This Day In Literary History
On June 6th, 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the classic novel by the legendary English writer George Orwell, was published. A masterpiece of dystopic science fiction and potent political satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the most acclaimed, influential, misunderstood, and controversial novels of the 20th century.
To truly understand this novel, one must first look at how it came to be. George Orwell, born Eric Blair to English parents living in India, had volunteered to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
Orwell fought alongside the POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) which was allied with Britain's Labour Party, of which he was a member.
The POUM was one of several leftist factions which had formed a loose coalition to fight General Franco's fascist army. Another member of this coalition was the Spanish Communist Party, which was controlled by the Soviet Union.
At the Soviets' insistence, the Spanish Communist Party denounced the POUM as a Trotskyist organization and falsely claimed that its members were in cahoots with the fascists. Near the end of the war, the POUM was outlawed, and the Spanish Communist Party began attacking its members.
Tragically, this infighting would break apart the coalition and give the fascists the opportunity to win the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was wounded in action, shot in the throat by a sniper. While he recovered in a POUM hospital, he had a lot of time to think, and he came to hate Soviet communism.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, a nonfiction book he published just before he left for Spain, Orwell, a lifelong socialist, chronicled the time he spent in a poor Northern England coal mining town called Wigan and discussed how socialism could improve living and working conditions in such a town.
He blamed the ferocious prejudices of the white Christian middle class against the people they associate with socialism (blacks, Jews, the lower class poor, atheists, hippies, etc.) as the reason why socialism was not widely accepted.
Although a socialist himself, Orwell was often critical of England's social welfare system, which often proved itself a failure, smothered by the weight of its own bureaucracy and stymied by the conservative leadership it must answer to.
After his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was concerned that the British government, in a good faith attempt to provide for its citizens' social welfare, could become corrupted and engage in the same brutal totalitarian rule that governed the Soviet Union.
His earlier novel, Animal Farm (1945), was a satire of Stalinism in the guise of a modern fable. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a work of dystopic science fiction where a post nuclear war England of the future has become absorbed into the state of Oceania by the U.S., which is waging a war with Eurasia, the Soviet state.
Oceania, a state just as brutal as Eurasia, is ruled by an enigmatic dictator known only as Big Brother. Posters proclaim that BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, and indeed he is, as the state and its citizens are under constant video surveillance - just like England is today. Big Brother's face often appears on the video screens.
The main character is Winston Smith, a middle class intellectual who lives in the ruins of London in a one-room apartment where he subsists on a diet of black bread, synthetic meals, and Victory brand gin. Winston is a mid-level bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Truth - the state's propaganda ministry.
Winston secretly despises the Inner Party - the ruling elite party of Big Brother - and the Thought Police. Citizens, especially young children, are indoctrinated to spy on their family, friends, and others, and report them as "thought criminals" if they express a thought that might be in opposition to the regime.
Though it's against the law and could get him killed, Winston keeps a secret diary of his discontent with the state. He hates his job as a historical revisionist, where he rewrites records and doctors photographs to create a history in line with regime ideology.
Winston is fascinated by the true history of the past and determines to learn all he can about it. One day, his life changes forever when a co-worker at the Ministry of Truth - a woman named Julia who maintains the Ministry's novel writing machines - slips him a note that reads I LOVE YOU.
This is quite a shock for Winston - he had always hated Julia because she wore the red sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League, as the regime believes that the best way to control citizens is to suppress their libido.
Winston later learns that state neurologists are working on biologically eliminating orgasm in humans. Nevertheless, he and Julia begin a passionate affair. They secretly rent a room to escape detection.
Unfortunately, the lovers are caught in bed by the Thought Police. The man who had rented them the room was actually a Thought Police officer who had been spying on them. Winston and Julia are taken to the Ministry of Love to be re-educated through torture.
The final stage is the dreaded Room 101, where one must face one's worst fear. Although they fight it bravely at first, Winston and Julia ultimately succumb to the torture and denounce each other. The novel ends with Winston accepted back into the state after his re-education is complete:
The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long hoped for bullet was entering his brain.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Over the years, due to misunderstandings over what its author was trying to say, Nineteen Eighty-Four became the bible of anti-communism for the right. Its author, George Orwell, has been mistaken for a staunch conservative and even a fascist.
And yet, he was a lifelong socialist who always hoped for a just future where all people were truly equal and the extremes of wealth and poverty didn't exist.
A favorite subject of study for middle and high school English classes, Nineteen Eighty-Four has often been banned and challenged by disgruntled parents and pressure groups due to its sexual content and violent imagery. Sadly, it would be George Orwell's last novel. He died from complications of tuberculosis in January of 1950 at the age of 46.
Nineteen Eighty-Four would leave a lasting cultural impact, from its concept of Big Brother to the term Orwellian, which has been added to the English lexicon. It would be adapted for the stage, radio, and screen.
The novel has become relevant again today, read more than ever in the era of President Donald Trump, a would-be dictator whose corrupt right wing extremist administration (along with an equally corrupt and extremist Republican Congress) has isolated us from our allies and sought to strip segments of the population of their civil rights.
Quote Of The Day
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." - George Orwell
Today's video features a complete reading of George Orwell's classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Enjoy!