*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Book Groups: Big Brother lives on

by
31 October 2007

David Bryant reads Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

ATLANTIC RELEASING/EVERETT/REX FEATURES

ATLANTIC RELEASING/EVERETT/REX FEATURES

MY SON, who is 21, was about to catch a train to Newcastle. “Have you got anything I can read, Dad?” I fished out a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and handed it over. A week later came his verdict: “Orwell’s book really set me thinking. It’s just what today’s state could develop into.” I think he might be right.

Orwell, writing in 1948, sets the scene for his totalitarian state. Winston lives in the ruins of London in the province of Oceania. The staples of his life are stale bread, foul canteen meals, and disgusting Victory gin. He is employed in a futile job at the Ministry of Truth, falsifying history.

A screen fills one corner of his room, and his every gesture, utterance, and action is scrutinised. What will be familiar to readers is the menacing figure of Big Brother. His posters fill every public place. He is “black haired, black moustached, full of power”. Orwell had in mind the dictators of his day, Stalin and Hitler.

Suddenly it all feels vaguely familiar. Our generation has seen many dictators: Mao, Enver Hoxha, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Robert Mugabe. Under their regimes, impoverishment, inadequate nourishment, and fear hold sway. Their secret police and corrupt militias epitomise the horrors of Orwell’s world. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a remarkably accurate forecast.

Later in the book, Winston falls foul of the authorities, and is taken to the inappropriately named Ministry of Love to be brainwashed. So effective is this process that he ends up believing whatever absurdity the party confronts him with. In one scene, his persecutor holds up four fingers, and asks him how many he can see. He replies “Five.” People can be made to believe anything, provided enough victimisation and threats are used.

  It is true that all satirists such as Orwell exaggerate to the point of absurdity. That is their way of bringing the message home effectively. But his observations should not be dismissed lightly. The power of the press today is enormous. It can manipulate public opinion, bring down governments, blacken public figures, and sway the masses.

Television can mould our thought forms, religious diatribe can drive us into the ranks of fanatics. Are Orwell’s gin-sodden individuals the forebears of our alcohol-obsessed youngsters, who find drugs and drink the only escapes from an empty society? After a while, we realise that Big Brother’s ludicrous slogans —

  WAR IS PEACE

  FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

  WEAKNESS IS STRENGTH

— are not so insane after all.

Rebellion is one of the book’s main themes. Winston initially refuses to kow-tow to fascism. He scribbles “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in his diary. He tries to join the shadowy Brotherhood, a covert anti-fascist organisation, and realises that there is a sickness in Oceania’s hate weeks, lies, and persecution.

We are drawn inexorably back to our own society, and to those who try to introduce needed change. We see intimations of the green movement. Here is an echo, too, of those who fight racism, street violence, and injustice, and who work for world peace and health.

Deception runs through the book. There is Doublethink, or holding two contradictory facts and believing them both to be true. Newspeak is an invented language that meets the ideological needs of the party, and ignores reality. We read of the transmission of absurd, manipulated information about the party’s economic achievements. We wonder if any of today’s political pronouncements fall into this category, and we might question the truth of the statistics that are fed to us by government departments.

Belief in God constitutes thought crime in Winston’s world, for which the penalty is death. One of his colleagues is arrested for leaving the word “God” in one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems, because he could not find another rhyme. Winston is told by a party member: “We are the priests of power. God is power.”

Read and enjoy Nineteen Eighty-Four. It stands high on the list of Britain’s most popular books. But remember that Orwell is writing satire, the purpose of which is to pour scorn on what is being described. By outlining the lies of Big Brother’s revolution, he is indirectly extolling the opposite side of the coin: love compassion, truth, loyalty, freedom, trust, and integrity. In forcefully condemning the nanny state and totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four is extolling the Christian ethic.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest who lives in Yorkshire.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-14-118776-1.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-14-118776-1.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

SOME QUESTIONS

SOME QUESTIONS

What does George Orwell convey about the use and misuse of power in this novel?

Does the novel lose any of its impact now that the year 1984 has passed, and the book’s predictions have not come to fruition in exactly the ways described in the novel?

What did you find most disturbing about Nineteen Eighty-Four? Was there a scene that was especially memorable?

“It is a book about the continuing present: an update on the human condition. What matters most is that it reminds us of so many things we usually avoid” (Ben Pimlott, in the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition). What are these things we usually avoid? How far do you agree with Pimlott’s assessment?

Winston knew what the outcome of his thought crimes would be, yet he still persisted with them. How far did he have a choice?

What do you think was Orwell’s greatest fear about the future?

What was at the heart of Winston’s relationship with Julia?

What is the significance of Winston’s dreams?

“If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles.” How much truth is there in his statement?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. It is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-14-102052-0).

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. It is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-14-102052-0).

Author notes

Marina Lewycka was born in 1946 in a refugee camp in Kiel in Germany. Her parents had ended up there after being transported as forced labourers by the Nazis to Germany during the Second World War. Shortly after she was born, the family moved to England. She studied at Keele University, and later took an MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University, where she now teaches part-time. She lives in Sheffield, is married and has a daughter.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was her first novel, although she had previously written a number of books for Age Concern about caring for elderly people. It was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, and has won other awards, including the Saga Award for Wit. Her second novel, Two Caravans, was published earlier this year.

Book notes

Two years after his wife dies, Nikolai, a Ukrainian who migrated to London after the Second World War, meets and falls for Valentina, a fellow Ukrainian who is nearly 50 years his junior. His daughters, Vera and Nadia, who have had a poor relationship with each other since their mother died, suspect Valentina of being after Nikolai’s money and of wanting a way to ensure that she and her son can remain in the West.

Valentina is brash and manipulative, but she unites the previously feuding Vera and Nadia in their desire to have her removed back home. As a result of their renewed contact with each other, Nadia learns of family secrets.

Books for the next two months:

January: Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

February: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

To place an order for any of the books on this page, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for any of the books on this page, email details to CT Bookshop

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)