Letter to author
Imagine writing a letter to the author of a novel or literary work that you have read. What would you tell him or her. Is the author dead? No matter. Write to the author anyways, to explain the relevance and significance of his or her work to today's society. In what ways are the ideas of the literary work timeless? How do they still speak to audiences today?
Model portfolio entry
WHAT: This is the letter that I wrote to George Orwell after reading his novel 1984
Dear Mr. Orwell,
I recently read your novel 1984 and saw many parallels to the world that I live in today in the year 2020. At the same time, it became apparent to me how much the world has evolved, I presume more than you could have imagined. I am writing to you, 70 years after you have died, to let you know how accurate your predictions of the future were.
Your perception based on human beings is accurate, although we are a lot more tolerant than you foresaw. Ingsoc is not the only government that has tried to govern by monitoring and controlling everything – be it free speech, public gatherings and elections, through propaganda, disinformation or falsified facts. Like in your novel, dissenters today are identified and prosecuted in countries like Hong Kong (which is now part of China) or Russia (which was reborn in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union). When reading your novel I felt a very personal connection, as I am born into a family of German and Japanese parents. With that, I know that my history is intertwined with world history. What the Germans and Japanese did in the 20th century is not unlike how the Thought Police of Airstrip One surveils its citizens around the clock. As you will remember, not so long ago the NSDAP, a dictatorial party that was ruling over Germany under the leadership of a tyrant named Adolf Hitler, launched a far-reaching genocide in Europe and initiated World War II. Similar to what you feature in your novel, Hitler exercised his regime of control and suppression through a special elite police unit named Gestapo, which tracked each and every movement and expression of dissent made by minorities, such as Jews and immigrants. Moreover, when looking across the ocean to the US to modern times, the political leadership and their instruments, such as the FBI and CIA, resemble, in their mandate and operating practices, the state you portray by exercising control over people’s information.
In this day and age, there are certainly undemocratic rulers that try to curtail human rights to varying degrees, ranging from the previous President of the United States, Donald Trump, to tyrants, like the democratically-elected leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the head of North Korea, which today is a tightly controlled dictatorship. Similar to what you describe in 1984, they brainwash their citizens into following them.
The biggest difference between your novel and today's society, however, is the role that technology and media play in keeping citizens informed. Most people on planet earth today have hand-held devices with screens, on which people can view the latest news, post their own news or socialise with others. Because technology has democratised information streams, the lines have become blurred between news and opinions, facts and lies and consumers and producers. The price we pay for using these platforms and services is our personal data, which these companies own, track and monitor. Just a few years ago, one company that specialised in political propaganda, called Cambridge Analytica, purchased data from one of these 'social media' platforms, called Facebook, so that they could target millions of undecided voters, known as 'persuadables' to get them to vote a certain way in the US presidential elections. Their efforts to spread lies and shift public opinion worked quite successfully. Does this sound like science fiction? It is not quite like the Ministry of Truth destroying and republishing old newspaper articles, "controlling the past to control the present", as you stated. Rather than listening to one, official party channel, like the voice of Big Brother on Telescreens, people today listen to, watch and even create media that either suit their preferences or push them toward a preference. This has resulted in a very polarised, divided world, where people on the left and right have a very different basic understanding of politics, economics, history, current affairs and even human rights based on the media that they consume.
Nevertheless, there are people today who challenge this two-party duopoly, just as there are characters in your novel who challenge the one-party system. I particularly found O’Brien, Winston and Julia inspiring characters, even though they never would be able overthrow the dictator, Big Brother. Their efforts are commendable, just as the efforts of some people today are commendable. We have non-partisan heroes, often called 'whistle blowers' who leak government secrets, call out injustices or expose corruption. Their efforts have raised awareness about institutional sexism, racism and nepotism. While these whistle blowers sometimes lose their battles against large corporations and governments, their victories are well publicised by independent media.
With this, please allow me to conclude by expressing my true and genuine appreciation for your novel, 1984. I feel like your novel really opened my eyes to these problems that we are facing in our society today, and it makes me appreciate the freedom of speech in a democratic system and society that values the rights of individuals. I am sure you would be truly impressed by the opportunities I experience every day living in Germany. Your visions were accurate in select parts of our world and society, but overall we are getting closer as a society and tackling every one of these injustices and oppressions in a democratic manner. It was a pleasure to read your book – you have made me think, opened my eyes and sharpened my senses. Thank you so much for that.
WHY: In class we read 1984 by George Orwell, which I really liked. I wanted to write a letter to George Orwell, because I think he would have found our current times very interesting, and he was the kind of guy who liked to make predictions about the future. While I think he understood oppressive regimes, he also underestimated the role technology would play in democratising societies around the world.
HOW: I talked to my teacher in preparation for this activity. I worked from a model letter to Fitzgerald, which another student wrote after reading The Great Gatsby. This second version is the result of a lot of editing. I got feedback from my father and my teacher.
SO WHAT: I really enjoyed this assignment. I think it shows both my understanding of the novel and the text type. I thought it was good to relate today's world to Orwell's world, comparing Cambridge Analytica to the Thought Police for example. I also thought it was good that I clearly stated why I was writing him.