When I was fourteen or fifteen, a group of classmates and I read four books within a few months: 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World and Lord of the Flies. Our young minds were seeking, exploring, and discovering the questions that have haunted humanity since the beginning of time: What is truth? What is untruth? What is my role in all that I see? What is our role in what we witness together? What is beyond our living rooms, our classrooms, and our cities?
Recently 1984 by George Orwell popped into my mind, perhaps because I needed to understand what I was witnessing in the first months of 2017, or at least make an attempt to understand. A nagging thought wouldn’t let go — I need to understand as an adult what I sensed about the Orwellian world I read when I was a teenager — and I realized I was as compelled to re-read the novel as I was compelled to read 1984 in 1965.
This isn’t a review about the main character’s journey or the plotline. This review is a humble plea to read the book if you haven’t read it yet and to re-read the book if you have already read it. But I think even more than suggesting to read this book, I need to speak, I need to act, I need to write these words because I kept asking as I read: How did he know? How did Orwell know that in 2017 we would be living in such extraordinary times, and what he wrote in 1949, is what we are witnessing now? In other words, I cannot remain silent—I want to share with others what I have realized about 1984 — that it is incredible that a novel can speak more to the future, than when it was first published.
George Orwell was born in India in 1903; educated in England; served in the Imperial Police in Burma from 1922-1928; and fought on the Republican Side during the Spanish Civil War, where he was severely wounded. He was dying when he wrote 1984. My sense is that his experiences in war, his wounds of war — both physical and spiritual — and facing his own death, informed Winston Smith, the main character of the story.
As I write this essay, many people are reading 1984. Bookstores are out of stock. Copies of the book are checked out at libraries. There have been reprints. This is a good thing, even though it could be a little frustrating when searching for a copy to buy or rent. 1984 is regarded a classic — and for good reason — for Orwell writes with clarity and insight and a profound understanding about the human condition. He challenges the reader to think deeply about the difference between individualism and conformity, individual thinking or following blindly. He challenges the reader to discover the reason for one’s existence, in other words, to search for what is meaningful, and to make what one discovers a reality not mere ideology. He challenges the reader to question our acceptance of the constant threat of, and the never-ending quagmire of wars we are engaged in — not only with other nations but also within our own nation. In other words, how do these questions affect the mind and soul of a human being? Are we capable of discovering, and then living the answers, or will we succumb and believe the lies and propaganda of authoritarian leaders and live in fear and subjugation and meaninglessness? And if we do succumb, how will this affect the mind and soul of the human being?
I don’t mean to be a spoiler here, but the novel doesn’t end well. Perhaps Orwell wrote the ending as a warning: Red alert! Wake up! Be aware of what you think, not out of fear but out of the desire to be an independent thinker and a courageous and perceptive citizen of society and the world. Don’t be fooled by the men in power. Stand up for the inalienable rights of the human being. Protect the weak, the poor, the Earth. Use language to create cultures and build bridges within, and between, societies, not to disrupt them. Be truthful, listen to one another, read and write and communicate based on truth and integrity. Respect all living beings — starting with you. Use your mind; dream. Be whole and help one another be whole. Above all, seek truth and justice for all.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the first couple of pages in 1984 impressed me with the brilliance of Orwell’s writing, but perhaps the last two pages in the Appendix impressed me even more. Orwell quotes the beginning of the Constitution of the United States of America. Why does he do this? Why does a man who was born in India, educated in England, served in the military and fought in other countries other than the United States, quote the Constitution of the United States of America? What lies within this document that Orwell wants us to grasp with our minds and not let go, no matter what is happening around us? Why are the words of this document necessary for the survival of our Republic and the continuation of our freedoms we hold within the palms of our hands? The answers are told within the pages of 1984. I highly recommend this book, especially now. But be careful—Big Brother might be watching!