In 1984, the world has been divided into three superpowers constantly waging war with each other. Winston Smith, a member of the Party that rules the superpower Oceania, works to erase all mention of a past that might encourage the people to rebel against their masters. In secret, however, he longs for a world that embraces beauty and truth and, slowly, he begins to stretch the boundaries of what he would dare to do in order to live free.
In many ways, 1984 acts more like a platform for George Orwell’s concerns than it does as a story. Winston Smith proves likeable enough and his predicament is certainly horrifying, but the momentum of the plot breaks just when readers might have expected it to be approaching its climax. At this point Orwell provides his readers with whole chapters allegedly taken from the handbook of a secret society dedicated to taking down the Party. Though a rebel handbook sounds exciting, in execution it proves nothing more than a lengthy explanation of the motivations and strategies of the Party—it is Orwell speaking, not the society. Subsequent events likewise show the hand of the author guiding the characters, feeding them dialogue, and generally inserting himself into what otherwise might have been a much more engrossing story.
Arguably, 1984 achieves its purpose just as well—if not better—through these techniques. Orwell clearly wants his readers to think about topics like censorship, propaganda, government oversight, and manipulation of others achieved through language, then apply it to their own world. To create a secondary world so believable that readers lose sight of their own would cause them to miss the warnings Orwell gives about the danger in which they themselves live. He seems to have been relatively successful, given that articles and reporters routinely reference Big Brother when talking about the current prevalence of security cameras, Internet data collection, etc.
To think about 1984 only in terms of privacy, however, is to miss the nuances of its vision. The real horror of the book lies not in the ability of the Party to monitor every movement and utterance of its members, but in the people’s acceptance of, and even desire for, this oversight. At the time the story takes place, readers can easily understand why the tenets of the Party have become so engrained in the characters that they can suppose themselves to be thinking autonomously—they have little to no access to outside opinions and thus have no choice but to think along Party lines. Party control is so absolute that its methods seem to readers obvious, and thus theoretically possible to combat. Orwell, however, clearly means to suggest that something similar is happening in his own world, and, if so, its advance is more insidious.
Though it presents a gloomy vision of the future of the world (if it continues in the course Orwell sees it following),1984 is ultimately a celebration of the beauty and power of the human spirit. Rebellion against those who would censor free speech and stifle creativity, passion, and curiosity need not successful in order to be worthwhile. The fact that one man in Orwell’s world dares to attempt to forge his own path means everything even when it seems to mean nothing.