By: Lilly Gelman  | 

1984 - If All Hope is Lost

I was disappointed after reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). I found the plot and characters static and the ending anticlimactic. I could not grasp why everyone praised the novel so highly, and felt a little disheartened by my unmet expectations. The primary reason why I did not like the novel was because the protagonist, Winston Smith, does not succeed in his goal. He fails to mount a rebellion against the tyrannical and authoritarian state known as “Big Brother.” Up until the very last sentence, Orwell leads the reader to believe that Smith will somehow carry out his plans of revolt. Despite his forced reeducation by authorities, Smith continues to believe that the government is ruthless and corrupt. Ultimately, however, Winston affirms in the very last sentence of the text that “I love Big Brother.” Apparently, the government is victorious, succeeding in turning Winston into yet another brainwashed citizen by pulverizing each act of Winston’s rebellion, even if it is only in his thoughts.

Years of reading novels in which the good guy comes out on top had trained my mind to reject the pessimistic, post-apocalyptic ending where the protagonist did not somehow overcome difficulties, however imposing they may have been. After some thought, however, I began to understand that the brilliance of the novel lies in Smith’s failure to overcome the government’s mental control. Through Smith and other characters, Orwell illustrates humankind's greatest fear, the loss of all hope. Winston repeatedly says, “Hope lies in the proles (the uneducated working classes),” expressing the idea that perhaps, someday, someone will be able to overthrow the government. In the end, however, Big Brother suppresses Winston’s optimism…and mine.

Winston Smith’s loss of hope captivates the reader because it is a feeling which defines the human experience. Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” We as people are the only ones who have the power to provide and sustain faith. If humanity fails to deliver hope in the face of catastrophe, then there is no possibility of survival. In Orwell’s novel, O’Brien, the police agent who tortures Winston, says, “[i]f you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This is a chilling statement of what will be left of humanity if all hope is eradicated.

I still hate the ending of the novel, but have gained an appreciation of the worldly insight offered by Orwell. The disappearance of hope in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four represents the worst possible trauma that a society can experience. Existence loses much of its meaning and richness when devoid of the hope that the future will be better than the present, and when there is no longer any belief that humans have a role in shaping their destiny. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith lost hope, and with it the possibility of change was destroyed as well.