s affair with Julia, he is approached by an Inner Party member named O’Brien whom Winston has long suspected of being a subversive. On the pretense of discussing one of Winston’s Newspeak articles, O’Brien invites him to his home. When he arrives there, Winston is amazed at the amenities available to the Inner Party about which Outer Party members might only dream. One of these luxuries is a telescreen that can actually be turned off for privacy. O’Brien reveals to Winston that the Brotherhood, a mutinous underground organization, does exist, and he makes arrangements to give Winston a copy of a book which details the control techniques that Party uses. Excited about the prospects of helping overthrow the government, Winston takes the book to the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. However, before he can make any plans or even finish the book, he and Julia are arrested in the room that had been their refuge. They discover that quiet Mr. Charrington is actually a member of the Thought Police. He and O’Brien had been working together to trap Winston.
Winston and Julia are separated and taken to the Ministry of Love where Winston is physically and psychologically tortured by O'Brien until he finally accepts the Party's views. In a moment of utter terror, Winston betrays Julia, something he was convinced they could never make him do. The final lines of the book show Winston's complete transformation into a model Party member: "...Everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."