Review of Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1949

The New Statesman has compiled a collection of reviews of classic books that were published in its pages contemporaneous with their publication. The review of Nineteen Eighty-Four by VS Pritchett is a revealing look at the way that Orwell as perceived and received in his lifetime:

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book that goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores; hope has died in Mr Orwell's wintry mind, and only pain is known. I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down. The faults of Orwell as a writer - monotony, nagging, the lonely schoolboy shambling down the one dispiriting track - are transformed now he rises to a large subject. He is the most devastating pamphleteer alive because he is the plainest and most individual - there is none of Koestler's lurid journalism - and because, with steady misanthropy, he knows exactly where on the new Jesuitism to apply the Protestant whip...

...Mr Orwell's book is a satirical pamphlet. I notice that some critics have said that his prophecy is not probable. Neither was Swift's Modest Proposal nor Wells's Island of Dr Moreau. Probability is not a necessary condition of satire which, when it pretends to draw the future, is, in fact, scourging the present. The purges in Russia and, later, in the Russian satellites, the dreary seediness of London in the worst days of the war, the pockets of 19th-century life in decaying England, the sordidness of bad flats, bad food, the native and whining streak of domestic sluttishness which have sickened English satirists since Smollett - all these have given Mr Orwell his material. The duty of the satirist is to go one worse than reality; and it might be objected that Mr Orwell is too literal, that he is too oppressed by what he sees, to exceed it. In one or two incidents where he does exceed, notably in the torture scenes, he is merely melodramatic: he introduces those rather grotesque machines which used to appear in terror stories for boys. In one place - I mean the moment when Winston's Inquisitor drives him to call out for the death of his girl, by threatening to set a cageful of famished rats on him - we reach a peak of imaginative excess in terror, but it is superfluous because mental terrorism is his real subject.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Reviewed by V S Pritchett (via Memex 1.1)

(Image: Lawrence Person)


  1. Interesting. I expected something contrasting with our present-day perspective, but that review (the quoted portion at least; I’m lazy) sounds like a good description from our perspective as well.

  2. The most timeless part is when O’Brien is expounding to Winston who is strapped to the mechanized rack.  O’Brien explains that the great threat to the hierarchical society was the industrial revolution, which had the potential to provide everyone with leisure and comfort. A state of constant war is necessary to protect the social order by destroying nearly everything that is produced. He also said that an arms race worked almost as well, and that they would buid huge “floating fortresses” that would be obsolete before they were finished and scrapped. Having an actual enemy was largely unneccessary.

    “……….The primary aim of modern warfare… is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. Ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods…..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….But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction–indeed, in some sense was the destruction–of a hierarchical society….wealth would confer no distinction… the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance…..

    Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare……The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent……War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way. In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist……..”

    1.  He was of course completely wrong. The Economy can’t be harmed by inexpensive manufacturing since in America no one makes money manufactures much of anything any more.

        1. Yes, he certainly got the part about the endless planned obsolesence of weapons.

          And through internationalization, the powers that be have managed to claw back many of the gains of the middle class.  That was not part of the English experience, which was always the recipient of its empire’s wealth.   However, German workers of the 1930’s saw themselves as the victims of the internationalization of industry. 

  3. He probably got the idea from Stalin, but I liked the idea that anything beyond simple competence would get a death sentence. People who understood what was going on, even if they were 100% devoted to the Party, would be liquidated because they knew too much. The actual Party inner circle were either completely cynical or merging the propaganda with cultish metaphysics, that is to say various flavors of psychopaths.

    “……….Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph…..”

  4. I’m a huge fan of bleak story telling, but Nineteen-Eighty-Four is too bleak even for me. I saw the film with John Hurt as Winston & Richard Burton as O’Brien once. I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.

    And what’s even bleaker, is how prescient Orwell was.

          1. I may have projected that for you. I remember one double-feature of “Die Hard” and Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water.”

            What a job. And, yes, 1989 it was.

  5. Anthony Burgess felt it necessary to review the book with an entire book of his own, the odd (and rarely mentioned) “1985.” He not only gives a good argument that 1984 was really about 1948 (and, of course, a rip off of Zamyatin), but writes his own dystopia to “correct” Orwell’s version.

    There was a time when I enjoyed debating whether “1984,” “We,” “Brave New World,” or one of the other similar dystopias was closest. Little did we realize that a hybrid 1984-Brave-New-World Synergy would be our future.

    1. I, for one, welcome our Orwellian overlords. They offer one-click convenience and streamlined pay plans.

    2. “We” was also pretty prescient in terms of electronics embedded in everything, the death of privacy, and ubiquitous surveillance.

    3. Somebody out there described it thusly: “Brave New World” for the rich, “1984” for the poor.

  6. Orwell saw what the fascists, the nazi and the stalinists could do during the spanish civil war. That’s all the inspiration he needed…

    I would love to know what Orwell would make of the Tea-baggers of today…

    1. I’m not entirely sure he wouldn’t be one of them. Orwell had the advantage of dying early — many of the people whom he closely resembles like James Burnham (whose “Managerial Revolution” is the basis for Goldstein’s Book), went through a standard transformation — communist/anarchist to moderist socialist aghast at the methods used by the former to right-winger. Orwell simply died at the middle stage.

      1. You really think Orwell would be a tea bagger if he were alive today?  You know, with a bumper sticker that says “Freedom isn’t Free” and things like that?


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