NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR – George Orwell (1949)

0EE75B7A-A9C1-438A-9FDD-B6AE90F61276I can understand the cultural significance of this book – it’s so significant I don’t need to explain to you what this book is about: you know.

That might be one of the reasons I felt this to be utterly boring: I don’t think I learned a thing, it all felt so familiar, generic even.

Because of its central place in the Western literary canon, my feelings about 1984 are hard to parse. Might I have loved this if I hadn’t known so much about it? If I’d read it when it first came out?

I’m not so sure. It felt like Orwell was preaching the entire time, and I generally don’t like MESSAGE literature. I didn’t like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t feel fully realistic either.

Another issue: I didn’t buy Orwell’s future world. It seemed so binary – everything in service of Orwell’s didactics. I missed the path towards the state of affairs described: such a path would be complex & interesting, but Orwell basically reduces the Ingsoc state system to a bad boogeyman, and the motivations of the characters that installed and sustain this system aren’t really explored. Indeed: I missed a certain kind of depth.

I know I’m in a minority position. The cultural norm is to like books that are against totalitarianism: over 4 million ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.19 average. Most dissident voices on Goodreads – the one and two star reviews – say the same: not enough story, too much essay, bland characters, heavy-handed exposition, a cartoon villain.

That said: what Orwell does extremely well is illustrate blatant lies as a powerful political method.


ps – For those of you who don’t read the comments, somebody posted a link to a 1984 review Isaac Asimov wrote in 1980. Asimov is highly critical, and raises interesting points. Definitely worth your time.

His text is here: or here

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


37 responses to “NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR – George Orwell (1949)

  1. Yeah, this is a message first, not a story first. Like Ayn Rand’s books.
    As such, I’d expect all the short comings you mention.,

    I also think that it is so widely known, even if just at a bare basic idea level means Orwell did something right.

    What’s on tap for you next?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well, Animal Farm reads better, and I like reading about Orwell (graphic novel biography is great!), but this aged a bit… but also became so huge that the real thing might disappoint. Perhaps this should be read pretty early in one’s intellectual development? Or with the historical context very much in mind, the condition of the left, problems many had with recognizing how big of a threat Soviet Union is?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Coincidentally I read a few reviews of a couple of his biographies, looks like he had a wild life indeed.

      Yes, reading this with historical eyes was about the only way to finish it, otherwise I would have stopped about halfway. And you might be right about that reading it early in your intellectual development, I guess it could be marketed as YA today.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve read this book twice; once in high school (class assignment), and once in college. Both times I walked away from it underwhelmed, and a bit frustrated by the poorly realized world in which the story is situated. I didn’t find the characters’ actions particularly believable, and the ending annoyed me. Strangely, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a book I read paired with this one in both cases, and though that book also annoyed me, it’s stuck with me as more interesting than 1984. That one is far more concerned with the human situation at the core of its story, and that human situation is why that novel annoyed me. 1984 simply ignores the fact that societies are made up by human beings. Other than the fact I read the two books back to back, and the fact both are recounting horrible societies, they don’t really have much to do with the other (though both authors were socialists), but The Jungle is simply the better book, and better social and political commentary, too.

    I think 1984 has the cultural cache that it has because it is assigned reading in high schools, so it is a common cultural language people can use to contextualize their feelings on governments abusing power. If it were to drop off the reading list of high schools, I am reasonably certain that in 40 years it’d be largely forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never heard of The Jungle, will read up on that. I’ve thought about reading Zamyatin’s We and also Brave New World, both better books if I’m to believe what I’ve read about them, but I think I’m about done with the genre as a whole.

      The assigned reading for sure is a thing, even though I don’t know if it still is widely assigned today in the US/UK – not saying it isn’t, just that I don’t know. I guess it’s easy for teachers: clear message, they are familiar with the work too. In a way a form of cultural lethargy, which is ironic given what 1984 tries to warn against.

      For the situation here in Flanders, it’s less present in English classes than it used to be 15 or 20 years ago, when a chapter about dystopian literature was often part of textbooks, generally tackling 1984 and Brave New World. We taught about it, but didn’t necessarily read it. Same goes for Animal Farm btw.


  4. Yeah. I have no idea what I would think about where I to reread this today. But soon I will read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, so that will be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Handmaid’s Tale is a much better book. Not without fault, though. Looking forward to your thoughts on that.

      I read it in 2016, a bit before #metoo broke loose, and before the television adaptation. It seems the book has become ubiquitous today – I’d say its cultural significance probably is larger than that of 1984 today.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Winston "I Can't Get No Razors" Eddieford

    The definitive takedown of 1984 I think was written by Isaac Asimov. His criticism of it goes beyond the book itself, specifically how a book meant specifically as a condemnation of Stalinism became a touchstone for those critical of government in general

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that comment, much appreciated. It seems like a very interesting read, will get back to it later today. I didn’t now Orwell was a pseudonym!

      I can see how this book might be weaponized in the ideological battle contra big government or even general anti-government sentiment. Dangerous stuff as such.


    • That’s a really good piece by Asimov. I think I agree on all fronts. The Newspeak criticism is on point. I’m going to edit in the link in my original review, thanks again!


  6. Yup. The book that starts a cliche will read like a cliche.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is another of the “classics” I read way back when and at the time I was suitably impressed – now I wonder how I would think of it, and your comments about the preaching make me think my reaction would be quite close to yours….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aonghus Fallon

    I read this in my teens, so it made a big impression on me. You rightly point out that the path leading to such a system of government is never clarified. I only noticed this recently* and suspect it may be a deliberate choice on Orwell’s part – he’s saying it doesn’t really matter if the state was originally Communist or Fascist (despite these idealogies being theoretically opposites) as both roads lead to the same destination. In terms of the book’s literary merits (and I think it does have literary merit) and in terms of world-building, I think you have to assess 1984 for what it is: propaganda. And I say this as somebody who is broadly in agreement with it. How effective is it as propaganda? I’d say pretty effective.

    Orwell reviewed a couple of books which were clearly a big influence. One was We (a Russian SF novel which I read many years ago and barely remember), the other was Darkness at Noon by Koestler which I read last year and would highly recommend.

    * I just assumed it was a critique of Communism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, it’s effective propaganda. Good way to frame it. I’ve looked into We, and I don’t think I’ll read it, I think I’m done with the message genre. Will look into Darkness at Noon, thanks.

      Btw, if you’ve missed the Asimov piece on 1984 linked to in the comment by Winston Eddieford, it’s very much worth a read. It also confirms your propaganda remark.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aonghus Fallon

        That’s a very interesting review, but I think the reality may have been a bit more nuanced – for example, Orwell’s relationship with Communism was more one of disillusionment than active antagonism?

        I think the historical context is interesting, too. England’s intellectuals were generally pro-Russian and refused to acknowledge the reality of the purges. I guess this was one of those rare instances in which the establishment was right about something (ie, Russia’s perfidy) and the country’s intellectuals were not only wrong, but complicit? My belief is that 1984 probably received government support. So when I define it as ‘propaganda’ I don’t mean just on Orwell’s part, but that the UK/US governments actively promoted it, and probably played a role in publishing it.

        Asimov talks about a lack of realism and says the world depicted in 1984 harks to the past rather than the future. One of the central conceits of 1984 is that it’s just a slightly distorted (and conscious) version of Orwell’s present, the title – in which the last two numbers are reversed (the book was written in 1948) being a deliberate clue – I’m thinking of the overall ambience; the food shortages, the bombed buildings, the poverty, the grubbiness of life in general.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, those are all really good points. Add to that Calmgrove’s remark on one of Asimov’s point below.

          When I was reading a bit about the book before the review, there was a passage on Wikipedia that struck me, as I thought the 1984-1948 was undisputed:

          “Shortly before completion of the second draft, Orwell hesitated between two titles for the novel: The Last Man in Europe, an early title, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Warburg suggested the latter, which he took to be a more commercially viable choice. There has been a theory — doubted by Dorian Lynskey (author of a 2019 book about Nineteen Eighty-Four) — that 1984 was chosen simply as an inversion of the year 1948, the year in which it was being completed. Lynskey says the idea was “first suggested by Orwell’s US publisher,” and it was also mentioned by Christopher Hitchens in his introduction to the 2003 edition of Animal Farm and 1984, which also notes that the date was meant to give “an immediacy and urgency to the menace of totalitarian rule”. However, Lynskey does not believe the inversion theory:
          ‘This idea […] seems far too cute for such a serious book. […] Scholars have raised other possibilities. [His wife] Eileen wrote a poem for her old school’s centenary called ‘End of the Century: 1984.’ G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 political satire The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which mocks the art of prophecy, opens in 1984. The year is also a significant date in The Iron Heel. But all of these connections are exposed as no more than coincidences by the early drafts of the novel […] First he wrote 1980, then 1982, and only later 1984. The most fateful date in literature was a late amendment.'”

          Liked by 2 people

          • Aonghus Fallon

            I guess as explanations go, it does seem a bit glib? Plus there may be another explanation: Orwell may have been trying to frighten his readers by having them imagine a reality almost identical to their current post-war circumstances, only existing indefinitely – ie, no light at the end of the tunnel etc, etc.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your comment, challenging the quality of the book in a respectful manner. It may be an instance where the phenomenon supersedes the quality of the novel. I have read Fahrenheit, and bits of The Handmaids tale. Like you, I am not completely won over them but I am more appreciative of them becoming the literature emblem or cultural weapon against totalitarianism.

    However, I love Bradbury, specially everything else than Fahrenheit.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I agree: I read Animal Farm and 1984 in my teens, got the message, and never want to read them again, though certainly the various concepts that Orwell invented (Big Brother, or Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad) retain a powerful hold on the imagination. A similar reason is stopping me continuing with Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which I began as Trump came to power but only got through a few chapters before reality overtook fiction.

    (Incidentally, I believe Orwell chose the date 1984 merely because the last two digits reversed represented the year he was completing it – the year of my birth, as it happens – though it wasn’t published till a year later.)

    The Asimov critique is pertinent but I think he may have missed the point – the novel is really a parable, not science fiction at all, and like all parables it falls down once you start to examine the details.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See my reply about the 1948-1984 thing to Aonghus Fallon above.

      You are spot on about the parable – in a sense, that part of Asimov’s critique isn’t really relevant indeed. And indeed, generally, I don’t like reading parables, at least not in novel form.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have an early-ish novel of his, The Clergyman’s Daughter, yet to read, and though I understand there is a social commentary dimension to that I hope it shows Orwell as capable of more than political parables.

        Regarding the name Eric Blair chose as his pseudonym – he used to boat down the River Orwell in Essex – it’s interesting that Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (which introduces the notion of different futures manifesting themselves) has a pacifist protagonist named George Orr…

        Liked by 1 person

  11. What’s most fascinating about all of Orwell’s novels is how they repeat the same plot: they’re all about ordinary folk getting absorbed into, or brainwashed into, a system they spend most of the book trying to resist.

    And so with “1984” we watch a miserable guy try to resist an authoritarian dystopia. He fails and gets sucked in. In “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” – his most depressing and underrated book – we watch a guy try to resist capitalism, only to give in at the end, as he stares down at a photo of his unborn kid and begins planning how to earn money to raise it.

    Meanwhile in “Clergyman’s Daughter” a young woman tries to resist religion and parochial sexism. She fails. In “Burmese Diaries” (another underrated book) a young guy tries to resist Imperialism/colonialism and its racist assumptions; he again eventually fails.

    What tends to be powerful about these novels is their final scenes. These are pessimistic, miserable books which end with these wonderfully complex bits of tragedy. Their heroes tend to rationalize or brainwash themselves into kowtowing to various social and economic systems. They become co-opted. They become just another footsoldier to ideology. And it’s precisely their ability to think of themselves as unique, autonomous, rebellious individuals that makes them the perfect subjects of the system imposing its will upon them.

    IMO “1984” is an overrated book – it was pumped up by right wingers and the CIA because it bashed Stalinism – and is less interesting than other Orwell novels like “Burmese Diaries” and “Aspidistra”. But I would still say it’s a great book. The prose is clear and punchy, and has a functional elegance about it. Orwell also writes miserable, dull guys well. He also gets Stalinism right. He gets authoritarianism right.

    I think modern disappointment about the novel stems from five things. One, it’s hyped-up beyond belief. Two, it’s sold as a science-fiction or dystopian novel about the future (note that this review itself focuses on an “inability to believe Orwell’s take on the future”) when the novel is intended as a realist novel about the 1940s, dressed up in abstractions. Three, it has a long, awful bit of sermonizing in the middle. Four, it’s been copied to death. Five, its insights into fascism/authoritarianism are now well known.

    So while I think the novel is great, I think this greatness depends on one’s ability to cut massive amounts of slack (you basically have to ignore that screed in the middle), and to put it in the context of its time, and the context of Orwell’s other work (it bounces off of, and reconfigures, all his other novels, particularly “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, its ideological opposite).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are interesting observations, thanks!

      For me the problem is Orwell didn’t sell the tragedy of the characters, as he failed to make me connect with them, amongst other things because of the 5 reasons you mention – maybe the most important of them that I didn’t really learn anything from this book.

      I’m not even sure this book is that good a study of totalitarianism today: as I tried to explain, Orwell doesn’t explain how the society got there, and I thought Newspeak was pretty weak & unrealistic as a concept too.

      It’s interesting you think it’s a great novel, even though there’s massive amounts of slack. Wouldn’t that kind of discredits the novel from being great? The answer to that is partly a semantic issue, I realize that. The bigger question is how much we can forgive flaws in works of art – for me a redeeming ending rarely make up for what came before, and in this case, what came before hindered my enjoyment of the ending.


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