NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR
by George Orwell
(First published 1949, this edition Everyman's Library, hardback, 326pp, 1992, $35.40. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Mention the phrase 'Big Brother' and many people in our community will instantly think of a 'reality' (sic) TV program in which members of the public are filmed for most, if not all of a 24 hour period with an edited version of this shown to the general public.
While one may question the extent to which the behaviour in the Big Brother house does in fact reflect authentic human behaviour, it nevertheless points to a world in which all aspects of human behaviour are observed and recorded.
Fewer people will be aware of the genesis of the term Big Brother, namely George Orwell's famous novel Nineteen Eighty Four which paints a nightmarish, futuristic world ruled by three totalitarian states, one of which, Oceania, is ruled by the mysterious dictator called Big Brother.
The genesis of the book was Cold War Europe. George Orwell, the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, was born into a family of civil servants at the height of the Raj. However, like many of his generation, he was appalled at the terrible conditions in which the poor lived, and looked to socialism as an alternative, for example, fighting on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, until he had to leave Spain in fear of his life from the Reds.
Careful and astute observation and reflection on Stalin's despotic control of the Soviet Union, which he believed to be a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution, led him to denounce Stalin in the novel Animal Farm.
The action of Nineteen Eighty Four focuses on Winston Smith, a member of the Party, who like other members have their behaviour observed 24 hours a day. Part One sets the scene. He works at the Ministry of Truth, his task being to change historical records to reflect the version of history which the Party is endorsing at any one time.
The Party uses a number of strategies to control its members. Citizens are taught to adore Big Brother as if he were a god, reflective of the cult of personality that dictators such as Stalin enjoyed and the citizens were controlled through their actions being constantly observed.
Because the state of Oceania is constantly at war, its citizens accept shortages of basic essentials without questioning. Relationships and sex are frowned upon and exist simply to procreate more party members. Instead, the focus of party members' love is Big Brother and their frustrations and feelings of anger are directed by the Party towards its enemies, such as the bogeyman figure of Goldstein. The Party also changes the meanings of words to suit their agenda, creating the propaganda- language, Newspeak.
However, not only can Oceania control citizens' behaviour to a greater degree than the Soviet Union could, it aims to control the thought processes of its citizens to the extent that if the Party tells someone that 2 + 2 = 5, anyone believing otherwise has committed a thought crime.
In Part Two, Winston enters a secret liaison with Julia and they resolve to rebel against the Party. When their attempt is foiled, they are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love. Part Three details Winston's torture. The Party is not merely interested in eliminating those who oppose them: first they must be re-educated and brainwashed to the point at which they really believe whatever the Party wants them to.
As readers, we are conditioned to expect a good ending to a novel; however, Nineteen Eighty Four presents a bleak view of the future. While the Soviet Union may have disappeared 20 years ago and the only fully Stalinist state left on the earth is North Korea, Nineteen Eighty Four remains of perennial value.
Most literary sch- olars do not regard it stylistically as Orwell's finest piece of prose. Indeed it was written as Orwell was dying from a terminal illness, pushing himself to finish it before his death.
Nevertheless, its warning and wake-up call to its readers not to be complacent in the face of governments and other organisations trying to increase their control over the lives of ordinary people are, if anything, more urgently needed today than in Orwell's day.
It is perhaps for this reason that it has never been out of print since its initial publication and often appears on school reading lists. This is a book that should be read and re-read. Everyman's Library has produced a handsome edition of this famous work in the English canon which would make a good addition to a home library.
Michael Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.