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George Orwell’s 1984: A Review

Published: May 31, 2017

We share a review of George Orwell’s 1984 from The September 1, 1972, issue of the Post, 23 years after the initial publication of the book. The reviewer notes, “The realization has been gradually growing that Orwell possessed completely remarkable insights and foresights, that he saw something then that the rest of us are only beginning to see now.”

Sales of the influential book have spiked in the last four months, as people once again find Orwell’s writing to have resonance in today’s political climate.

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When it appeared in 1949. Orwell’s ominously titled 1984 doubtless seemed to many to be at most an absurd parody of the Russian communist state, so overdrawn and so farfetched that it offered little to the reader.

But each successive year since its initial publication has brought revised appraisal, a growing anxiety on the part of past and new readers alike that it was just possible that they were missing the message. The realization has been gradually growing that Orwell possessed completely remarkable insights and foresights, that he saw something then that the rest of us are only beginning to see now.

Orwell was born in Bengal at the beginning of this century, completed his formal education at Eton, became a thoroughgoing Socialist who fought with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. He was to die at forty-six, but not before he had clearly, if frighteningly, depicted the fate of mankind if the direction of political and social forces were not reversed.

In the present edition Erich Fromm has written a short but illuminating “Afterword” that ought to be read before tackling 1984 itself.

Reviewing earlier Utopias, such as the work of Thomas More which gave us the name, Fromm correctly identifies them as expressions of the perfectibility of man, as the basis for a happy optimism about man’s future.

Against these he contrasts the “negative utopias” of which 1984 is perhaps the most notable. Writing of them, he even anticipates the title that Skinner was to choose ten years later: “The question is a philosophical, anthropological and psychological one, and perhaps also a religious one. It is, can human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love—that is to say, can man forget he is human’!”

Winston Smith is the man about whom Orwell’s book revolves, London is the scene of the action, and all through the narrative words and expressions evolve which have worked their way into our own everyday vocabularies.

Winston’s flat, like everyone’s, is under the eternal surveillance of a telescreen through which, as posters everywhere proclaim. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. Not too far away was the Ministry of Truth, said to contain three thousand rooms, which carried on its side these distillations of party wisdom:

War Is Peace

Freedom Is Slavery

Ignorance Is Strength

There was “the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; and the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv and Miniplenty.”

We witness a forbidden love that began and briefly flourished under the unseen eyes of the Thought Police, a love that subsequent torture led both participants to betray and denounce the other.

We see history recorded, history erased, so that nothing is known of yesterday, so that even the today that we think we see is wholly the contrivance of Big Brother.

We observe O’Brien from the Thought Police, presiding over the degradation and reconstitution of Winston, by means of drugs, electric shock treatments, starvation, beating. We hear him summarize the new world the party was forging.

“In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. . . . We have cut the links between child and parent, between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or child or a friend any longer. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face—forever.”

Fromm ends his “Afterword” with the admonition that “Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.”

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