What is a banned book? Banned books are books or other printed works, such as essays or plays, which are prohibited by law or to which free access is not permitted by other means. The practice of banning books is a form of censorship for political, religious, moral, or commercial motives. One such book is the novel 1984 by George Orwell. The novel had been banned or challenged numerous times on the grounds that it contained communist and sexual content. For those reasons, the novel was banned from some classrooms in the United States, along with being banned and burned in the USSR. But I believe this is not enough reason to ban such a thought intriguing and amazing book. In this essay, I will explain why the novel 1984 should not have been banned and why it is especially important in today's society.
Born in 1903, Orwell lived through both world wars and saw the rise of totalitarian regimes on an unprecedented scale. In a letter written in 1944, he decried, “the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth.” (Charles, Ron). George Orwell wrote the novel “1984” during the rise of Joseph Stalin. In the novel, Orwell writes of an omnipresent, dystopian government that sucks away individuality and life from its citizens. The novel showcases the ways communist parties alter humanity and history. Because 1984 offers an insight into those under the leadership of oppressive regimes, the novel was been banned and even burned in the USSR because it contained commentary against Stalin’s cruel, iron-fist leadership. The censorship began with Stalin in the 1950s during his “Midnight Purges” - A brutal political campaign to eliminate dissenting members of the Communist Party. Recently, China has followed Stalin’s footsteps by banning 1984 and Animal Farm, both written by George Orwell, from its citizens. “Both novels certainly reflect aspects of the Chinese Communist Party. China is known to take extreme measures when surveilling the population and censoring unfavorable news. The tyrannical themes in the book mirror China’s current reality.” (StackPath). The banning of the novel in these two nations is to preserve the hold of communism over its people, showing an eerie parallel to the novel when the material is burned or altered to please the people to preserve the faith of Big Brother to keep him in power.
1984 has been challenged and banned from schools due to the strong themes of nationalism, sexual repression, censorship, and privacy. “Most parental groups take issue with the sexual interaction between Winston and Julia, and questioned it as being “too gloomy and depressing” for school-age readers because of its bleak vision of the future and having no “happy ever after” (“Banned Books Awareness: ‘1984.”). The novel was challenged and banned in Jackson County, Florida in 1981 for being pro-communist and contained “explicit sexual content.” (ibid). Most recently in 2017 in Jefferson County, Idaho, the book was challenged after parents voiced concern over the book's violent, sexually charged language. The book was assigned to reading in two senior-level government classes. The scrutinization of the book was met with great student protest, students arguing that “administrators aren’t considering the book's themes or the larger context of the passage.” (Bodkin, Devin). Besides the sexual explicitly in the novel, the book is more commonly removed from US schools because the novel expresses “pro-communist” ideals; but ironically enough, for being “anti-government”. Orwell’s word choice is startling so he can further portray how terrifying a communist society is and can be. These words are probably not unfamiliar to most eighteen-year-olds. For me personally, it seems that certain scenes from the story have irritated or worried adults due to their similarity to actual events of the 20th century.
After reading the novel 1984, it is hard not to see the parallelism between Oceania and today's society. Like Oceania, there is “A world of endless war, where fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea.” (Seaton, Jean). Perhaps the only difference is the absence of Big Brother. In the novel, multiple sources of printed material are altered or destroyed to appease Big Brother. Leaders have always tried to manipulate the truth, of course, and modern politicians of all persuasions want to “control the narrative”, but there’s something freshly audacious about Trump, who seems to constantly lie to appear perfect in the public's eyes. Journalists scramble to sort out a cascade of lies and falsehoods told by President Trump and his aides. An increase in sales of 1984 appears to have started after Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in an interview, which British historian and Orwell biographer Peter Stansky said was a phrase that “is very Orwellian, very ‘Newspeak.’” (Flock, Elizabeth). Stansky believes that the increase in sales of the novel, which Orwell wrote in 1949 as a warning to the Western world about the totalitarianism of his era, is a direct response to President Trump’s efforts to manipulate facts during his first week in office (Flock, Elizabeth). Trump has successfully created poisonous tensions among ethnic and religious groups that are fanned by right-wing demagogues (Kakutani, Michiko) by making ridiculous claims of voter fraud, illegal immigration theories, and larger inauguration crowd sizes. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” (Novel Quote, pg. 81). Trump’s presidency has sparked fears that bring a new level of relevance to the book, particularly because of the way Trump deploys language. Though his tactics are childish and ultimately stupid, he is effectively inducing fear into the citizens of the nation. And fear is the easiest way to maintain control over any subject. Although Trump’s regime will not have complete and total control like Big Brother’s Party, his being elected has already resulted in an increase in hate crimes, and, unfortunately, there is no end in sight. Inciting hatred and fear is as much a part of Donald Trump’s creed as it is Big Brother’s. For our sake, let’s hope George Orwell was correct and a civilization founded on fear and hatred never sees the light of day.
Orwell wasn’t writing about a particular party, though it can be said he has inspired by the abuse of power exercised by the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany. He was describing, in other words, the basic function of power, the tendency of leaders and governments to cement their authority by controlling our language, and to an extent, our thought and behavior. Whether we know it or not, our electronic footprints are being watched and scrutinized by the National Security Agency, much like the telescreens described in 1984. The Obama administration did its best to conceal that the National Security Agency is listening to our electronic communications, eerie surveillance in 1984 (Charles, Ron). But the Obama and Trump administrations aren’t the only presidents with parallels to the novel. It was President Bill Clinton who brought the country to a constitutional climax by claiming that the truth of his testimony regarding “that woman” depends “on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” - an Orwellian clarification if there ever was one (ibid). Clinton is referring to women as sexual objects as Orwell does in the novel with the relationship between Winston and Julia. Orwell casts the blame for political corruption widely, and he insists we all have a responsibility to resist it by thinking and especially by writing more clearly (ibid). Like Orwell wrote, “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 percent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.” Even President Nixon is being accused of using doublethink during the Watergate Scandal. But Newspeak and doublethink reached even greater heights during the Reagan administration. Reagan's constant barrage of lies is tolerated as 'misstatements' and he seems to have perfected the art of using Newspeak and doublethink with a smile and a show of sincerity. It seems that the government has been a sweltering, cesspool of power, lies, and corruption that has been controlling its people without knowledge of it doing so. Some administrations can contain their corruption more than others, as the passage above shows. The powers to fight the abusive powers of politics lie within the hands of the people, not the corruptors. Orwell’s vision is not becoming a reality, it already is a reality. And it may be too late to find a solution for this horrifying disease.
Whether we notice it or not, society today is already like 1984. From Orwell’s Doublethink, Newspeak, the Thought Police, the Ministry of Love that deals in pain, and despair and annihilates any dissident, the Ministry of Peace that wages war, and the novel-writing machines that pump out pornography to buy off the masses, it all exists today - just under another title to appear less obvious. The reason we don’t realize this statement is because our minds are brainwashed and forced to accept that corruption in the world is justified. The book published on June 8, 1949, written out of the battered landscape of total war, in a nation hungry, tired and grey, feels more relevant than ever before (Seaton, Jean). In 1984 the television screens watch you, and everyone spies on everyone else. Today it is social media that collects every gesture, purchase, and comment we make online, and feeds an omniscient presence in our lives that can predict our every preference. Modeled on consumer choices, where the user is the commodity that is being marketed, the harvesting of those preferences for political campaigns is now distorting democracy (ibid). In 1984 he showed how these can be created arbitrarily by whipping up popular feelings through propaganda. But in his description of the ‘Two Minutes Hate, he also foresaw the way in which online mobs work (ibid). Now political, religious, and commercial organizations all trade in whipping up feelings of hatred towards opposing parties or governments, minorities and foreigners, and rival companies. Pitying a person against a person for the sake of their own gain of popularity or money. Orwell’s writing is rooted in the struggles between the giant ‘-isms’ that disfigured the 20th Century. Today there is another set of ‘-isms’, such as nationalism and populism operating through the mobilization of that most dangerous of feelings, resentment. And everywhere you look in the contemporary world, ‘strong’ men are in positions of power. They share the need to crush opposition, a fanatical terror of dissent and self-promotion. Big Brothers are no longer a joke but strut the world (ibid). But the greatest horror in Orwell’s dystopia is the systematic stripping of meaning out of language. The regime aims to eradicate words and the ideas and feelings they embody. Its real enemy is reality. Tyrannies attempt to make understanding the real world impossible: seeking to replace it with phantoms and lies (ibid). This novel pins down the terror of a world where people have fewer and fewer words to use and whose thinking is distorted by ideologies. There is no wonder the novel has had a surge in sales in the US as people search for a way to comprehend the reality of the Trump administration.
The banning of 1984 itself is no doubt another Big Brother tactic, another way to maintain a tight grip to control its puppet citizens. The book is banned from lands controlled by tyrannies, wishing to keep this book written for such situations to prevent an uprising of Winston and Julia’s. Winton’s and Julia’s are what Big Brothers fear the most, as their rebellion will not be in the eyes of the public or be too obvious. “You could only rebel against [Big Brother] by secret disobedience or, at the most, by isolated acts of violence such as killing somebody or blowing something up.” (Novel quote, pg. 153). These Winston and Julia refuse to believe that ‘2 + 2 = 5’. Much like Orwell’s ‘memory hole’ - an imaginary place where inconvenient or unpleasant information is put and quickly forgotten, books are burned to prevent their knowledge from being obtained. Though the practice of burning books is not popular now as it was during Hitler’s and Stalin’s reigns, the banning of books is just as shameful as most of the reasons for banning a book are ridiculously uncalled for. It is obviously clear that the novel 1984 has been challenged and banned for reasonings of being immoral, having explicit sexual violence, disturbing personal privacy, and being pro-communist. But those who have read the book know that this is not true. Banning this book only because of an author’s affiliations or profanity is ridiculous when compared to the novel’s rich ideas. When people choose to ban books due to certain content, they are acting like Big Brother, by keeping books out of the people’s hands. By doing this, you can somewhat control or change the way they think and what they think about. Though Trump screams ‘fake news’ at anyone and anything that criticizes him, there is the question if he is giving orders to create this fake news, wanting the public to be in a confused stupor. Or perhaps it is the people under him, like Big Brother’s Ministry of Love, that produce such garbage. The deeper you go into Orwell’s 1984 society in comparison to today’s society, the darker and more disturbing the veils get as they start to reveal that we are already living in the dystopia of 1984.
Perhaps the most memorable character is Big Brothers. Big Brother is the face of the Party, the leader behind the great power. The best part is that we never come to confirm his actual existence. He might not even be real. The face of the Party, Big Brother acts as reassurance and a trustworthy entity for many. Yet, he is also your biggest enemy and threat – if you are one of the criminals. Big Brother is controlling and not remotely a brotherly guy. Today, it can be argued that there are quite a few Big Brothers that are in power today. You can quickly point out such leaders are Kim Jong Un, the seemingly short-tempered North Korean leader who isn’t afraid to get rid of those who question his authority. He restricts his citizens from nearly all outside contact much like Big Brother does with the people of Oceania. “War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he has forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners, he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them are lies.” (Novel Quote, pg. 196). From preventing citizens from leaving or entering the country to extreme practices of censorship, Kim Jong Un is an intimidating Big Brother. Another powerful, and perhaps the scariest, 21st century Big Brother is Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Putin’s biggest similarity to Big Brother is the disappearance of people who question his authority or pose a threat to his power. “Mrs. Parson would be vaporized. Syme would be vaporized. Winston would be vaporized. O’Brien would be vaporized. Parsons, on the other hand, would never be vaporized. The eyeless creature with the quaking voice would never be vaporized. - It seemed to him that he knew instinctively who would survive and who would perish, though just what it was that made for survival, it was not easy to say.” (Novel Quote, pg. 61). It is well known about the random, yet somewhat predictable disappearances of Russian citizens. And most recently, the death of two UK citizens who were poisoned by a Russian nerve agent. This shows what lengths Putin is willing to go to remain in power. Though Trump himself is a Big Brother, he is too clumsy with his actions and words to be an effective Big Brother. But as 1984 goes to show, any Big Brother is a danger to society.
The reasons for banning the novel 1984 are childish and pathetic. Because themes and scenes containing nationalism, sexual repression, censorship, explicit sexual material, invasion of privacy, and strangely pro-communism, are no reason to ban the novel. These reasonings seem to be a repeated justification in multiple sources while researching. I find these reasons for banning the book rather irrelevant. The theme of 1984 is not pro-communism but completely the opposite. Orwell intended the book to challenge and reveal the evil of communist governments, not support them. As for the sexual content complaint, there are far worse books with even worse explicit content. 1984 is a relevant and important novel of today as it is a handbook for difficult times. Readers need to pick up 1984 at some point in their life before the novel vaporized into a quickly rising dystopia.
- “Banned Books Awareness: ‘1984.” World Leading Higher Education Information and Services, 17 July 2011, world.edu/banned-books-awareness-1984/.
- “Banned/Censored.” 1984, George Orwell - Home, 1984bigbrotheriswatching.weebly.com/bannedcensored.
- Bodkin, Devin. “Jefferson County Administrators Consider Banning Classic Novel.” Idaho Education News, 22 Sept. 2017, www.idahoednews.org/news/jefferson-county.
- Charles, Ron. “Why Orwell's '1984' Matters so Much Now.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Jan. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/why-Orwell's-1984-matters-so-much-now/2017/01/25
- “China Just Banned ‘1984’, ‘Animal Farm’ and the Letter ‘N.’” StackPath, 28 Feb. 2018, www.nextshark.com/china-just-banned-1984.
- Flock, Elizabeth. “George Orwell's '1984' Is a Best-Seller Again. Here's Why It Resonates Now.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 25 Jan. 2017, www.pbs.org/Newshour/arts/George-Orwell's-1984-best-seller-here-resonates-now.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Why '1984' Is a 2017 Must-Read.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/books/why-1984-is-a-2017-must-read.html.
- Seaton, Jean. “Culture - Why Orwell's 1984 Could Be About Now.” BBC News, BBC, 7 May 2018, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180507-why-Orwell's-1984-could-be-about-now.
- Titus, Ron. “Marshall University Libraries.” Women's Center, 20 Aug. 2AD, www.marshall.edu/library/bannedbooks/books/1984.asp.
- Woods, Katelin. “Banned Book Highlight: Literature Lifts the Veil in Orwell's ‘1984.’” The Collegian, 27 Sept. 2018, www.kstatecollegian.com/2018/09/27/banned-book-highlight-literature-lifts-the-veil-in-Orwell's-1984/.