Thursday, 28 August 2014

1984 by George Orwell

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 

I've already this novel numerous times, so to review this we have to break our rule of not having read the book before reviewing it. It's doubly hard because this is one of my favorite novels and my opinion of the hook will be biased.

But let's try to look at this as if we have no idea what this book is about, as if it were new and no one had heard anything about it.  Right out of the gate, the title is misleading. Of course we know this was published in 1949 so 1984 was the future then and up until 1984 people would have had an inkling that this was some kind of futuristic book, with some fantasy, perhaps a cautionary tale - and they would have figured that out just from the title. Now anyone who picks this up might think it's an historical novel, assuming they ignore the blurb. The point being the title was destined to lose it's effectiveness at some point in time. Even if it was called 2084 or 2184, time is ticking. Let's say I wrote a novel called 1972. What would be your conclusion as to its premise? Wrong! It's about flesh-eating aliens who process humans into cosmic coke in a parallel universe not unlike Berlin in the 1920's. Get it? 1927 backwards, so there! The lesson here? None really, or maybe choose a title that will remain effective - forever.

Now, to the first line.

Beginning with setting is not a really good idea, unless you begin like 1984. Standard setting is usually boring, but setting that is weird or makes you ask, "what the--?" hooks. The line is striking and immediately reveals  that something is not right about the world of this novel. It is vital to reveal this early in a dystopian novel. The next sentence we meet the protagonist dealing with bad weather as a little more dismal setting is revealed.

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. 

Then the next paragraph:

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. 

More tantalizing tidbits of the dystopian setting are revealed with the introduction of Hate Week.

First thing said:

'Oh, comrade,' she began in a dreary, whining sort of voice, 'I thought I heard you come in.'

Verdict: Pass

Overall, there are better opening lines than this, despite its fame. It is the fact it focuses on setting rather than character and conflict in a scene that lowers the rating. However, in a dystopian novel beginning with setting is acceptable, as the setting is very much an antagonizing force. As well, it establishes the dismal mood that is carried throughout the novel. In any case, the opening couple pages are well done and pull readers in right away.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. 1984 is the 86th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

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