Columns > Published on September 25th, 2013

Your Favorite Book Sucks: '1984'

'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.

While some classics seem to be symbolically great rather than actually great, there is one work that falls so far short of its legend that it makes me blood froth. That book is George Orwell's famous 1984. I'm going to go through and highlight some of the more major flaws and terrible moves in 1984, and then I'll tell you the real reason I didn't like it.

(And **spoilers**. Obviously.)

Totalitarian Evil

I'm going to try to avoid making this too much of a biography of Orwell or a history lesson, but a few facts are worth talking about. First, Orwell had some bad experiences with communism. He once believed in communism and even volunteered to serve in the Spanish Civil War alongside the reds. Things didn't turn out so well for him. In addition to war injuries that would never fully heal, Orwell's faith in communism shattered when he saw the bureaucracy, greed, and heartlessness within it.

1984 is a caricature of...totalitarian evil, and not a particularly subtle one

Having lost faith in Marxist communism, Orwell became one of its harshest critics during the time of Josef Stalin. Many of these criticisms were certainly warranted, but many were founded in Orwell's imagination. Lucky for Orwell and for the success of 1984, Orwell's imagination was a reflection of the imagination of his time. The simplistic ideas of how the communist USSR functioned and remained in power were widespread but not particularly accurate. Little study was made of the psychology of citizens or how the USSR's culture compared to the Russian culture that preceded it.

The result of these false comparisons, emotionally charged arguments, and the heat of Cold War fears was that the communist rule in the USSR was simplified into a totalitarian evil. 1984 is a caricature of the totalitarian evil, and not a particularly subtle one. The mustachioed figure of "Big Brother" is a hair's breadth away from Stalin and the notion of directly brainwashing the people is a hyperbolic expression of the assumptions about loyal communists.

Flaws of the Orwellian Caricature

The problem with this caricature is three-fold. First, it fails to make any critical argument based on facts. Its emotionally charged rendition amounts to saying, "This is how terrible it is! I'll prove it by showing you what I've made up about it!" Second, it gives absolutely no critical self-analysis to the culture of 20th-century capitalism. And third, it's a poor reflection of the actual dangers and functionality of totalitarian rule.

While the death toll of the Stalin-era USSR is truly impressive, the assumption Orwell makes is that a small, elite group of evil people who just wanted power stepped into authority by force and maintained power through a combination of brainwashing and violence. The truth, however, is far more complicated.

The Bolsheviks and their supporters were not responding to imaginary elements in the world. The harsh reality of wage labor's inequalities were apparent, the injustice of Russia's aristocracy abhorrent, and the trials of the general population far greater than we now imagine. And for all its terrible elements, the USSR was not just kicking people into the dust: After the communist party came into power, the literacy rate skyrocketed, the child mortality rate dropped substantially, and the recently agrarian country was able to arm itself with guns and tanks quickly enough that they won World War II. (The Red Army suffered three times as many casualties as the rest of the allied forces combined—and as a result they stopped Hitler on his eastern front.)

I'm not saying that the Soviet  Union was a lovely place to live. The mass murders, the "purges," the "political choices" that led to millions starving in Ukraine—these are all well-documented realities. But so are the good bits. The Communist Party kept going because they were able to point to very real threats in both the political and military spheres. Orwell, however, paints all of these problems as fabrications of the totalitarian government—and never gives a moment for critical self-analysis.

How to Rule the World

Orwell's totalitarian government is an unsustainable one. As history has shown us, when you're a mass-murdering douche canoe like Stalin, you don't breed a whole lot of friends—and the power structures start to collapse. The reality of totalitarian rule is more dangerous. It is not a spy network and party purges that allow you to remain in power. It is converting people—honestly converting them, not just causing them to fear you enough that they obey—because converting them allows you to sit back while the population governs itself. 

Plus, it's expensive to spy on everyone, collect and analyze that information, chase down everyone who violates your plans. And in Orwell's 1984, the evil government is thorough. Quoth Winston (the book's protagonist), "The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself."

The work's critique is not well-grounded in reality or reason. And, unfortunately, it takes itself too seriously for readers to believe that it wasn't meant as an actual critique. Nevertheless, the success of Orwell's story isn't hard to understand. Capitalist nations were terrified of communism, and Orwell was both a self-blinded proponent of the capitalist cause and an excellent fear-monger. He was, in many ways, the Rush Limbaugh of his time.

Orwell Sucks at Math. And Language.

Beyond the problematic core theses of this Orwellian "masterpiece," we also have various problems of thinking throughout the story. The most significant is the great dilemma of maintaining one's integrity in the face of bad math. Winston's core struggle centers around the "Big Brother" supporters telling him that two plus two equals five. The protagonist refuses to accept this. He must maintain his integrity and not violate what he knows to be true.

Here's the problem: Language is arbitrary. The only reason two plus two is four instead of five is that we assigned four to represent the abstraction that happens when two is added to two. There is nothing fundamentally true or false about the words we use, so when the "two plus two is five" problem is given to Winston, what's happening is simply that the government is simply re-defining what "5" means, and the protagonist is rejecting the authority of the government over language.

That would be a fine problem with this fictional government if Orwell had been making a point about how governments shouldn't be the authorities over language. Sadly, to Winston, this is always and ever a struggle for maintaining integrity and truth in the face of the big, bad, lying government. Our tragic ending illustrates Winston's ultimate defeat by having him accept this change in language. And Orwell doesn't seem to see a contradiction with the fact that Winston's already allowed the government to become the accepted authority over language through Newspeak.

And then Language Dies. Because Reasons.

Orwell seems to be oblivious to his own devotion to the cultural assumptions of his time, the objectification that lies within those assumptions, and the irony of his devotion.

But this isn't the only Orwellian miss-step when it comes to the nature of language. In the third chapter we go into depth on the purpose of Newspeak and the simplification of language. "Has it ever occurred to you, Winston," says the Newspeak expert, "that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?" The government is intentionally reducing language to reduce the level of thought for the general population until they simply can't think anymore. "There will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think." (I will also note again here how little subtlety comes into Orwell's style.)

The problem here is that language, even when guided rigorously, doesn't simply die and is never fully controlled. Language didn't come into being because there were people standardizing and spreading it. Cultures, sub-cultures, and sub-sub-cultures all put their own jargon into place all the time. We've developed new dialects for gamers, dentists, church-goers, and that's on top of all of our regional dialects. Language allows people to create new terminology to capture any point that they want to capture.

Orwell never gives a mechanism whereby Newspeak would somehow stymie the natural progression of language. While it's true that the introduction of Newspeak would influence the various education systems and connotations of language, and through them the thoughts of the population, the ability to turn people into mindless drones is another empty fiction.

Capitalism: For the Sake of Misogyny!

Despite all the talk I'd heard about 1984, no one had ever mentioned the misogyny that ran rampant through its pages. If you have any sensitivity to it at all, the sexism is loud. Winston, our protagonist, states early that, "He disliked nearly all woman, and especially the young and pretty ones."  Winston views lust and love to be basically identical. In what's passed off as some sort of romantic scene, Winston tells his new girlfriend Julia that, "I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards. Two weeks ago I thought seriously of smashing your head in with a cobblestone." And Julia remains vapid throughout, only ever rebelling against the government inasmuch as it helps satisfy her own sexual desires.

The only other strong descriptions given of women besides Julia is given to a stranger Winston sees: "The woman down there had no mind, she had only strong arms, a warm heart and a fertile belly." He seems to be saying this in envy since Julia and he cannot have children. The traditional assumptions Orwell makes can perhaps be forgiven, but ... then we come to the make-up scene:

He turned round, and for a second almost failed to recognize her. [...]  She had painted her face. She must have slipped into some shop in the proletarian quarters and bought herself a complete set of make-up materials. Her lips were deeply reddened, her cheeks rouged, her nose powdered; there was even a touch of something under the eyes to make them brighter. It was not very skillfully done, but Winston's standards in such matters were not high. He had never before seen or imagined a woman of the Party with cosmetics on her face.

The improvement in her appearance was startling. With just a few dabs of colour in the right places she had become not only very much prettier, but, above all, far more feminine. Her short hair and boyish overalls merely added to the effect. [...]

"And do you know what I'm going to do next? I'm going to get hold of a real woman's frock from somewhere and wear it instead of these bloody trousers. I'll wear silk stockings and high-heeled shoes! In this room I'm going to be a woman, not a Party comrade."

Beyond the obvious bits showing how incredibly important make-up is, we get confirmation from Winston's later reflection that make-up is one of the things the world is tragically missing. When combined with Winston's certainty that there must have been a time when life was better, we can generate a thesis for Orwell: We need capitalism to make the world better because capitalism allows women to paint their faces beyond the point of reconcilability—and that's what makes them really desirable. In fact, that's what makes them real women.

Orwell seems to be oblivious to his own devotion to the cultural assumptions of his time, the objectification that lies within those assumptions, and the irony of his devotion.

The Real Reason I Hate 1984

For all these shortcomings in Orwell's logic and conclusions, for all that the violent misogyny repulsed me, Orwell's greatest crime was something entirely different: He bored me.

The boredom was related to how unconvinced I was by Orwell's dystopia, but several other key factors came into play. One is that I expected Orwell's writing to be better. Obviously taste plays a role here, but to me Orwell's prose was dull, he lacked any form of subtlety, he used a surprising number of cliches, and he favored abstract descriptions over sensory details. There was nothing particularly admirable about his style. Ultimately, he struck me as a mediocre writer.

And then we got to "Goldstein's Book." For more than 50 pages (specifically page 399 to 469 in my copy), Orwell just shows us Winston reading a different book. I hadn't been particularly engaged before that, but at this point Orwell dove directly into abstract and less-than-critically thought out political discourse. Raw political abstractions—boring enough on their own—were this time targeting a poorly conceived fictional world.

Poor writing, poor thinking, 70 pages of sheer dullness ... and this is his famous work? I've read essays from Orwell that I felt were insightful, and I've heard good things about some of his creative nonfiction work, but 1984 bordered on nauseating. I was expecting something engaging and meaningful, but instead I found fear-mongering, a lack of self-awareness, poor critical thinking, and rabid misogyny. Yet all that could have been forgiven: What I can't forgive is a boring book.

[Image used in header comes courtesy of Sovereign Independent UK]

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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