The 100 best novels: No 70 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
George Orwell’s dystopian classic cost its author dear but is arguably the best-known novel in English of the 20th century
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Time is out of joint, and everyday life has no comfort any more: from Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) to Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell had been incubating a profound inner dissonance with his society. Even as a child, he had been fascinated by the futuristic imagination of HG Wells (and later, Aldous Huxley). Finally, at the end of his short life, he fulfilled his dream. Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguably the most famous English novel of the 20th century, is a zeitgeist book. Orwell’s dystopian vision was deeply rooted both in its author’s political morality, and in its time, the postwar years of western Europe. Its themes (the threat of the totalitarian state, censorship and the manipulation of language) continue to reverberate, with prophetic menace, like distant gunfire, into the present.
After the third world war, Britain is now Airstrip One in the American superstate of Oceania, permanently in conflict with Eurasia and Eastasia. Winston Smith, a former journalist employed by the Ministry of Truth to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports state policy, decides to launch his own hopeless private rebellion against the oppression of “the Party” and its all-seeing, all-powerful dictator, Big Brother. Winston’s revolt gets added impetus from his association with Julia, another dissident, who wants to use her rampant sexuality to defy the repression of “the Party”.
When Winston and Julia’s brief affair is discovered by the Thought Police they are subjected to the torments of Room 101 at the hands of the merciless O’Brien. “If you want a picture of the future,” says this demonic figure, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” At the end, now brainwashed into submission, Winston awaits his execution as “the last man in Europe”, the working title of Orwell’s first draft.
The plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is one thing; its ideas are something else. In the 65 years since its publication, “Big Brother is watching you”, “newspeak”, “doublethink” “prole”, “thoughtcrime”, “unperson”, “reality control” and “the Two Minutes Hate” have become inseparable from the English language. Orwell himself, in the words of one critic, “the wintry conscience of his generation”, has become a kind of secular saint, which is an incarnation that might surprise his former colleagues on this newspaper, the Observer.