Dystopian Fiction or, Why 1984 Scared the Crap Out of Me

When I handed 1984 to the high school senior I tutor, I told him, “This is the scariest book you’ll ever read.” And I meant it. Here’s why.

These days, it feels like every other book on the shelf is a dystopia, or about the end of the world (zombie apocalypse or not) or about a post-apocalyptic dystopian world, in which our personal freedoms are stripped away and we live in fear of the strong arm of the government. Whether it’s the threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 America or the NSA surveillance scandal here in the States, something is happening in our society and in our world that is frightening people into writing worst-case scenario kind of literature, and it’s been happening for a while. Since 1948, to be exact.


In the 40s, it was World War II and the immediate danger of the spread of communism that George Orwell responded to. 1984 set the bar for dystopian literature with the now-legendary premise that has permeated our culture indelibly: Winston Smith is a minor government official in the state of Eurasia, governed by Big Brother. Language has deteriorated from English into Newspeak, a language which destroys nuances and transforms words like “bad” into the painfully obvious and necessarily straightforward “ungood.” Surveillance extends beyond phone-tapping and manifests itself in the form of two-way televisions and in Winston’s unfortunate case, in-person enforcement. It’s so bad that children are taught to spy on their parents and are known as Junior Spies. Their parents are even proud when their children are obedient brainwashed enough to turn them in.

All of this has entered into literary lore, and has entered into our everyday jargon: the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” is used so frequently some people don’t even know where it came from (my tutoree didn’t); the concept of “doublethink” is often used by political critics to slam politicians when they lie; and the theme of dehumanizing people by removing love from sex and friendship from normal social behavior is now a common trope in dystopia, though often now it is manifested through the dangers of technological advancement (Siri is becoming self-aware, guys). 1984 has so skillfully insinuated itself into our culture that it’s almost as if it’s becoming more relevant as it ages. Chilling, no?

It’s frightening, but that’s not the scariest part. I’ve said before that I judge every piece of dystopian literature by 1984, and I use one very important yardstick: the play of fear and hope in the novel. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Winston Smith begins the novel as an interesting character. He is by no means flawless or lovable: middle-aged and cowardly, Winston distinguishes himself slightly by questioning the authority of Big Brother in his mind. Whenever he has to redact a previous news item at work, or when he notices inconsistencies in official political statements, he tries but fails to suppress his doubt. He buys a forbidden notebook, sits in a corner of his house that is invisible to the two-way TV, and writes down his doubts about the government. After he is finished writing, he places a piece of lint on a corner of the cover, because a hair would be too obvious.

He meets a girl named Julia, a woman so “devious” and rebellious that she has sex with anyone she wants to, in direct violation of the government. They fall in love and spend several blissful months together. Freedom for Winston and Julia means freedom in each others’ arms and thoughts. They know they will die and soon; they know they will talk under torture; they know without a doubt that they will be caught and killed, but they are also certain that their love can withstand anything, anything at all.


Winston and Julia say, of their love:

Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you–that would be the real betrayal…They can’t do that…It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything–anything–but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you…If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.

If the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

It’s so hopeful, so innocent. Winston and Julia aren’t even afraid of being caught and tortured: they’re only concern is that they’ll be made to stop loving each other, but they’re also so certain that it’s impossible. This is where the fear enters. Winston is eventually captured by a man he thought was a rebel, a man named O’Brien, and tortured. But he isn’t tortured for information, since O’Brien has been watching him for seven years and knows everything about him (he even replaced the speck of lint upon Winston’s secret notebook after reading it). No, Winston is tortured so that his heart may be changed, the one thing he and Julia were sure was impossible.

Winston’s torturer says:

We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him…

Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

The kind of torture Winston endures is only so that he may be manipulated and brainwashed, through fear, pain, and the fear of pain. Not just “oooh, a spider” kind of fear, not even the instinctual fear of losing your life, but fear so primal and so debilitating that no one can overcome it. It’s a kind of fear that can only be used as a weapon by people in power, the fear of a pain so brutal and dehumanizing that one will say or do anything to avoid it, and those things he says and does change him forever. In Winston and Julia’s case, that fear made them stop loving each other.

They meet at the end of the novel, after their trials are over and presumably before they are assassinated. They acknowledge their betrayal of each other, how the fear made them stop loving each other. They feel nothing in each others’ presence, as if something–their humanity, capacity for love–had been “cauterized out.” They could get inside you after all.

The last line of the book is one that continues to horrify me whenever I think about it. Winston leaves Julia and joins a crowd of citizens celebrating Eurasia’s victory over an enemy. As he joins the screaming, cheering crowd, he becomes a part of them, with no individual thought.

Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

SHIVERS DOWN MY SPINE. This is the reason why 1984 is the ultimate dystopia. There’s that hope that love can truly overcome all obstacles and free those who are oppressed. Then there is the ultimate despair when readers learn that literally nothing you do is enough when you’re tortured with your worst fears and your identity and your very humanity are stripped away. I recently reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and while I think it’s a chilling portrayal of crimes against women in a dystopian society, the ambiguous ending doesn’t enforce the real mind control and manipulation possible by a government.

Which brings me to now. (Long post, sry.) I’m not an activist nor am I overtly political, but I have opinions. I think that, just like in a post-WWII world, there are events happening that have the power to change our world, possibly for the worse. Our government will always try to grow larger, gain more power, chip away at our freedoms; it’s our job to make our officials work for us, not the other way around. I’m never one to cry conspiracy, but I feel like as long as we feel freedom enough to cry it, there is still power in the hands of the people. We must always be questioning.

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  • Great review, and your 2nd paragraph is spot-on. I’ve wondered about the dystopian trend myself, and I think you’ve come up with a good hypothesis to explain why it’s so popular at the moment.

    Have you read “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin? It was published in 1921 following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Orwell was heavily influenced by “We” and if you read it, you’ll notice several similarities between it and “1984.” Though “1984” is much, much scarier. I’ll never get the torture scenes out of my head.

    • I have to read that! Thanks for the feedback and the rec; I think it’s interesting to track the trend of dystopia in literature at the moment. One of the questions I had when reading Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” was, what was Atwood responding to? She wrote it in the 80s at the height of a conservative president’s tenure and while I probably wouldn’t agree with everything she stands for, I definitely think it’s worthwhile to examine what Atwood–and other dystopian fiction writers–find so frightening about our government and society. It makes me wonder what I would write about if I had the chance to write a dystopia. Interesting writing prompt, I think!

      • Wow good point about “The Handmaid’s Tale”! I never thought to connect Regan-era conservatism with her novel. Now it makes even more sense.

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