Pretty much everyone in my earlier family has read this book. My parents and uncle all read it in high school and my grandparents tried it out once. The novel was probably too young at that time to be decided on any curriculum. And in my family, we all have very different tastes in general entertainment, so very rarely can we actually talk about a book while fully on the same page. Movies and television shows are more up our alley for that. But I guess classics that are in a lot of English classes manage to qualify.
1984 is basically the story of an alternate dimension in which politicians in North America (now called Oceania, which is unironically the name for an evil organization base in another book I’m reading) have perfected mass conformity. Over several calculated choices the continent has turned into the flawlessly structured playground of the Party, who breathes down the throats of all its civilians and puts them through unobjectionable labour, and either destroys or forbids any feelings of pleasure or difference that could cause a civilian to think there’s more to life than what the dictatorship has preplanned for them. Winston is under this spell, bowing down to the mighty “Big Brother”! But he had an arranged marriage that really didn’t work out. He also has sad fond memories of what life used to be like and how he threw some of it away, and even under all the propaganda, sometimes there’s hints of it all resurfacing within him. What happens when he gets his hands on a diary and starts to think for himself by being able to write in it kickstarts the classic, essentially timeless, legendary Orwellian horror title.
Now, a comment about these kinds of reads: When you’re forced to open a book, it’s never as fun as if you picked it up by choice. That being said, there have been books I’ve read for school that I have really enjoyed (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders come to mind, and I read Lord of the Flies on my own time and liked that one too, a lot) and there have been ones I’ve hated (Wild Geese and, plus this was a minority opinion in my classroom as well, The Great Gatsby). I never had to read 1984, but having gotten through it, I can honestly say, and this may sound like I’m contradicting my grade, I’m grateful for it. I’m glad this book is still being taught in schools, and it’s filled with lessons about the dark realm of power, politics, corruption and brainwashing that I feel teenagers (and everyone) should be aware of.
But in terms of readability value…
Look, the fact is, 1984 is a masterpiece in terms of how dictatorships happen and the important lesson that if one wants to start a revolution, one should expect brutality and hatred from the highest of credentials because too many people in power care only about money, the certainty of retaining it, and stopping threats against said system. But how much fun I feel a person would probably have reading this book on their own will is something I consider when I give a grade. I always do. And the fact is, I just wouldn’t recommend 1984 to regular folks. I’d even call most of it an argument for kids who say reading is boring.
The first part (which I think is the worst part) mostly only consists of explaining how the Party works, with no layered characters or political uprisings to make us care about what will happen next. To say even Winston keeps the story afloat is debatable. It gets a bit better by Part 2 when he first meets Julia and they take precautions to have a relationship outside of marriage laws. And things get more and more heated by Part 3. It just takes a long time for things to progress.
To give further credit where it’s due, the slogans – WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH – are terrifically explained. You’d think at first glance none of those make sense, but in one of the most surprisingly entertaining parts of the book, we read from a forbidden textbook on why those are so. The simple idea of having to stay in war against those different from you, even if there’s no direct threat, because peace and introduction to someone different can make one realize they’re not so different after all and the realization can cause anger at war in the first place and threaten the peace of the certainty of racism and conflict, is explained humungously thought-provokingly. I actually wished I could’ve been in a classroom discussion on those parts. But more often, I can also picture most kids not reading most chapters and cheating on questions. I can imagine if I wasn’t into books the way I am, I’d have looked for loopholes towards reading the whole big thing.
When reviewing a book written in 1948, you have to consider a difference of acceptability between then and now. There are some undeniable moments of sexism, but even worse, there’s scenes where Winston does not display hatred; he even displays affection, for someone doing horrible things to him. Winston’s argument is he’s someone he can talk to and who would listen back and the situation he was in didn’t allow much of that. Didn’t buy the argument.
I buy the other arguments in this book. By the end I still believed there were others like Winston who notice some bull in the Party, and I still believed a revolution was possible. But I also believed the Party would stay as it was for a very long time, and the ending gave me a memorable feeling of pity and concern, plus gratefulness that even if a lot of Orwellian principles have come to life under our noses, most have not come to full bloom.
Sometimes you just have to be honest, though, and say you were looking forward to finishing something up and the beloved 1984 fell under that.
If you like this, I’d try Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Scythe by Neal Shusterman
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