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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one

Greetings, readers! I've stuck to the schedule so far, and I finished 1984 in exactly 7 days. I've decided to start each blog entry off with a quick synopsis so that people have some background as they read my thoughts. If you're planning to read one of the books on the list and haven't read it before, skip the synopsis so you don't ruin the plot for yourself.

1984 by George Orwell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

So we've got Winston Smith, who is our main character, and I suppose we must say, our protagonist. He is rather dull, very run of the mill, and fairly uninteresting. Winston lives in 1984, a time in which, according to Orwell, the world has basically gone to hell in a handbasket. This lovely dystopia features constant surveillance of the "party" members by the government, as well as the ritual torturing, interrogation, and murder of dissenting citizens. Winston spends most of the book trying to determine if a revolution against the party really exists. He has a love affair with a woman named Julia, who is also against the party (in secret, of course) but doesn't believe that an organized revolution exists. Winston latches onto a man named O'Brien, who helps Winston to "join" the revolution. Winston soon realizes, however, that O'Brien is merely a member of the "Thought Police", and Winston and Julia are captured, tortured, and interrogated. Winston withstands the torture, despite its long duration, maintaining the belief that as long as he doesn't offer up Julia's life for his own, he will have succeeded in his rebellion. In the end, however, when faced with his greatest fear, Winston offers to sacrifice Julia, and O'Brien (and the party) have won. Winston and Julia are reintegrated into society, and though they meet again, they cannot love each other any more because they were both willing to offer the other's life in order to save their own. Winston ends the novel with the realization that he does, in fact, love Big Brother (the icon for the party).

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The first thing I did after I finished 1984 was take a shower. I spent the rest of the day doing traditional, Saturday afternoon, free human things: I made a beef stew, a Thai curry chicken soup, and chocolate ginger soufflés. I needed to reassert my existence and my freedom after reading about Winston losing his completely.

I underlined a few sections of the book as I read (I know, scandalous! Writing in a book! And I can't do it for the next 2 books because I got them from the library. Sad!) so I'm just going to jump about with a few comments on each one, then I'll discuss general feelings about the book as a whole.

Cabbage - Orwell says that everything smells of boiled cabbage, and I found this interesting. I mean, I like the taste of cabbage, but I suppose sauerkraut is probably on my list of permanent scents for hell. Also making the list are cooked scrapple, raw chicken, and patchouli.

Children - the children in this novel are some of the most despicable characters. They rat on their parents to the Thought Police, they are the mouthpieces and earpieces of the party, and they don't know anything before the existence of the party. I found this frightening, and somewhat reminiscent of Briony in Atonement. Briony means well, but she sets in motion a series of truly horrible events. I found Winston's discussion of his own terrible behavior as a child to be particularly interesting. Orwell seemed to try hard to make Winston unlikable, and yet, he was the only possible character we could hope would do anything really important. He was, in fact, pretty much the only character at all!

I found the aspects of revisionist history (the past is what we decide it is, not what actually happened) and Newspeak (the destruction of words - why do we need good and bad, if we can have good and ungood, which are true opposites) to be provocative, and rather too close to home. Revisionism made me think of people who don't believe the Holocaust happened, and Newspeak made me think of the Académie Française, who decide what foreign words are allowed to enter the pristine French language. (Only so many are allowed each year, so they have to decide whether to let in "ahmbaregare" (hamburger) or "papier de toilette" (toilet paper, instead of hygienic paper). Most French people say what they want anyway, sorry Académie. I asked my host mom for some "papier hygiénique" when I was in France, and she looked at me like I was an alien. Then I waggled the old toilet paper roll at her, and she was like, "ah! papier de toilette!")

Bowels - When something frightens Winston, or shocks him, he feels it in his bowels. I suppose this is true for many people, but I was amused by Orwell's constant reference to things happening in Winston's lower area.

At several points in the book, Orwell discusses sanity and what it means to be sane. I chose the quote for the title because it felt brilliantly poetic. Winston thinks for some time that he is, perhaps, the only dissenter against the party, and he wonders if he is insane, or merely a solitary revolutionary. Don't worry, Winston, I often feel like a lunatic and a minority of one. Winston also comes to the conclusion that stupidity, or ignorance, is a coping mechanism for the masses to remain sane. I have always wished I were less intelligent, less of a critical thinker. I think happiness might be more attainable, and, if nothing else, my mind would be a little more quiet. But I'm sure that's just "grass is greener" talk, and I know everyone has their own worries and struggles.

When Julia and Winston have a tryst in the woods, a thrush sings for a long time. Winston says later that he felt the thrush was singing just for them. This was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments in the book. To be perfectly honest, I hate birds, and have a totally irrational fear of them, (Well, maybe it's not so irrational - when I was little a blue jay landed on my head. I'm almost sure I'm not making that memory up. But sometimes you just don't quite know either way.) so I was surprised I liked this section as much as I did. But it's one of the very few moments when I truly felt that the world of 1984 was still a world, a place where people and animals and plants existed at all.

I enjoyed Orwell's description of Room 101 at the end of the book. Room 101 is where Winston is taken for his last bout of torture. It's a torture of the less conventional variety. Room 101 is a sort of boggart. For non-HP fans, that's code for your worst fears. Winston can handle beatings, electric shocks, humiliation, degradation, but not what O'Brien has in Room 101. For Winston, Room 101 is... rats. Well, technically, a cage for your face with rats waiting to chew your skin off. And you know what, Winston? I can't blame you. I can't stand the thought of rats either. I've had several bad experiences with mice, and I just don't even need to think about how much bigger and sneakier and dirtier rats can be. Although I did buy a pair of "fancy rats" for my sister as pets with my other sister one Christmas. But ultimately, we could none of us get over the fact that "Captain Cynthia", and whatever the other one's name was, were still rodents. We gave them to a Biology teacher, who kept them as class pets. I think Captain Cynthia died.

But think about it. What would be in your Room 101? What is the thing that is so frightening that you would sell off any one you loved, the person you loved most, to avoid it? I'm not sure what would be in my Room 101. Birds, maybe. Failure, perhaps. A huge wall of F grades and no books or music or happy thoughts. Maybe 1984 is my Room 101.

I spoke to my roommates about the end of the book, and when I told one of my roommates that I was disappointed with Winston for failing Julia in the end, he said, "well, you do like a happy ending." And it's true, I am always hoping that happiness can come from the most dire situations and hope can spring from darkness. But I think it's more than that. I was angry with Winston because I wanted to believe that, were I in his situation, I would act differently. I would accept the torture, and the rats, and Room 101, and gladly die before offering up the ones I love. But I can't truly say I know if I would be different. If I would be better. Perhaps I'm not really angry at Winston; perhaps I'm angry at myself.

All told, I'm glad I read 1984, though it was challenging to read on an emotional and metaphysical level. I'm really not sure it's something people should read in high school, as I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have understood it on as deep of a level had I read it back then. But who knows - maybe lots of people really connect with it as teenagers, maybe they get it just as well.

I'm looking forward to reading To Kill a Mockingbird next, though I've read it twice before. It will be a nice departure from Orwell's haunting vision, and I look forward to what will hopefully be a slightly less morbid post.

See you in a week or so!


  1. i wish i had time to read the books with you! that would be so awesome. maybe i can sneak in a short one here and there and add a guest blog.

    i feel like i understand 1984 more from that post than when i read it a number of years ago!

  2. on the bright side, you don't have to return ANYTHING to the library. jawn's closing.

    i like your sidebar list. makes me feel like i've accomplished something in my life. i'm not gonna count, but i've definitely read most of them.

    keep up the good work!

  3. dammit! i counted.
    and dammit! i've not read most of them. only 49.

  4. i had to count as well, only 26! but that's a quarter so not bad. also the HP series is on the list as ONE even though it is really 7 books, so... but anyway. i enjoyed your reactions to the book, a mixture of literary analysis and personal feelings; i think i too would have liked to take a shower first. looking forward to next week!

  5. Fantastic insight into the novels! You could have a career writing spark notes! ;)

    I agree w/ Diana - I feel like I have a better understanding of the books after reading your posts. It got me thinking...maybe that is the purpose of 1984 -- demonstrating that Big Brother exists BECAUSE Winston (i.e. everyman) wouldn't risk his own life to change it. And that's why as a reader, you feel so disillusioned regarding Winston's decision, because it really is anger over your own realization that you'd make the same choice. (I really wouldn't want rats w/ the munchies getting anywhere near my face...but oh the guilt for sacrificing someone else over that!).

    Can't wait for next week's post! :)

  6. i forgot to count how many I had read! i've read 45 of them. so only half! not that many.