Is 1984 the most influential novel ever written?

5 June 2009

Emphatically not! Orwell’s last novel has not survived the test of time. I know this through the hard graft of having to teach the dreary novel to reluctant Year 10 and 11 students. There are a number of serious flaws with the book. First and foremost, the plot is predictable and relatively undramatic: a miserable middle-aged man lives in a wretched society, has an illicit affair with a miserable younger woman, they get caught, tortured and brainwashed into thinking their society is great, when, in fact, it’s appalling. The story has relatively no tension: we know what’s going to happen from the moment Winston claps eyes on Julia, we guess that O’Brien and Charrington are thoroughly awful. There are no great chases, no fantastic surprises, no surprising climaxes. Furthermore, the story is punctuated with leaden treatises on the dreadful nature of this society.

I shocked my audience on Simon Mayo’s Radio 5 Live Show with my outspoken views. All the other guests, who included the son of Brian Cox, Alan Cox, were massively in favour of saying the novel was very influential. I pointed out that virtually none of Orwell’s predictions had come true: our society is not a totalitarian one, diaries are not banned, we don’t get brainwashed by one version of the truth. Orwell’s central idea that dictatorships work has been proven wrong time and again. Sure, we still have totalitarian regimes, but none of seriously believes that their ways will infiltrate the whole of the world. History has shown that Orwell was wrong: the Soviet Union totally collapsed, its brainwashing techniqes did not work.

There are many other more influential and timely books such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huxley’s Brave New World, Philip K Dick’s fiction. These narratives are not only prescient, they are great, surprising stories still.

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1 comment

  1. Great to hear a differing view on this work. I preferred “Animal Farm” to be honest. Although I don’t dislike 1984, my main concern with is its actual influence. Conspiracy theorists, for example, use it all the time to justify some seriously flawed arguments. It allows them to state some ridiculous theories and when challenged by logic, common sense and rationalism you are automatically considered to have been brainwashed by “the powers that be”. The book is often held up as some sort of bible as believers state more and more abstract predictions. It is all getting very much like the Nostradamus myths.

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