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Thursday, October 2, 2008



by George Orwell

(5/5 stars)

"1984"--or "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in the Oldspeak--is one of those books prophecizing doom that has remained relevant enough to generate a famous Macintosh commercial, a "Simpsons" parody, and a reality television series named for it among other things. What allows "1984" to remain in our consciousness and not a relic of the post-World War II, Cold War, Atomic Age era is that like the book of Revelations, "1984"'s dire predictions can be adapted for each new generation.

"1984"'s epic battle of good versus evil doesn't take place on any plain of Armageddon, but rather within the mind of one man: Winston Smith. Winston is a 39-year-old man who works for the Party at the Ministry of Truth, which has an ironic name because Winston's job is actually to doctor reality so that the Party always appears infallible. Winston sees that while the Party, under the leadership of Big Brother, claims surpluses of everything, no one can buy simple items like razor blades or shoelaces. As he becomes disillusioned by the Party's rule, he and a young woman named Julia begin a torrid secret affair. Then he is contacted by a man high up in the Party named O'Brien who works for a resistance group known as the Brotherhood. But before he can help the Brotherhood, Winston is betrayed, arrested, and taken to the dungeons of the Ministry of Love, where he endures physical and psychological torment that threatens to break him and strip him of all humanity.

As it is written, Big Brother and his Party would seem to represent the fascist or Communist movements of the 1940s. Taken literally it would be easy to dismiss the book as an archaic remnant of Cold War hysteria. But the beauty of "1984" is that because it focuses on the internal struggle for Winston Smith's soul, it can transcend all that. For the warning in "1984" isn't about communism or fascism, but the threat of letting anyone crush the human spirit through overbearing dogma.

Much like faithful Christians of every generation have painted everyone from the Pope to Hitler as the Antichrist, every generation looks for its Big Brother. From communists to corporations to churches, individual readers can read "1984" and make their own interpretations of who or what Big Brother and the Party represent. But no matter how each of us sees it, the general warning should be clear: the human spirit is our most precious possession and must be retained at all costs.

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