Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Futuristic Present

What makes George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 so chilling is the fact that its futuristic setting is extremely close to our present. Orwell imagines a dystopian society with a totalitarian government, the Party, in which the people are woefully trapped under the hand of its notorious leader, Big Brother (who is, apparently, always watching), a mysterious figure only seen on posters.

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Winston Smith’s homeland Oceania is in a state of constant war with the other two reigning lands, East Asia and Eurasia (who both have similar governments). This forces all supplies to be channeled in supporting the war, and thus the rest of Oceania remains poor. Winston Smith is a member of the lower tier of the government, and works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting past articles so that history always supports the Party. There is to be nothing in the past showing that the Party has made mistakes; the Party must always be right. The Party is always in rule.  The Party maintains a strict rule over the Proletariats (the lower-class citizens) by four main operations, located in four vast pyramid-like governmental structures overlooking the land: the Ministry of Truth (Winston’s workplace), which alters history (and consequently, reality), the Ministry of Love, which dealts out torturous punishments to criminals, the Ministry of Peace, which ensures constant warfare, and the Ministry of Plenty, which deals with economic affairs and checks that Oceania is in a state of endless starvation. We can see the irony in the buildings’ names.

Besides editing the past, the Ministry of Truth works hard each day to condense the language of Oceania (called newspeak) more and more, until it is it to be something that is merely a simple form of communication. This way, with less and less words to work with, the human mind shrinks and becomes less complex; this is one of the twisted ways the Party manipulates its people to become more and more ignorant, until they are nothing more than an animal.

The Party’s three slogans are: Slavery is Freedom, War is Peace, and Ignorance is Strength. These statements reflect the philosophy of doublethink, in which a person holds two contradictory beliefs as simultaneously correct; in doing so, we can see that the person lacks the ability to conscious awareness that these two ideals conflict, that the person lacks the ability to think. With their intelligence gone, the Proletariats are helplessly subject to any action of the Party.

Winston is one of the few people who are still fighting against the Party, desperately trying to hold onto his soul, waiting until the day the Party comes to take it away. And each day, the Party takes a small chuck of humanity away from the Proletariats. He eventually meets Julia, a young, lively woman with free will like him. Together, they team up and think of ways to take down the government.

But in a world so twisted, such a happiness can never last. Winston and Julia will fall, back into the dark, embracing arms of the government, welcoming them into a comfortable life of true sanity, where the only things that matter are the Party and Big Brother…

Although the society of 1984 sounds too scary to be true, our community today bears some striking similarities. The government is slowly taking over our privacy; with surveillance cameras in unknown places and with the Internet being tracked constantly, we can no longer trust that our backs aren’t being watched. And when will the government stop, if it is willing to? The Fourth Amendment, our right to privacy, is already being invaded; will a time come when it is completely abolished? And what about the First Amendment, our right to free speech? Will a time come where the government will begin to reduce our language, our ability to think? Alter our history, our reality as we know it?

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1984 is a must-read for all those who loved Hunger GamesUnwound, or any science fiction book. It contains a strong political message cleverly woven in a dystopian novel, and scarily accurate predictions about our world’s future. Orwell wrote this book during the times of World War II, and shows us the bitter consequences of totalitarian government. Although democracy still stands in America, we can already begin to see the effects of a too-strong government. Orwell calls out to all of us, to remain strong and to persevere. We must keep fighting for what is right, for what is ours. We must not let the future fall into the wrong hands.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Failed, Premature Coming-of-Age

A book I read a while ago in AP Lang, but still worthy of recognition. A truly marvelous read.

[spoiler warning]

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, novel of American literature. Narrated from the very unreliable, very skewed first-person point-of-view of young Huckleberry Finn, it is the story of Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, as they float down the Mississippi River into the deep, dark heart of the Antebellum South.

Before his adventures, Huck spent his days playing with the romantic-minded Tom Sawyer and under the tutelage of a widow and her sister Miss Watson, both of whom try to teach Huck manners and try to quell his “uncivilized” behavior. However, his alcoholic father Pap comes back and takes his son back to his cabin, where he is forced to stay for a couple days before escaping. During his escape, Huck meets Jim and the two set out on the river on a raft.

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Huck first has qualms with himself about letting Jim onto the raft. Jim is, after all, a slave, and Huck’s been strictly told that slaves aren’t exactly the same as humans. What’s more, Jim is the slave of Miss Watson– someone who, despite her strict disciplinarian care, genuinely cares about Huck’s well-being– and thus, helping Jim escape is, for Huck, morally wrong (though we can clearly see that this is the very opposite of that). As Huck grows closer to Jim, however, he is forced to question the status quo that he has been taught. Huck and Jim aim for the Ohio River, where they can then begin to travel north and, for Jim (and Huck as well), towards freedom.

Eventually, however, they miss their destination, and continue to float down the Mississippi, where they are separated multiple times. Later, they pick up two con artists, on the run. The con artists take over the raft and begin to treat Jim badly, exploiting his status and shaming him– while Huck watches helplessly.

After a series of mishaps, Huck finally escapes from the con artists, only to find that they have sold Jim to a nearby farmer. Longing for his friend, Huck finally pushes free of his social barriers and resolves to free Jim once and for all. He heads to the farm to look for him, but finds that the man and woman living there are actually his friend Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunt. Coincidentally, Tom comes for a visit, and even offers to help Huck, which seems like a marvelous idea at first– until Tom begins to scheme ridiculous, humiliating plans for freeing Jim that fit with his storybook fantasies of a daring escapade. And despite his learning on his adventures on the raft with Jim, Huck goes along with it all.

What makes this book so bad, so sad, so terribly, terribly marvelous is the ending. Tom’s aunt and uncle find Tom hurt and Huck stumbling for help. Huck finally tells them of their little attempts at an “adventure,” and how they’d managed to plot under the adults’ noses, but receives a startling surprise himself: that Jim is actually free– Miss Watson had declared it in her will. Tom knew it all along, but had apparently decided not tell Huck and that this actually gave him the chance to try out his delightful, embarrassing plots on someone. Jim becomes nothing more than a plaything for the boys.

A picaresque, the novel is supposed to “depict the adventures of a roguish hero/heroine of low class society who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.” While most of this fits into the content of ‘Huck Finn, there is one key component missing– the hero. We can see that, in the end, it is not Huck who is the hero. In fact, is there even a hero in the novel? Are all novels supposed to have a hero? Why didn’t Twain have Huck grow? Why didn’t Twain have Huck save Jim? Why did Huck succumb to society’s racist views again?

These are questions that literary critics have debated over for decades, and still continue to debate. The ending of ‘Huck Finn is unexpected and depressing, and there are views over why Twain wrote it that way. Some think that he simply failed to convey a message he was trying to write in ‘Huck Finn, while others (and I am inclined to think so as well) believe that this outrageous ending was, in fact, his aim. Read critically, ‘Huck Finn is a satire. It is not a racist novel, for all its filtered narration and derogatory language. In fact, Twain depicts Huck’s racist thoughts as simply ridiculous– as if anyone would even dare to think that any human is below the rest! Yet, this was the reality back in the Antebellum South (believe it or not, in parts of the United States, and the world as well, it still is the reality). People did indeed believe, quite strongly and adamantly (yes, it even lead to a war), that African Americans were simply not as human as the rest of us.

If you haven’t picked up ‘Huck Finn yet, it’s about time to! Mark Twain’s satirical novel criticizing society and its many problems is a must-read, and, despite its less-than-appealing, grammatically-wrong, vernacular English language, it stands alongside other classic novels like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird as an iconic component of American literature. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of being with Huck and Jim on their raft, on the run from society’s grasping arms. It is definitely not the innocent, just-a-boy-having-fun book that people first perceive it to be (Huck’s adventures are more than just pure mischief), but at the same time is it not the serious, racist novel that others think it is.

Satire is sometimes hard to read; it takes skill and finesse to craft a novel that depicts such a dark and delicate topic through the lightness and joviality of a humorous boy’s adventure. Mark Twain’s talent is not to be ignored or chastised; it is to be appreciated, and considered. Anyone who reads ‘Huck Finn will surely enjoy floating along the Mississippi, listening to Jim’s stories and applauding Huck’s wit.

Twain lambastes the racist views of the Antebellum South, commenting how absurd, even comical those ideas are– and, unfortunately, reminding us that these views are still present in our society today. We must think about how we are treating others. Unlike Huck Finn, we are to be heroes.

But don’t worry, Twain reassures us. It’s okay– you won’t go to hell for treating people nicely.

The Comment on Religion in AHS: Asylum

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum packs a whole lot in only thirteen hour-long episodes, featuring a myriad of different horrors, including mad scientists, human experimentation, aliens, serial killers, and all sorts of inhumane practices dealt by a typical asylum one would expect to see in a horror show.

Frankly, the second season of AHS vastly outshines the first season (fan-dubbed “Murder House”) in terms of scariness. The dark themes of Asylum was what made the season so fantastic, despite its so-so plot.

Religion is a huge theme in the season: firstly, the mental institution for the criminally-insane is run by nuns, with Sister Jude (played wonderfully by Jessica Lange) as its head, who rules with an iron fist and an array of wooden canes. Briarcliff is owned by the Church, and it would seem as if it were using the asylum to promote itself and make Christianity more appealing through “saving” and “caring for” the various mental patients of the institution. The Monsignor, Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), is certainly using this tactic to elevate his own role and to boost his own reputation, which eventually leads to his appointment as the Cardinal of New York (feel good about all the horrors you’ve turned a blind eye to, Howard).

The nuns, especially Sister Jude, seem to use religion as an excuse to execute painful punishments upon the patients. Barbaric practices such as solitary confinement, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies are allowed in the institution, despite the fact that the Church should very much be alarmed at the inhumanity of such things. However, their justification is that they are helping the patients from their insanity– but would God really allow such cruel and forceful refinements of people if He was the one who created them as crazy? Here, is Murphy subtly pointing out the hypocrisy of the Church?

The Devil does a good job of summarizing this idea:

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Insanity, in the Church’s eyes, was often seen as the work of the Devil (and ironically, the Devil makes its appearance in the asylum), and victims of mental illness were frequently subjected to the aforementioned operations as means of curing (or rather, “purifying”) them. As Sister Jude put it in the show, “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.” The staff of Briarcliff, particularly Sister Jude and Monsignor Howard (due to their shared ambitions of becoming leaders of the Church in Rome), are seemingly blinded by their duties to help the “lost souls” that are the patients, and overlook the fact that the techniques they use to force these patients into the definition of sanity are simply horrifying. This fact is, once again, exposed by Sister Jude (as Judy Martin), when she herself is stripped of her power and is committed as a patient of the asylum. She then rejects Timothy Howard and his ambitions, commenting, “I am more sane now as a mad woman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.” From her new perspective as a victim of the Church, rather than a member of it, she is able to see that its proclamations of “helping the mentally ill” is all cant.

Murphy does a wonderful job of exploring the role Christianity played in the history of mental illness and insanity and also exposes the indecency of the procedures used by the Church’s asylums to treat their patients– who, in the eyes of the Church and the rest of society, are sinners from birth. As Sister Jude put it, “All monsters are human.”

To the Church, however, not all humans are monsters.

The Great Gatsby: Make Plain the Reason Harrowed Humanity, Is Baited by Fickle Fortune

Read this book a while ago in AP Lang, but thought I should post a review. Title is based off of a life from Countee Cullen’s poem YET I DO MARVEL.

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Fitzgerald was not an advocate for explosion of consumerism of his time, as evident in his novel. ‘Gatsby shows how materialistic wealth blinds people, and gives them false hope of a wonderful and prosperous future. Since its birth, America has been known as the “land of opportunity.” It was, as James Adams Truslow put it, “[a] dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all of our citizens of every rank…” Though this dream is still the firm pillar of America, the outward image of it has changed vastly, from an exciting New World to a wild west frontier to a land of economic opportunity. However, the hidden, true face remains the same: the endless aspiration for wealth. 

Jay Gatsby’s vision of fortune physically takes the form of Daisy Buchanan, narrator Nick Carraway’s second cousin. Poor, delusional Gatsby’s entire life comes crashing down when he fails to attain the fantasy that he has been so desperately chasing after. His obsession with Daisy has badly blinded him; he invests all his time and energy into creating a persona based on the Daisy in his head, and, for a moment, believes that he has achieved his goal through his affluence, blissfully unaware of the transience of his own life: while wealth may be present forever, people are not.

To others, Gatsby represents their dreams of affluence: he is a rich, seemingly happy man who throws elaborate parties and drives a fancy car. He has everything people hope for, and yet he is not satisfied. Initially, our narrator Nick is enraptured by Gatsby as well; Nick comments that Gatsby’s adoring smile “faced– or seemed to face– the whole external world for an instant…” Though on the outside Gatsby’s grin appears to be confident and self-assured, boldly confronting society, we get a flicker of what’s deep down– what “seemed” to happen– a sense that the smile is not truly genuine, and that, behind the armor of grandeur and magnificence there is a pitiful human soul yearning to be recognized. Just as Nick is basking in Gatsby’s godly aura, the divine light “vanish[es]– and I [Nick] was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Nick then sees Gatsby for who he really is: a guileless young man struggling to fit into the high-class society by going out-of-his way to impress others by acting overly sophisticated and acquiring excess materialistic wealth. Though Gatsby is ornate and pretentious like a man of old-wealth, Nick is able to see through his demeanor. Through this almost satirical depiction of Gatsby as a woefully comic character, Fitzgerald criticizes American society’s obsession with status and affluence, and many Americans’ lifelong yet fruitless attempts to craft realities out of dreams.  

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In ‘Gatsby, society values and honors those who possess materialistic wealth, physical embodiments of dreams and splendor– and to this day, we still do. Through Gatsby’s tragic fall from deity to mortal, Fitzgerald reminds us that in the end none of us are God, and that heaven on earth is ultimately unattainable, even through affluence. The original creed of America, to create a place of freedom and happiness for all, has been demoralized by the dark yet promising light of gold and materialistic wealth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is timeless, and is still prevalent today, as much as we refuse to acknowledge it. We are still on the move, searching for that ideal life promised by the American Dream. Exposed to the tantalizing beauty of luxury, we will always yearn for more. Our dreams are perfections of reality, but there will forever be a fine line between what is real and what we want. Yet we will always keep chasing, always keep stretching our arms out towards our own green light that we continually force farther and farther away, until it is finally extinguished, and we become lost in the bay… America is indeed borne back ceaselessly into the past.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Insanity is Humanity

A required reading for my AP English Lang class. Wonderful book!

[spoiler warning]

Ken Kesey’s brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest speaks a great deal about society and their definitions of the norm. The men in the asylum deem themselves to be more or less “insane” due to the fact that they are outcasts in the community. However, all this changes when a newcomer arrives: R.P. McMurphy, savior and messiah.

The asylum’s head nurse Ratched rules with an iron fist, keeping the patients oppressed under her administration by fostering tension and distrust amongst themselves. She executes psychological tactics in order to mentally control the men, who continuously believe that they are shameful and of lower status to Nurse Ratched and the rest of society because of their various “issues.” For example, Dale Harding is portrayed as a closeted homosexual, with a face “too pretty” and a weak, curved posture, as if he is curling into himself. He is, however, looked to be the leader of the patients before McMurphy’s arrival despite his rather flimsy portrayal. An intelligent, witty person, Kesey comments here that Harding is very much a man, though Harding’s own belief of this is crushed due to the fact that his homosexuality is not accepted in society.

McMurphy’s arrival brings a light and hope to the rest of the patients. He is just as wild as they are, but instead of being ashamed he accepts, and even celebrates, his differences. This leads to the other members of the ward uniting under him and his spunky spirit, and pushing against Nurse Ratched and her rules. Here, Kesey is trying to make a larger point: that although some degree of conformity is required to make a successful society, conformity is not the same as submission. Society should not force its citizens to submit to a particular set of norms– otherwise, it will remain static and blank, a constantly operating machine with no room to grow. As part of the counterculture of the 60’s, we can see that Kesey is attempting to make a call to action for America to embrace people’s differences and explore new ideas.

The outrageous yet fantastic ending is the final slap to the face. Nurse Ratched is physically beaten up by McMurphy, becoming mute and therefore losing her tyrannic power over the ward; she can no longer control the patients. McMurphy, however, is given a lobotomy and is sentenced to a life of silence as well. Neither Nurse Ratched nor McMurphy wins; the battle against society and outcasts does not result in a victory. The patients finally get the initiative to leave the ward after Ratched’s authority is lost, and are free to be themselves again. Chief Bromden, the narrator, escapes himself after coming to the realization that even in times of oppression and discipline, there is still a possibility for independence (shown by McMurphy declaring war against Nurse Ratched, despite the promise that he would be kept in the institution forever). One by one, McMurphy plucks them from the cuckoo’s nest.

For anyone looking for a good read, I highly suggest ‘Cuckoo’s Nest. It is an amazing book with great depth. Kesey points out that we are all human, not a pristine machine, no matter how much we try to hide it. In the end, we are all insane.