George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four

by Rachel Baker on October 28, 2008

This week, Old Musty Books will be featuring Guest Reviews of scary books.  These reviews were submitted as entries for the Spooktacular Book Giveaway.

Today’s guest reviewer is Jeff Maynes.  His entry was a review of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I hadn’t read this book since high school and after receiving this entry, I have put it on my books to read list.   This book is not typically in the ‘scare the bejeebus out of you’ genre.  However, reading Jeff’s entry made me realize how very scary this book really is.

Without further ado, I give you Jeff’s review of Nineteen Eighty-Four

(This review contains heavy spoilers about Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  I have included them on the presumption that a book of this age and magnitude is well enough known, but let this serve as a warning for any reader not interested in how the story ends.)

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a scary book.  Not Stephen King scary.  Not slasher flick scary.  It’s more, intellectually scary.  It scares us because it taps into explicit or implicit fears we have about government and those with power over us.  Armed with our knowledge of Nazi Germany and other authoritarian regimes, we are acutely aware that there is nothing special about us which will protect us from being empowered “the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.”

It is scary because it could be us, ruling or being ruled.  It’s scary because the depictions of torture are viscerally disturbing.  Yet, there is another reason it is scary, one more personally powerful.  We first meet Julia early in the novel, though not by name.  Winston’s first thoughts about her are driven by paranoia, worried as he is that she is a member of the thought police.  This encounter takes place at the Two Minutes of Hate, a public frenzy orchestrated by the Party against a former member now branded a traitor.  As the rage fills the crowd, passing from and feeding off each member of the audience, Winston’s thoughts turn to violent fantasies directed at Julia.  In language, so direct that it is jarring even on the tenth or twentieth reading, Winston claims that “he would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon.  He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian.  He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax” (Ch. 1).  Still, this deeply disturbing fantasy is brought about explicitly by the state.  Our focus as a reader is still on the power of the state to produce temporary states of emotional frenzy.

As Winston comes to know more about Julia, he realizes that she is not the fervent supporter of the Party he thought her to be.  In fact, she is a sex criminal (sex being illegal in this society), and she enters into a sexual relationship with Winston.  In the context of the book, the intimacy of the act is heightened, as the nature of sexual connection is implicitly explored.  Rather than psychological closeness, or physical contact, it is the privacy of it that matters.  The leering powers are physically real and a constant menace; yet, tucked away in a room with no two-way monitors, the relationship allows Winston and Julia to shed the personas they must pick up to survive.

The relationship deepens over the course of the second part of the novel.  The reader is drawn in to their relationship, and as an oasis of humanity, it becomes as easy to cherish for them, as it was cherished by them.  The couple, however, are eventually caught and brought to the Ministry of Love.  Throughout the tortures to which he is subjected, Winston clings to his love for Julia, and his hatred of Big Brother.  It comes to define him, and thus it is the one thing he will not give up.  This resolve is finally broken in Room 101.  When faced with his greatest fear, Winston begs that the torture be given to Julia, rather than to himself.

The scenes are frightening, simply in their imagery.  Winston’s greatest fears are realized, and the fears of the reader are given voice when O’Brien describes the future as a “boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”  Of course, there’s more to it than that.  Horror novels and films rely on the audience projecting onto the characters.  We fear the slasher with a knife because we see ourselves trapped like the characters on the page or screen.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, this personal connection is used in far more powerful ways.  First we are made to fear what we, as a society, might be.  That fear, while powerful, is remote.  Our lives are not like that, and the process by which they might become like that is long and shrouded.

Winston’s connection with Julia, however, connects quickly and immediately with the reader.  It is not just symbolic, it is directly representative of what we value in our own lives, and rather than being taken away from Winston, he is forced to betray that which is most important to him.  The fear that Orwell so expertly taps into is a fear of our own weakness, our own inability to stand firm for that which we value.  The question lingers on past the final chapter, could we remain faithful to those close to us in the face of the greatest of all possible fears?  Are our bonds stronger than our fears?  Nineteen Eighty-Four is chilling precisely because it raises the, well, fear that fear itself will win out on us.  It challenges the safety of the reader-book barrier, by raising the same fears in Winston as it does in us.

Great review, Jeff! This has reminded me how important it is to pick up those books we hated reading in high school and see how different they are after we’ve gained some life experiences. ~rl

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