Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell
The Despair of a World without God
George Orwell (1903-1950) published his dystopian science fiction novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), in 1949, just after the conclusion of the Second World War. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest, most insightful and original dystopian novels in history, alongside Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, all of which portended the rise of ideological regimes and robotic warfare in the 20th century and the grave consequences which they represented for the development of global civilization. Each expressed the particular worldview of its author, and 1984 illustrates many of the sentiments and beliefs which Orwell held and wrote about in other works. From a Catholic standpoint, despite its potential pitfalls and errors of interpretation, 1984 is an invaluable fictional rendering of the miasma into which the modern world of materialism, relativism and the worship of technical power can fall, a world which has abandoned God and the guidance of his Church, and for this reason, 1984 remains as clear a warning today as when it was first released.
The dichotomy of existence and non-existence and the power of humans to confer both is a central theme of 1984. Following the terrors of World War II and driven by the fear and despair it caused, Orwell’s dystopian future portrays the State replacing God and religion in society. For Party members, religion is completely banned and forgotten, and for the proletariat masses, “even religious worship would have been permitted if the proles had shown any sign of needing or wanting it.” In the absence of real religion, the Party has thus become the people’s religion, with Big Brother as their savior. This fact echoes the words of G.K. Chesterton, who observed, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.” Since God alone has the power to create ex nihilo or to utterly destroy something from existence, the Party treats itself as God, presuming that executing someone and removing any record or memory of them from the world could truly destroy them from existence.
Similarly, the Party employs “doublethink” to change the past, something which even God cannot do. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, following both St. Augustine and Aristotle, God “cannot effect that anything else which is past should not have been” for the reason that “there does not fall under the scope of God's omnipotence anything that implies a contradiction.” In this way, the Party not only assigns to itself the power and authority of God, but even goes so far as to violate the very nature of reason and truth by coercing its members into giving it a power which is impossible, that of altering the past. As demonstrated by the earlier discovery of Winston, the protagonist of 1984 who works in the so-called Ministry of Truth to replace older records with the new and contradictory narratives propagandized by the Party, of a newspaper clipping which definitively disproved the official Party line accusing three of its original founders of treason, even Big Brother lacked the power to actually change the past; instead, his power and that of the Party depended on the coercion of the minds of its members, forcing them to accept that which all knew to be false in order to avoid persecution and death by the Thought Police. As Winston described it:
‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.
As the chief application of doublethink, the Party sought to replace all language with its own artificial code, called Newspeak, by which it could exclude even the words themselves which contradicted its ideology. As implied in the Newspeak term INGSOC, meaning “English Socialism,” Winston’s imagining of the consequences of Thoughtcrimes, or violations of INGSOC, is inspired by the methods of 20th century socialist regimes, especially Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, who used similar practices and treated the State as God. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained, “Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE.” Likewise, the “woke” politicians and influencers in society today who push to “cancel” people, whether living or dead, who do not adhere to the current trendy ideologies, to “fact-check” names, titles, logos, pronouns and even cultural and religious expressions to accommodate forced untruths, to disprove the rule by the exception and to advocate for policies with only apparent benefits, are often self-proclaimed socialists. Also like those who founded socialist regimes in successive attempts throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, socialists today continue to claim that their failed predecessors only misrepresented socialism’s true and original policies, a position which Goldstein, the mysterious author of the anti-Party “book” read by Winston, himself advocates in 1984 and which may have thus reflected Orwell’s own views.
In his book, Goldstein relates an interpretation of history which is both critical of Marxist and Enlightenment views of history as inexorable progress and determined only by economic or technological factors while also expressing many of the same views himself. Goldstein sees history based entirely on class strife, scientific advancement and social manipulation; for him, the City of Man, which, according to St. Augustine, “is itself ruled by its lust of rule”, is the only city, while the City of God is just an “imaginary” ameliorating instrument of the powerful. Goldstein thus wrote,
From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.
The only reason this did not occur, according to Goldstein, is that those in power, the “high” tier of the social hierarchy, desired to remain in power, and so developed a system of continual warfare so that they could maintain their rank in a progressive, industrial society which no longer truly needed them but which, through fear of war, turned power over to them.
Goldstein’s view of war can be critiqued by two instances in the story which can initially seem to corroborate his position. These include Goldstein’s reference to the endless but ultimately pointless exploitative border skirmishes between the three world superpowers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) and the explosion of a rocket bomb near Winston earlier in the story.
The first instance appears to support Goldstein’s view that war, especially in modern times, is only orchestrated by the high-ranking to keep their power. The problem with this view, however, is that human nature is fundamentally guided by conscience acting toward the end of happiness. (CCC 33) No matter how corrupt the consciences of some people become, there are always voices of repudiation in society which go against popular evils; for this reason, many wars, including the American Revolution and Civil War, were primarily instigated for the purpose of righting a wrong and establishing justice. The same motive could also be applied to the WWII invasions of Japan and Europe by the US and by its involvement in wars such as Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait which were driven by moral concerns rather than any real or primary goal of gaining power. In fact, despite its destructiveness and loss of life, war can be a rallying factor for a nation – if its cause is just. The mere fear of death is insufficient for this; rather, it requires a general sense of the rightness of the motive for the war. During WWII, this sense was widespread in American society, and so everyone worked together to empower the economy and overcome a seemingly invincible enemy; however, in the Vietnam conflict, many in the US saw it as unjustified, especially under the weight of the draft, and so the economy often struggled to compensate and the fighting eventually ended in defeat, even though the US warred against a far less powerful adversary.
In the second instance, the corrupted sources and evil results of war are truly revealed. Even when justified, according to the principles of Just War theory taught by the Church, (CCC 2309) and despite whatever material benefits may come from it, war always results in the senseless destruction of human life and property, especially that of civilians, as well as moral depravity and environmental decimation, and comes only from a breakdown of dialogue and an unwillingness to right injustices on both sides. J.R.R. Tolkien, in 1944, expressed this fact poignantly:
The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it… not of course that it has not is and will be necessary to face it in an evil world. I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered.
The rocket bombs, like the one which fell near Winston and which was potentially dropped by Oceania onto its own citizens merely to maintain fear, illustrate the violations of human dignity which war inevitably entails. Mere advancement of technology, education or wealth is not enough to prevent war, or to correct the evils to which war is sometimes a reaction. Neither can anarchical hedonism, as advocated by Winston, foster authentic happiness or the common good, as it is only another form of slavery. True peace requires true justice. As the Catechism teaches,
Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is ‘the tranquillity of order.’ Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity. (CCC 2304)
The final part and conclusion of 1984, arguably one of the most poignant and tragic in the history of literature, provides a subtle but penetrating insight into the true nature of Christ’s Passion and sacrifice on the Cross, as well as the participation of humanity in his redemptive suffering. While seeking to combat the Party and its demonic INGSOC ideology, Winston contrived two ultimate standards by which to do so: truth and love. He identified these facets of reality and faculties of human nature as those which are the most fundamental and perennial, alone remaining undeniable against the greatest of challenges. However, in his resolution, Winston made an error on each point which is characteristic of a modernistic and secular worldview, a worldview which, despite his opposition to the Party, he was himself committed to by his professed atheism.
Since God is I AM, who is essentially Being and Truth, he alone is the antidote to the poison of coercion and propaganda as practiced by the Party. Even if death is the punishment for upholding truth, such integrity is the only real guarantee of sanity, peace and freedom, since even bodily death is only temporary: “And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt 10:28) Winston clings to this principle and explicates it distinctly when he says, “Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change… Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Again he echoes Chesterton, who prophesied,
We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.
Winston recognized truth as an objective standard of intelligibility, with reality existing in an orderly, natural way beyond subjective perceptions or opinions, and he clung to this primarily through the reliability of mathematical logic and sensory experience. In this way, as Erich Fromm explained in the afterword to the novel, Winston (and Orwell), unlike O’Brien his Thought Police tormentor, was not an absolute relativist; he did not deny human nature or the existence of objective truth. Nevertheless, in his particular understanding of truth, Winston made the fatal error of denying an objective source and foundation for truth outside himself, an infinity of which finite reality is only a participation. Since the human mind can know only that which it is given by nature and which it experiences according to its mode as a contingent subject, without a structured belief in a God who is beyond the subjective, who remains true even when humanity is false, his tenuous grasp of truth was shattered by the sophistical manipulations and physical and psychological tortures of O’Brien.
While this brainwashing and Winston’s resultant brokenness are understandable as experiences which most of humanity cannot even imagine, many others throughout history, such as the holy martyrs, as well as victims of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and other cultic or ideological tyrannies, have been able to hold onto their sanity and their humanity, and they all did so by retaining faith in God. Even if their normal human faculties were obliterated, their human nature could not be totally destroyed, and so they retained the intrinsic natural longing for God which is part of the imago Dei in every human person. (CCC 357) Similarly, those in more recent times who deny the marital context of sexuality, the intrinsic connection between sex and reproduction, the inalterability of gender and the reality of intrinsic moral evils lack a sufficient objective reference point by which to maintain a hold on truth. Pilate expressed the relativism of O’Brien when he asked Christ, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38) and Christ stood silently before him, answering through his own divine Personhood as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (Jn 14:6)
Winston’s remaining foothold in reality – love – is a recognition of goodness, alongside truth, as what the classical and Thomistic tradition calls “a transcendental property of being,” with the good being defined by Fr. W. Norris Clarke (referencing St. Thomas Aquinas) as “that which is perfect in itself and perfective of another”, which, accordingly, indicates the non-being and imperfection of evil as a privation of the good of being. However, Winston commits an error similar to his limited understanding of truth: by associating love only with physical pleasure and emotional affection, confusing authentic goodness with self-gratification, Winston makes love purely subjective, and so when a stronger impulse is given against this kind of love, as in the terror of the rats used as his greatest fear in O’Brien’s final torture, he is unable to overcome it.
As with truth, the blessed martyrs retained fidelity to love, both of God and neighbor, by seeing true love as charity founded in and exemplified by Christ who, as God, “is charity.” (1 Jn 4:8) Following Christ’s command to “love one another, as I have loved you,” (Jn 13:34) the martyrs endured afflictions comparable to or even surpassing those of Winston, such as St. Margaret Clitherow who with her unborn child was crushed to death beneath rocks during the English “Reformation,” or St. Maximilian Kolbe who was starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp after heroically volunteering to take another’s place.
Despite his failings, based in the intellectual errors inculcated by a lifetime of culturally-diffused brainwashing followed by a period of directed torture, Winston is sympathetic in his fallen humanity and provides an example of the dangers which can come from a godless worldview. In the end, only Christ can endure the greatest sufferings without falling into sin, and it is only by his grace of perseverance that the saints can imitate him. As Christ reminded his disciples, “I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) While Winston offered Julia, his lover, to take his undue punishment instead of himself, discarding his last foothold in reality in the face of unimaginable terror, Christ offered himself in self-sacrificing love to the take the punishment which humanity truly deserves. As a hypothetical, dystopian future, 1984 reflects the views and imaginings of George Orwell and is thus not necessarily always accurate to reality as Catholic tradition reveals it. Nevertheless, it is a necessary warning for those appointed to live in the modern world, and as such should be required reading for all, especially everyone engaged in the fight against the prevalent ideologies today which deny not only God, human dignity and objective morality but the very intelligibility of reality itself and so threaten to destroy the world as we know it.
 George Orwell, 1984 (East Delhi, India: Pharos Books, 2019), 60. Kindle.
 Orwell, 1984, 15.
 G.K. Chesterton, Christendom in Dublin (London: Sheed & Ward, 1932), 44. Kindle.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2020), 301. Kindle.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 25, a. 4 (Coyote Canyon Press). Kindle.
 Orwell, 1984, 64.
 Orwell, 1984, 30.
 Orwell, 1984, 31.
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture in Literature 1970,” at The Nobel Prize (1 July 2022), at www.nobelprize.org.
 Orwell, 1984, 172-173.
 Augustine, The City of God, I, preface, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Orwell, 1984, 163.
 Orwell, 1984, 154.
 Orwell, 1984, 155.
 Orwell, 1984, 153.
 Orwell, 1984, 68.
 J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (eds), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 75-76. Kindle.
 Orwell, 1984, 125.
 Orwell, 1984, 102-103.
 Orwell, 1984, 218.
 Orwell, 1984, 66.
 G.K. Chesterton, “On Modern Controversy,” Illustrated London News (14 August 1926), in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. XXXIV: The Illustrated London News 1926-1928 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 145.
 Orwell, 1984, 66.
 Erich Fromm, afterword to 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), 318.
 W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 334. Kindle.
 Clarke, The One, 327.
 Orwell, 1984, 102.