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Nineteen Eighty Four back to reviews
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If Ayn Rand were a democratic socialist...
I enjoyed this book when I first read it. I've a thing for dystopian futures, artlangs (like Newspeak or Burgess's Nadsat), war, politics, economics, espionage, etc. For me, this book had it all. It really struck a chord with me; I remember actually very disturbed by its grim-seeming ending (the exact nature of which, and whether it's really all that grim at all, is disputed). I love the way the world was simultaneously fleshed out and obfuscated, particularly.

The more I dwell on the book, though, the less I enjoy it. In fact, I've come to dislike Eric Arthur Blair (Mr. Orwell) and Nineteen Eighty-Four's spiritual sister Animal Farm. Several things about it have come to bother me, not the least of which is its political message (in fact, in light of Blair's "demsoc" leanings, I may very well be the type of "bad communist" he wrote this book to vilify). However, I think I can safely say -not as a "Stalinist" but as a reader- that Blair's work here is simply not the poignant masterpiece it's made out to be. I compare Blair to Rand in the title of this review because I find some striking similarities in their works, even if Blair is -no contest- the better writer.

Even where anvils need to be dropped, a clear-cut good-evil binary is simply not interesting, and that's exactly what we have in this novel. The reader is not allowed to come to any conclusion other than to the inherent evil of the Party. Sure, Smith is shown to have made some morally ambiguous statements (acid in a child's face?), but that doesn't mitigate the rather sophomoric moral being spoon-fed to us. Masterpieces have points to make, sure, but they shouldn't have morals in the way a fable might. And that's what this is: not a masterpiece, not a fully matured work of art, but a fable. It's a comic book without pictures and with a seriously downer ending. This is particularly frustrating for someone who wants to read a book to explore new ideas and worlds, not to be converted.

This book is also particularly infuriating in that, despite being a work of fiction and a self-admitted author tract, it tends to color people's view of the Soviet Union, knowledge of its actual history occasionally scribbled in as an afterthought, and socialism in general, despite Blair's personal politics.
It's annoying that you insist on calling him Blair. Call him Orwell, like the rest of us.

I contest the notion that a "masterpiece" can't have overt, fable-like morals. Didacticism was a common literary technic used throughout the ages, and many more great works use the setting and story to proselytise (Jane Eyre, Orlando, etc.)

This is particularly frustrating for someone who wants to read a book to explore new ideas and worlds, not to be converted. Many books utilise fantasy settings to illustrate an ideology. Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?
comment #5156 maninahat 17th Nov 10
It's annoying that you insist on calling him Blair. Call him Orwell, like the rest of us. You should be a little more polite. I call him Blair because I'm more familiar with him for his work as a linguist.

Didacticism was a common literary technic used throughout the ages, and many more great works use the setting and story to proselytise (Jane Eyre, Orlando, etc.) That doesn't really address why these books are good in light of their proselytism, though. Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered a masterpiece by many, but not by me for the reason of its being a (rather cartoonish) fable. The books you listed may be considered masterpieces, but do consider that some might not feel that way... (I'd argue Jane Eyre, despite its strong sense of right and wrong, is on a whole other level. The most glaring difference between the two novels is that, despite Charlotte Bronte's powerfully insistent social criticism, her book is still much more nuanced than are Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm... and much more honest, given that it's partially autobiographical. Blair, on the other hand, never lived in the Soviet Union or Germany. In fact, his work as a propagandist for England during World War II and the fact that he often criticized by other, more experienced socialist thinkers colors his work less as "man courageously standing up to reveal a hard truth" and more like "college slacktivist writes a snarky Take That at people he doesn't like".)

Chronicles of Narnia, anyone? Also, a series of books I liked at first and grew to dislike, for much the same reason.

comment #5160 osconchur89 18th Nov 10
You should be a little more polite. I call him Blair because I'm more familiar with him for his work as a linguist. If you continue calling him Blair, it just seems you're more fixated on him rather than his novels. Does the matter of him not ever having lived in Soviet Russia actually matter when discussing the body of his work?

Even where anvils need to be dropped, a clear-cut good-evil binary is simply not interesting, and that's exactly what we have in this novel. The reader is not allowed to come to any conclusion other than to the inherent evil of the Party. I also don't see how clear-cut morality excludes something from being a masterpiece, nor do I agree with your idea that good-evil is uninteresting. Good and evil is possibly the oldest trope in fiction, for good reason. It works, and subverting it won't inherently make something more interesting. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that your political views actually are shaping your opinion of his work (since your beliefs happen to be obliquely playing the part of "evil" in Orwell's fictional tales).

If your conditions for a masterpiece mean it has to be a certain level of nuanced or else, that's fine. But it sounds like you're more interested in attacking the man himself rather than anything else.
comment #5165 Byemus 19th Nov 10
If you continue calling him Blair, it just seems you're more fixated on him rather than his novels. You're placing far too much importance on what I'm calling him. His pen name was Orwell, his legal name was Blair; the same man wrote the book by whatever name. I'm not addressing a different emanation, like Apollo Orwellos versus Apollo Blairos or something.

Does the matter of him not ever having lived in Soviet Russia actually matter when discussing the body of his work? Yes it does, in fact. Let's set aside all arguments concerning Soviet history; Bla— I'm sorry, ORWELL never actually lived under any kind of dictator or totalitarian regime. (He fought during the Spanish Civil War, on the Republican side, but this conflict began as part of the rebellion that eventually replaced the republic with a fascist dictatorship.) Does this mean he's not allowed to write a book about dictators and oppression? No more than I'm not allowed to write a book about a GULAG prisoner's daily life, or about the turmoil of a Jew in the Auschwitz camps. But, then again, personal experience adds a certain soul to one's writing. I might be able to write a very compelling pseudo-biography of a Polish Jew during the war (for the sake of argument; I honestly don't think I could), but how do you think it would compare to a work of fiction written by a Polish Jew who had lived through that time... or even someone who simply knew such a person? Or even someone who has professionally researched the Holocaust? I'm not saying Orwell's work is invalid for those reasons (I am, in fact, keeping my politics out of this.), but I am saying the work lacks a kind of realistic emotional experience. See below as to why this impedes my enjoyment of the work.

I also don't see how clear-cut morality excludes something from being a masterpiece, nor do I agree with your idea that good-evil is uninteresting. If this book had been more nuanced in the point it was trying to make, ultimately about oppressive government contra personal freedom, Nineteen Eighty-Four could have become something akin to a very poignant science fiction story, one without necessarily fantastic elements... perhaps making predictions as to how developing technology will one day affect individual freedom or the preservation of history, truth, and culture (not unlike Aldous Huxely's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit451, both of which feature oppressive cultures and oppressive mindsets that affect things from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down). Huxley and Bradbury explore a kind of oppression that arises out of irrelevance, out of which people allow their culture, their values, even their families to decay or burn up, ultimately too distracted to stop it and discouraged from grieving through temptation, rather than punishment. Like Orwell, neither of these men lived underneath a dictatorship; Huxley was born in the United Kingdom and spent his later years in the United States, the latter the home country of Bradbury. Thus, these books simply seem more honest and real, because these men wrote from experience.

Good and evil is possibly the oldest trope in fiction... Tropes Are Not Bad versus Tropes Are Not Good

...for good reason. It works... Does it? By "works," I assume you mean "creates an enjoyable reading experience." But this type of trope most certainly did work in the establishment of religion, something on which most people's mileage will definitely vary. As for the trope creating an enjoyable reading experience, do you read the Bible? Do you read ancient works in which this binary is present? Do you read these things for the top-notch writing and characterization? Or do you read them because of their historical context and overall importance to culture via religion/mythology?

...and subverting it won't inherently make something more interesting. No, but recognizing that morality is much trickier than putting things into two distinct camps is a little more philosophically mature... and real. I'm not interested in arguing about morality or the dichotomy of good and evil, but suffice it to say some of the most prominent (and most widely misunderstood) philosophers have denied any such clear distinction, and this is a very challenging notion... Not necessarily correct, mind you, but certainly more involved than "Thou shalt not."

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that your political views actually are shaping your opinion of his work (since your beliefs happen to be obliquely playing the part of "evil" in Orwell's fictional tales). That's a pretty shaky limb you're out on, friend, and here's why:

If your conditions for a masterpiece mean it has to be a certain level of nuanced or else, that's fine. But it sounds like you're more interested in attacking the man himself rather than anything else. In two sentences, you mentioned the exact reasoning I demonstrated for not liking Orwell's book(s), and then went on to posit your own opposing hypothesis. I glean that this is based largely on two things, given what you've included in your post:

1. That I called him Blair—and this, according to you, betrays a hidden disdain for the man's character; and 2. That I mentioned, quite briefly, that I hold views Orwell had ostensibly created this fantastic nightmare-world to criticize.

You'll notice I haven't yet addressed the ideas of democratic socialism or socialist reformism, despite having mentioned these things by name. I haven't given my thoughts on any of Blair's political treatises or even his work as a propagandist for the Allied war effort, about which I sincerely have no strong feelings one way or the other. But I have addressed the elements of his writing that make me dislike the book:

1. I feel the good-evil binary is philosophically immature.

2. I feel writing a book without the basis of personal experience runs the great risk of being emotionally forced or unrealistic. (I'm willing to buy that Blair/Orwell has felt a kind of anxious pressure to find privacy or freedom from judgment/scrutiny, especially concerning issues of love. I buy that he probably had his eye, at one point, on a woman who was frustratingly chaste or even misandric. I buy that he's probably had coworkers he hated and unsatisfying sexual encounters and weird conversations with old people. The governmental oppression? Not so much.)

3. I feel that writing a book designed to drop a big ol' anvil ought to have personal, emotional experience with that anvil's "forge". I feel that, if it does, its emotional sincerity will make the book seem less like proselytizing and more like thoughtful social commentary.

(I'm not saying personal experience automatically makes a work great. Ayn Rand had, herself, lived in the Soviet Union and had, in fact, enjoyed an education that would go on to form her... ahem... philosophy. And yet when I read her books, it was like... looking at a 4" x 4" word-search puzzle in the newspaper with just one big 4" x 4" letter "A". You happen upon it and you look at it and you scrutinize it and then after a while you're like "What the fuck am I even looking at?")

As an aside: I do realize Huxley personally congratulated Orwell on having written and published '84. In fact, he personally felt it was going to some day be a very important book... and as far as I know, this exchange was wholly devoid of sarcasm. I enjoy Huxely's take on dystopia, but I can also disagree with his opinion regarding Orwell's.
comment #5166 osconchur89 19th Nov 10
I call him Blair because I'm more familiar with him for his work as a linguist.

I'm sorry to keep going on about it, but most people are not familiar with Orwell's work as a linguist. Seeing as how you are discussing his novel and not his linguistic works anyway, it would make sense to call him by the name most people are familar with. It is more for convenience than anything else.

...If this book had been more nuanced in the point it was trying to make, ultimately about oppressive government contra personal freedom, Nineteen Eighty-Four could have become something akin to a very poignant science fiction story...

I'm not entirely sure it is just about how authoritarianism is bad. I think the real story is about how people cope in an authoritarian society. Like Lord of the Rings, the focus of the story is less about the obvious, black and white dichotomy between love/freedom/forces of good and hate/opression/forces of evil, and more about the little guy trapped in between. We see how Smith is influenced by one or the other, and we wonder which way he will go in the end. Will he have the integrity to stand up for goodness, or will he fall in with the ubiquitous evil around him? Can Smith be described as a good or bad person? Anymore so than the people around him? It isn't quite so easy in his case. I argue that Orwell does display nuance with Smith's character.
comment #5178 maninahat 20th Nov 10
You know what, maninahat? That's a damn fine argument. I never really thought about it like that.
comment #5181 osconchur89 20th Nov 10
Wow...really? Shit, that never normally happens.
comment #5204 maninahat 22nd Nov 10
Well, now that I do think of it, I still have some problems with it (given the author himself stated that it was a very political tract). But to read it as apolitical and more a tale of human drama in a fantastic setting, it becomes a much better book.
comment #5207 osconchur89 22nd Nov 10

comment #6813 68.114.151.139 13th Mar 11
Anvilicious works typically rely on making half the characters act like total dumbasses and the other half given Deus Ex Machinas disguised as competence to enforce their Aesops. Nothing new.
comment #6822 130.49.71.195 15th Mar 11
1984 is in no way Anvilicious. What is the message suppose to be? Absolute and complete power of the government is bad? well perhaps in that regard... but that's pretty basic since that's the setting, we are never really fed spoon what the author considers to be the "right answer". So much so that the first time I read it trough, I did not know ensoc stood for english socialism (I probably skimmed truogh where they said it, who knows...). This proves in my mind, then, that the book cant be said to have any type of noticeable political slant in favour of the right or the left

Furthermore the whole idea of the book is to give the reader some kind of hope about a happy ending, and then smash it. Thus it takes place in the worst type of society the author could imagine. The protagonist is then shown a way out but in the end he realises he cant scape the system.

The final words of the book summarize the essence of 1984

"But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

I would like to add that lately, not particularly in regards to Orwell but in literature in gerneral, there seems to be a movement wholly devoted to pointing at the most representative pieces of literature and quietly saying "yea sure, it was a good book, but it wasnt that good". I personally find this sort of backhanded approach (using a higher standard to evaluate a book over an other) annoying. Sure backslash is a good thing and I personally love to see it happen to overly pretentious authors and fans... but then once again our popular culture is so vacuos that I dont think there are a whole lot of works out therethat can match this, while capturing the imagination of so many people. Thats why its a masterpiece. What sets it apart from Ann Rand? The fact that its message its almost universal and not confined to the fringes of right wing ideology.
comment #7544 jejl 5th May 11 (edited by: jejl)
I have to admit, I never picked up 1984 as being a communist/socialist thing. Now I think about it their are obvious connections but the way the Proles seemed to be almost left to themselves by the government fooled me.

Either I think the main message of the story is more about tyranny, the nature of truth and the way humans can be controlled
comment #7554 Tomwithnonumbers 6th May 11
This review made my day and I like how you exposed your critics (which I share) in a way clearer than mine. Unfortunately, 400 words aren't enough to analyze the defects of this book; however, since you defined yourself a "bad Communist" from Orwell POV (which, if I have understood you correctly, would apply to me too), it would be interesting to do an historically and dialectically structured counterattack to this book. In any case, thanks for your analysis.
comment #15387 Belfagor 15th Jul 12
"not a masterpiece, not a fully matured work of art, but a fable. It's a comic book without pictures" I highly resent the implications of this statement. Persepolis is a true-life retelling of someone growing up in an oppressive culture, and the entire point of Watchmen is moral ambiguity. And yet you argue 1984's lack of moral ambiguity and its lack of grounding in real life experience make it more like a comic book.

Don't generalize, please.
comment #15390 Wackd 15th Jul 12
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