‘1984’ 33 Years On
This is the latest in a series of blog posts that looks at George Orwell’s book from ever-lengthening perspectives.
There are always two dates to mention when dealing with George Orwell’s masterwork – the year of its publication (1949) and the year in its title. Orwell inverted the title as he was writing it, but had originally intended it to be ‘1948’.
In the sleepy complacency of my own childhood â€˜1984â€™ was a book that entrapped me. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and as we were still fifteen years away from the novelâ€™s date, I naively assumed that Orwell would provide futuristic rocket adventures.Â Rearrange the title date and you have the key to the bookâ€™s style. Thereâ€™s hardly a page of ‘1984’ that doesnâ€™t reflect the cadging gruesomeness of postwar life, from the ever-present smell of old mats and boiled cabbage to the cigarettes that lose their contents if held upright.Â A new hardback edition by Heinemann was careful not to label it SF but printed it as part of â€˜The Modern Novel Seriesâ€™, a catch-all collection that included LP Hartley and Somerset Maughan. Unable to access any notion of the concept â€˜dystopiaâ€™, the blunt, angry prose hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.
Few future visions had ever been able to build their foundations so solidly in the recent past, or had been told with such fury. Orwellâ€™s novel stands accused of being too preachy, too schematic, not a testament to the human spirit. What we tend to forget is that it is first and foremost an extraordinarily well-constructed piece of fiction, tense, terrifying, ideological, and above all, visceral. For Winston Smith, the sheer effort of breaking state laws seems so exhausting as to be hardly worth it. We know from the outset that the struggle wonâ€™t equal the prize, because there is no prize. The future has already arrived. In this sense the book felt shockingly modern for decades, the ultimate slackerâ€™s novel. No wonder it was best filmed as â€˜Brazilâ€™ rather than in faithful adaptation.
When we reached the year in question, we found ourselves in the middle of the Thatcherite revolution. As the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no such thing as society’, we felt that Orwell’s predictions had all been proven true. Comparisons between the past and present were made and worrying parallels were drawn.
And as with all future-predictive books, a remarkable thing happened. The future was altered in a way that nobody, certainly not the author, could have ever foreseen. Globalisation did not unleash government control but the opposite. Rampant commercialisation and the arrival of the internet created the deepened divide that Orwell had predicted, but designed it with the coercion of the populace – or at least, those members of the human race that found themselves with wealth and power.
Orwell could never have predicted Trump. The fall of real authority came with the willing participant of the people. Few authors would imagine that citizens would deliberately vote themselves out of better living standards and less freedom.Â The internet meant that instead of there being one channel of state-controlled â€˜Big Brotherâ€™ news where contradictory states could co-exist (â€˜War is Peaceâ€™) there were so many thousands of ways open to manipulation and abuse that information would eventually become ‘fake’ and meaningless. It was no longer essential to government that people believed lies.
‘1984’ continued to fascinate, though, precisely because it is not a predictive SF novel but a possibility, an alternative, a nightmare.Â The Headlong stage production of â€˜1984â€™ came as a slap in the face by playing unsettling mental games with its audience.Â At first the setting appeared to be a book club rereading Orwellâ€™s novel in a municipal library, but the dialogue stuck and repeated, fictional characters appearing as events started melding with an imagined past and a dubious future. Doomed idealist Winston Smith was tossed back in time and dragged through 1984â€™s events.
The new version reflected the present day without being thunkingly obvious about it. Video monitors took up the top half of the stage, so we could become complicit in theÂ betrayal of Winston and Julia. They also ran a live video feed into Room 101, which brought us impressions of Guantanamo Bay and CCTV surveillance.Â The repeated dialogue patterns created a genuinely nightmarish feeling as character dialogue overlapped, at one moment creating â€˜Or, â€˜Wellâ€™.
The book’s sales soared upon Trump’s arrival but its old problems still remain, even within its ‘classic’ status; Winston, led on by a wildly dangerous Julia, is a man doomed from his first free thought. The trouble has always been that he is a cipher, and this remains the case â€“ but Orwell intended him as an everyman because he needs to be. The novel hasÂ relevance now as a warning. Having somewhat fallen out of love with Orwell over the years, I was glad I returned and rediscovered its haunting power. But the rallying cry of ‘1984’ was picked up by the young, who adapted its dystopia in myriad ways.
Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.