I rarely read a book twice, as there are always so many new and exciting reading adventures waiting for me – but for some time now I had been wanting to read George Orwell’s “1984” again, especially after reading the amazing “The handmaid’s tale” by Margaret Atwood. This book strongly reminded me of “1984” and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, two books that strongly impressed me in my youth.
As an incredible coincidence, I also saw the movie “1984” starring John Hurt that same year, so I suppose all of this contributed to make it an unforgettable story.
A few weeks ago, and more than thirty years later, I finally came across the book – I had been looking for it without success – and I dived into the dark, repressive, terrible world of Winston Smith, the almighty Big Brother and the ever watchful “telescreen”.
I wonder how many people today are aware that the expression “Big Brother” – used in Portugal as the name of those horrendous reality shows where people are locked (voluntarily, of course) together inside a house being spied on by TV cameras 24 hours a day – has in fact its origin in this amazing story created by George Orwell in 1949, as a metaphor of a totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union’s. In fact, the “Big Brother figure” – the supreme, undisputed leader of the totalitarian regime described in the book – perfectly fits any descriptions of Stalin…Having recently read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Stalin – the court of the red tsar” (that I strongly recommend), I found many similarities, such as Stalin’s ruthless persecution of his closest friends and his families which in some cases led to “erasing” them. In both regimes, the harsh reality was that no one was ever safe, and sooner or later everyone committed a “mistake” that led to their downfall. People lived in permanent terror, and in “1984” the children were taught to spy on their parents which led to parents being terrified by their own sons and daughters who would eventually report them as traitors.
Something that still utterly shocks me in this book is the total, complete lack of freedom and privacy citizens experience. Love is forbidden so people cannot establish relationships other than those of party camaraderie. There is a poignant passage in the book where Winston wishes he could just make love to his lover, Julia, and afterwards lie in bed holding her and simply enjoying the moment; while feeling the warm summer breeze coming from an open window and listening to the sounds of the world outside – and all of this without the ever-present fear of being caught. Having secret relationships, or secrets of any kind – even secret thoughts! – is not an option, as everywhere, and mostly at home, “telescreens” are in place that watch every movement, every word, every facial expression, every moment of the day and night. “Telescreen” is a sort of TV that broadcasts both ways – something that seemed wholly sci fi back in the eighties but is now unsurprising due to technology.
Any of us who have always had the freedom to love and be loved, and to do so many things that are unthinkable in the despotic world of “1984”, and who have savoured moments such the ones he dreams of, can only sympathize with his plight and hope he can make his dreams come true, although we have a premonition, all through the book, that unfortunately it will not be so.
I also remember being much impressed with “Brave New World”, most of all by the fact that the society in question produced babies in factories. To have babies the “usual” way was considered something primitive and therefore out of the question. I must say back in my teens when I found pregnancy must be an unpleasant experience (how wrong I later found out I was!) I was tempted to find this a most practical solution…
And then, barely a year ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s “A handmaid’s tale”. A much more recent book, published in 1985 (with a TV series coming out this year), that tells the story of a country – Gilead – after a devastating war. As a consequence, people have become mostly infertile, so children have become a precious asset. To solve this problem, the ruling class – the high party officials – and their wives have taken the few young fertile women remaining as servants, literally slaves, who are “used” by their masters to conceive their offspring. They are a sort of “surrogate mothers” as the children will never belong to them but to their masters and their respective wives, who are of course part of the process as they are aware, and consenting, while their husbands copulate with the servants in order to produce the much desired children. And of course these young women have no option but to submit to this slavery, as society dictates this and there is no freedom whatsoever. They are totally repressed, mere vehicles for producing children for the wealthy ruling couples. There is no escape, and of course they are not allowed to have any personal relationships, as in “1984”.
I find many similarities among these books: the action is always in a future decades away from the moment they are being written, portrayed as a very dark one; all regimes are totalitarian and highly repressive; people are mostly seen as machines and there is no space for personal emotions, only a sense of duty and oppression. Even the leaders are the prisoners of their own creation. You can feel a heavy atmosphere, totally deprived of happiness, love and freedom. Individuality is banned, for the good of the regime. In “1984” you’ll find a brilliant description of the regime’s orthodoxy and you have an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu regarding some real regimes – some gone, and some still standing…
I won’t say much more, as I leave the rest for you to discover. Reading these stories certainly makes us feel happy and grateful for our world, as much as it has become increasingly complicated in the last few years. I’m quite certain that, after the harsh realities of Oceania (in “1984”) and Gilead, you’ll look around and feel happy – just because you are free. Freedom is priceless – and sadly, sometimes you only come to realize how utterly important it is for your survival it when you lose it.
So I say – savour each little moment in your life: every time you walk on the street without fear and feel the summer breeze on your hair; every time you decide to go and have dinner with your friends instead of staying at home doing your chores; every time you lay entwined with the one you love and savour the delicious sensation of being able – free – to stay there almost indefinitely, as in Winston’s wildest dream; every time you watch your children play and feel happy they are enjoying their childhood and not becoming little “tell tale” monsters who spy on their parents; every time you are free to meet a friend just to pour your heart out; and every time you get so mad about all the horrible wars and humanitarian, political and economic crisis out there that you shout all politicians are terrible and should be substituted; anytime, anywhere, whenever you are free to make a choice in your life or speak openly about your feelings, do it, make the most of it, as there may always be a Big Brother out there, lurking in the shadows, ever ready to watch you…