Thursday, 29 January 2009
Book Review: 1984
The first time I read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell I was 17. I read it for my history class as an example of a totalitarian state. This time I am reading it for a Socio-Linguistics class.
The main character in the book is Winston Smith. A 39 year old resident of London, Airstrip One, Oceania. This was once Great Britain but is now a totalitarian state made up of, in large, the English speaking world. Winston is a Outer Party member who works in an office job in the Ministry of Truth where he 'corrects' wrongs in printed material in line with the Party slogan "Who controls the past (...) controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past" (p37). Winston has dangerous thoughts of rebellion against the Party and its front figure, the mysterious Big Brother.
The book is a frightening look at what could possibly happen in a world where everything is rigidly controlled by one entity, Big Brother. Big Brother plays the citizens off each other and themselves. Citizens are constantly watched through the ever present and turned on telescreen, through which the party can monitor the individuals and feed them propaganda. In addition to this the citizens are encouraged to inform on each other. Children are members of youth groups where they are taught to spy on their parents and each other and report any instances of unorthodoxy, so called thoughtcrime. Another facet of this dystopian society is the discouragement of sexual relations for other puposes than reproduction. The citizens live in constant fear of doing something that will get the reported to the Thought Police and taken away to the Ministry of Love (which really deals with torture).
Winston shows an intellectual resistance to the ideas of Big Brother. Through his job he is exposed to the reality of the falsifying of information. He also has a memory of seeing proof that former members of the party could not have committed the crimes of which they were accused off. The books other important character is Julia, a young woman, whos rebellion against Big Brother is more physical. She has the apperance of the perfect Party member, but as Winston discovers, rebels in her own personal way. The books shows Winstons decent into full rebellion and what happens next.
I found it really interesting to read paying special attention to a different aspect from the first time I read it. By paying attention to the language that Orwell used and to the ideas of 'Newspeak' that he puts forward I saw a whole new layer to the book. This layer made me appreciate the different nuainces of the English language. As an example I found the discussion on the precision of good vs. bad contra good vs. ungood very interesting. The book theorises that bad is technically not the oposite of good, it is in reality something completely different. Instead the more precise oposite of good is ungood. This is interesting to me as and ESL teacher because I often see the tendancy of students to use the prefix un- when they do not know the opposite of a word. To me, however, ungood, although technically the oposite of good, is not a good choice because something does not have to not good to be bad (not sure if this makes sense, it does in my brain but you never know...).
I might be overly optimistic but I do not believe that a society can be controlled by cutting down the amount of words in a language and defining them more precisely. I believe that human beings have an innate need to communicate and to create new words, especially to describe new phenomena or new uses for old things. Take the example of the word "to google". This verb did not exsist ten years ago but is now an excepted use. "To google" means to seach for something on the internet. One could argue that the phrase "to seach the internet" would suffice. However, I would argue that by using the verb "to google" we are actually describing what we are doing.
I would highly recommend that everyone reads this book at least once. I would actually say that everyone should read it every few years because there are so many layers to the book and as new things are learned and new events take place you see new things in the book.