Great literature does more than touch the audience with its great literary themes. It also reaches out to higher ground, touching the audience with truth and thematic richness. That’s why George Orwell’s 1984 is great literature. Its literary style depends on unadorned and simple picture-painting. Its themes of freedom and authoritarianism resonate with us those of us who live beyond the 20th century and those who lived around that time. Its characters, however two-dimensional they may seem, capture our sympathy and our feelings, and its prophetic world-building of the war-torn, totalitarian universe was ahead of its time, so much so that the terms of Orwell’s book, as well as many of the traits of the big government in Orwell’s fictional dystopia, have seeped into civilization. The warnings against absolute power, the analysis of the dangers of Big Brother and statism, and the evils of totalitarianism in all forms are still relevant, and even more so, in this day and age.
The novel, for all its ideological prescience in these times, draws its main power as a novel from the excellence and simplicity of its prose and storytelling ability. Without the brilliant prose to animate Orwell’s bitter and biting satire, 1984 would lack the punch and the power that it has. For example, the opening paragraph of the entire story brings a propulsive and arresting power to the rest of the story that motivates us further to keep on reading:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
See the simplicity of the prose, how Orwell sets up our main character and setting without excessive or long-winded world-building a la some of the Romantic novelists of the 19th century, who often had the temptation to divert from story in order to delve into philosophical and verbose musings (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, for all its brilliance and touching drama, comes to mind as an offender in this regard). Orwell avoids this temptation and instead goes straight to the story, introducing us to the action, choosing to save any explicit theme or world-building for later.
Other aspects of 1984’s literary brilliance is that while it surely uses world-building and delves into outright statements of its own themes, it manages to be skillful in its incorporation of these aspects, making them relevant to the story and the characters. The genius is that Orwell decides to forego preachiness and sermonizing in favor of realism and lifelike storytelling, making the danger of Big Brother all the more horrifying.
Even if Winston and Julia and seem two-dimensional, their characters are written in such a way that we can understand them and relate to their anti-authoritarian romance. Despite their horrific failure in overthrowing Big Brother, we still have the sense of love that was defeated and broken, and the tragedy feels all the more plausible and saddening. Likewise, Orwell’s characterization of O’Brien is a successful and resplendent literary depiction of the “false flag” and the “agent provocateur” who subverts anti-authoritarian and anti-statist elements, crushing them and abusing the proponents of anti-statism. Orwell’s characterization of O’Brien lulls us and Winston into a false sense of security and peace, only to bring it all crashing down and crumbling when O’Brien is revealed for what he is — an agent of Big Brother, devoted to raw political power and to stomping on the faces of its opponents, ferreting them out and debasing them. The tragic ending of Winston becoming a lover of Big Brother, after being broken and humiliated to his core, is certainly depressing and doesn’t make for light reading. But, like the great William Shakespeare (1564-1616) before him, George Orwell realized that to go with a happy ending would be facile and shallow in the end and that to go for a tragic ending, however untrue in the grander scheme of things, would be the wisest course for the story. The last statement of the story — “He loved big brother” — is forceful in all its mournful and gut wrenching potency.
But an analysis on 1984’s literary merits is incomplete without a look into the way George Orwell incorporates both the enigmas of Emmanuel Goldstein and Big Brother. Orwell uses the literary techniques of irony and a sort of paradox to show the ultimate difference between these two enigmas: Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy of the state and the imaginary threat, is essentially a bogeyman created by Big Brother, the clear and present danger. The incorporation of large passages of Goldstein’s tome could have easily backfired. But Orwell’s clever expertise finds a way to work these long passages and weave them into a seamless blend of gripping story and prescient political themes. The subtle juxtaposition between Big Brother and Emmanuel Goldstein, for all its worth, is essentially a juxtaposition between the State and the bogeyman.
The knockout ending, the extensive thought put into the story, the simple prose, the amazing opening, the thoughtful characterization, the relevance and timelessness — these are but a few traits that make George Orwell’s 1984 such a masterpiece of Western literature, deserving of status in the Western Canon.