I Like Ham 5: Favorite Fictions - "Smith! 6079 Smith W!"

From Hamlet, the man who didn't act when it might've done him some good, we go to Winston Smith, the man who acted but it didn't do him any good.

1984, by George Orwell, was one of those books that I first read in high schoool, and which I still re-read regularly 30 years later. It was always my favorite of the two great dystopias that I read back in those days, beating out Brave New World by Aldous Huxley by a large margin.

The protagonist of Orwell's book is one Winston Smith, a drone in the Ministry of Truth (i.e., the propaganda ministry) who spends hs life re-writing history for a totalitarian government.

It's hard to recall my reasons for liking the book when I was a kid - the odd setting, the heavily-detailed fictional world that Orwell created, the idea of a guy caught up in a situation tha the wanted to escape from but couldn't.

If I had a criticism of the book when I was a kid, it was that I didn't think a government like the one Orwell described could exist in the real world - or last for long if it did. I had a pretty strong faith when I was young that tyrants would always be overthrown, and that nothing devised by human beings could possibly last forever, and would always collapse or evolve in the end. I still pretty much believe that, it's just not I'm not so sure that the fallen tyrant will always be replaced by someone better. Of course, reading it now, I don't imagine that Orwell was saying "The future will be exactly like this", so much as he was saying "The future may well be something like this". He wasn't writing a prophecy so much as a warning

Nowadays, I wonder how Orwell would re-write the book if her were still around today. (Or if he would!) These days, we have surveillance technology that Orwell never dreamed of - "Big Brother" could watch us much less obtrusively if he wanted to.

Also, it seems to me that Orwell's book doesn't concern itself with the environment - I don't know that anyone did, in his day, at least not the way we do now. The Oceanic government was pretty rigid - one wonders how it would it deal with a situation in which circumstances arose that it couldn't "doublethink"its way out of - global warming or the oil running out, for example - things that could only be dealt with but a real change in their way of operating.

Much of the book is taken up with Winston's "conversations" with O'Brien, the party official who is trying to break Winston's brain. A film was made of the book in 1984 (of course), featuring John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O'Brien. I like the film alot, and to a certain extent, Hurt and Burton's voices are what I "hear" when I re-read these sections now. One of the things O'Brien asserts is that everyone can be "broken" eventually. I don't believe this - maybe it's wishful thinking, but I think that there are some people who can't be "broken", people that you could kill, but could never make them what you wanted them to be against their will.

It's a funny thing, but the one way this book has directly affected my actually behavior in life, is that it is the reason I've never bought a lottery ticket. The following passage had a profound affect on me when I was a kid:

"They were talking about the Lottery. Winston looked back when he had gone thirty metres. They were still arguing, with vivid, passionate faces. The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the running of the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons. In the absence of any real intercommunication between one part of Oceania and another, this was not difficult to arrange."


To this day, I still think of the lottery as a sort of secret tax on stupid poor people. Just my opinion, mind, but that's how I feel.

There are several scenes in the book where Winston takes lunch in the cafeteria where he works. Sometimes when I'm in the cafeteria where I work, I wonder what Winston would make of it all - people ignoring the telescreens, sititng alone if they want, reading whatever they want, many of them openly disparaging the government. I wonde rhow he feel if he were suddenly plopped down into our world. I remeber reading in the old days about folks that defected to the U.S. from the Soviet Union who would find that life in a "free" wasn't always everything they had thought it would be.

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Comment by Randy Jackson on August 24, 2009 at 1:18am
Interesting. I far preferred reading Brave New World. I think 1984 was a great work, but I think Huxley reads better.
Comment by The Baron on August 24, 2009 at 10:59am
Matter of taste, I guess. I found Orwell's scenario more interesting.
Comment by The Baron on August 24, 2009 at 11:21am
Actually, now I feel as though I ought to re-read Huxley's book, just to see if I have a new perspective on it.
Comment by Figserello on August 28, 2009 at 8:14am
'The idiot tax' as my know-it-all brother-in-law calls it.

Great commentary Baron. The last time I read 1984, it struck me how personal to Orwell it was. He was dying of TB, suffering just like Smith was. He gets consolation from writing it all down and knowing that perhaps someone someday will read it.

Even Smith's tryst in the woods with the girl was an echo of how difficult it was to get alone with a girl if you were a poor young writer living in boarding houses like Orwell.

I never did get around to reading Brave New World. It always seemed to be just historically interesting, as how the future looked in the early part of the C20th. 1984 seemed to be a book that would always be relevant. Fiji and Iran are two countries going through heavy Big Brother style oppression at the moment and Bush's regime has just spent 8 years trying to rewrite all kinds of history and dumb down the discourse with his friends in Fox.

The world wil be a positively joyful place if 1984 /i> ever goes out of fashion!

The main narrative of League of Gentlemen - The Black Casebook is set in the alternative, I think 1954 or so, and all the events in Orwell's book had lasted from 1946 to 1953 or so. It was satisfying to see how quickly everything moved on and the seemingly eternal regime fell 'overnight', as they do.
Comment by The Baron on August 28, 2009 at 6:35pm

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