Saturday, October 6, 2012

1984, the Thriller

by Mark Alpert

During our summer vacations in northern Michigan we spend a fair amount of time in the car, so my wife likes to read to the kids while we’re driving. This past summer she chose George Orwell’s Animal Farm for our automotive reading, and the kids loved it. They especially liked pointing out the hypocrisy of Animal Farm’s porcine leaders: “Hey, the pigs are breaking the rules again! They’re not supposed to sleep in beds!” And I loved it, too. From behind the steering wheel I kept interrupting my wife to shout comments such as “That pig is Stalin!” and “The battle against the farmers is really World War II!” until everyone yelled at me to shut up.

When school started last month I decided to continue the George Orwell theme by reading 1984 to my 13-year-old son. My feelings about this book were more ambivalent; I didn’t enjoy it very much when I read it for high-school English, and thirty years later I could remember only two things from the novel: the scene where Winston Smith is arrested and the infamous rats in Room 101. I recalled almost nothing about Smith as a character. In contrast to the memorable beasts of Animal Farm (especially Boxer the horse: “I will work harder!”), the hero of 1984 didn’t stick in my mind. I thought it would be interesting to read the book again and see if I liked it any better now. Is 1984 -- the great-granddaddy of The Hunger Games and other dystopian novels -- an entertaining book? Can it be considered a thriller?

Well, the book definitely doesn’t start like a thriller. No murder or mayhem in the first ten pages. The novel’s opening reads more like science fiction, because the author spends so much time sketching the outlines of the horrible future he’s imagined. But the extreme creepiness draws you in. While Smith hides in a corner of his apartment, writing “Down with Big Brother!” in his black-market notebook, I’m definitely there with him, anxiously wondering if the Thought Police are also watching the scene. And the plot gains some momentum after Winston starts conspiring with Julia, the Junior Anti-Sex League crusader who turns out to be a hottie.

Smith, though, isn’t much of a hero. He’s unattractive, both physically and spiritually. He has a disgusting sore on his ankle. (Orwell never explains how it got there, but it fits in with the general squalor of totalitarian London.) Winston is also irritable, peevish, self-absorbed. When he was a child, he stole food from his dying sister. His rebellion against Big Brother isn’t triggered by sympathy for his fellow sufferers. He seems most outraged by the Party’s constant revision of history. And his rebellion is thoroughly passive; everything falls into his lap. Julia is the one who initiates their affair by slipping the “I love you” note into his hand, and O’Brien lures him into “the Brotherhood” in such an obvious way that if Winston had any sense at all he would’ve immediately realized it was a trap.

For a thriller writer, these are cardinal sins. We all know that our heroes must be heroic. They must be active, clever, resourceful. But Orwell deliberately made Winston Smith a pathetic figure. He wanted to emphasize the powerlessness of the individual against the state. “If you want a picture of the future,” Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever.”

The other sin Orwell commits (from a thriller writer’s point of view) is clogging the narrative with the thirty-page tract supposedly written by Big Brother’s nemesis, Emmanuel Goldstein. When I read this section to my son, he asked, “Can we just skip this part?” and I said, “Sure.” And later on, Orwell takes some of the suspense out of the torture scenes by padding them with too many lectures from O’Brien. This criticism, I admit, is a little unfair; Orwell never meant the book to be a thriller. He was trying to make a point as well as tell a story, and sometimes those two aims don’t mesh.

Still, there are some powerful action scenes in 1984. I’m thinking in particular of the scene in the crowded jail cell shortly after Smith is arrested, when the anxiety and terror of the political prisoners is interrupted by the entrance of a man whom the Party is starving to death. One of the other prisoners -- another pathetic figure, chinless and chipmunk-faced, with the ridiculous name of Bumstead -- offers the starving man a grimy piece of bread, and the guards punish him for this crime of compassion by bashing his face in. “His body was flung across the cell and fetched up against the base of the lavatory seat...Amid a stream of blood and saliva, the two halves of a dental plate fell out of his mouth…His gray eyes still flitted from face to face, more guiltily than ever, as though he were trying to discover how much the others despised him for his humiliation.”

Thriller or not, this is great writing. And best of all, my son liked it, too.


  1. Mark, I enjoyed 1984, too. When I first read it back in high school in the late '60s, I often wondered if we'd ever make it to 1984. I'm thankful that Orwell's future hasn't come true (yet) although there's always the fear with today's technology that Big Brother is closer than ever. One cool point: not many writers have had their last name turned into an adjective when anyone talks about all things totalitarian.

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  3. Reading 1984 to your son is a very good idea. I'm sure it sparked a lot of meaningful discussion, which is always a joy for a father.

    In spite of all the dystopian works that have followed, 1984 is still the king of the hill.

    When I was a teacher, I once left an assignment for my sub to show the movie (John Hurt version) in my absence. It didn't go well due to three words: full, frontal, nudity. I didn't think I'd have to preview a film picked from the SCHOOL LIBRARY.

    They ended up watching Aladdin instead.

  4. You make me want to reread these two classics, Mark! I actually liked 1984 better than Animal Farm back in middle school. I seem to remember being annoyed by his use of animals as a literary device. What presumption I had at age 13!

  5. I think in some ways Orwell -- consciously or unconsciously -- wrote in a way that conveys the soul-sucking nature of mid-century Marxism, all endless, wordy theorizing and dialectical gobbledygook. The gray and passionless life of the serious Marxist thinker.

  6. Reading Orwell in the 1950s, it seemed as though 1984 was an eternity away, such is the perspective of high school students. And at the end of the rollicking sixties, 2001 looked like never-never land, such was the perspective of those who were you know where at the time.

    Now that both milestones have come and gone, I wonder what people in their teens and twenties think of those dire prophesies and cautions.

  7. Missoula Jim brings up an interesting question. What do the kids of today see as the mystical far flung future? As a kid in the 70s and a teen in the 80s the 21st century seemed very distant and sparkly. An age where we'd either be roaming about space, colonizing the moon and mars, and wearing shiny spandex body suits or we'd be oppressed under the thumb of an Orwellian high tech tyranny, dark and drab and reeking of moldy cheese.

    It is a scary thing these days to try and guess what the future will bring. Now I look at 2048, when I will be 80, and wonder if I will finally have that levitating car, or will I be finishing a life sentence for thought crimes against the state?

    I've never read 1984, or watched the movie. I did however watch the Terry Gilliam film Brazil(originally titled "1984 1/2"). Which was equally dark, but at least had a lot of absurd Monty Pythonesque humour to it.