1984 | Book Review


George Orwell

Penguin Books


“We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organisation working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.”


I am trying to vary my reading between doctoral reading, modern novels, and classic literature. This prevents me from getting bogged down in grey literature, so that when I return to academic literature I am fresh and able to process it properly. It was a search for a book in the third of these categories which led me to 1984. The novel was one which had been on my to-be-read list for a long time, always supplanted at the time of book-choosing by texts that had been less adopted by the colloquial, so much so that I felt as though I was already familiar with the plot. For those who haven’t read it, there are spoilers ahead…

The first thing that struck me was the claustrophobia Orwell creates. Movement within the first scene at Winston’s flat is described in such forensic detail that we are a full forty pages in before the protagonist leaves his small, dingy flat. We feel the four walls pressing in on Winston as he levers himself into a corner of his flat to write out of view of the telescreen. We experience the soviet-era proximity of Winston’s neighbours, and his concern that his behaviour should be seen as anything less than fully endorsing the Party. The control Orwell portrays is suffocating, and it is this, along with other more traditional enemies, which provide our main antagonists.

Upon meeting many of the characters through Winston’s eyes, we are party to an immediate and necessary examination of their motives. Anyone could be an informer, anyone an ally. As little as a careless glance could be enough to condemn him, and we find ourselves nervous for him on the occasions where he inadvertently makes eye contact with another character. This dynamic lends depth to every encounter, and we find ourselves second-guessing the plot as Winston second-guesses his fellow Party members. It is never a comfortable read, but it is a compelling one.

This implied subterfuge inevitably colours the primary romantic relationship of the novel – that of Winston and Julia. Narrative tradition dictates that one will betray the other before the story ends, and I found myself examining each of them for any trace of antipathy towards the other, any sniff of someone more concerned with their own safety than that of their partner. Despite this cynicism, I was desperate for Julia and Winston to win out. It is this ability, to keep the reader hoping until the last, that marks any writer as having earned their coin. It is, alas, a doomed hope, and eventually Winston must break to the will of the party. And he is broken, a shell of a man, utterly bereft of the fire that we see at the start of the novel. Has it all been for nothing, then? Is hope extinguished? I am inclined to think not, and I was curiously uplifted at the finale. I was reminded of a quote from the 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’. When Richard stands to face his executioner, he is chastised by his fellow condemned:

                Prisoner: ‘Why, you chivalric fool…as if the way one fell down mattered.’

                Richard: ‘When the fall is all there is, it matters.’

It was the fact of having fought that mattered, not the inevitable failure. Winston’s intentions were good, and the reader is left with the (perhaps optimistic) hope that one day, someone from the resistance will slip through the net.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*

John Sampson – The Wind on the Heath

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst

Jess Smith – Way of the Wanderers

Zadie Smith – Feel Free

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

*Thanks for reading, folks. Image courtesy of Wallpaperflare.*

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.

Not necessarily in that order

22 thoughts on “1984 | Book Review

  1. Interesting, Matthew. This is the second review of ‘1984’ I’ve read this week. A dystopian revival, perhaps? I remember reading it in school (far too long ago to mention), but it was certainly pre-1984. It made a big impression then and again when I read it since: the claustrophobia and the being watched all the time. The visuals from the film (John Hurt?) also stick in my mind. I remember seeing that in 1985. All such a long time ago. I should read it again. I think it holds up, even at this distance?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The last line of the novel hit me hardest. “He loved Big Brother.” I’d never felt such a crushing sense of defeat, loss and hopelessness from a book until I read that wham line. I remember reaching the end of the book in the dead of the night desperately waiting for a happy ending…and it never came. It literally broke me and I started weeping. I’d never cried over a novel ever before.
    Since I’ve grown older and broadened my understanding of politics, I’ve begun to recognise why 1984’s depiction of totalitarianism works and has aged so well. It doesn’t care about politics or ideology. Only Power. That really stood out for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the thing which unsettled me so much is when Orwell hints at what prompted the descent into totalitarianism. He frames it so well as something which was just slipped into, almost a logical progression by the state. Scary stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had read this in high school and then a few years ago I wanted to read it again. Because I had already read it, and I was recalling the details as I read it didn’t keep my interest. It is a good book though. Perhaps I will pick it back up and read for all the things I missed, reading it as a teenager.


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