1984 was written in 1948, and it’s included in the May Day collection because of its ties to socialism. The well-known English author, George Orwell, was a political activist as well as a writer, and his most famous works were driven by his profound opposition to totalitarianism. Just as Joseph Heller gave us the expression Catch-22, George Orwell presented us with Big Brother.
‘Big Brother is watching you’ is the famous catch-phrase of 1984. Winston Smith, the main character in the novel, sees the political leader’s face everywhere in his society: on billboards, on the television, on book covers and cigarette packets. The ‘telescreen’ installed in every home and office emits Big Brother’s speeches and, more sinisterly, transmits images of individuals’ private lives back to the central control system. Big Brother is watching you.
Orwell’s dystopian world is fully imagined. Winston’s job involves falsifying the past: he works for the ironically-named Ministry of Truth, where he alters facts already published in newspapers and reports in order to reflect the regime’s current ideology. His colleague, Syme, works as a lexicographer engaged in reducing the English language (Oldspeak) to its most basic forms (Newspeak) in order to eliminate political opposition. (‘Thoughtcrime’ – any form of rebellion – will eventually become impossible: there will be no words in which to express dissident opinions.) Both men risk becoming ‘unpersons’ because they are intelligent, and independent thinkers are feared and despised in Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.
Surveillance, censorship, mind games, torture; the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the unexplained disappearance of a brother or a neighbour or a friend …. 1984 is one of the most frightening novels that I have ever read, and one of the most prescient.
Next month we’re looking at non-fiction, and one of the titles that I’ll discuss will be Anna Funder’s Stasiland.