Born Eric Blair in India in 1903, George Orwell was educated as a scholarship student at prestigious boarding schools in England. Because of his background—he famously described his family as “lower-upper-middle class”—he never quite fit in, and felt oppressed and outraged by the dictatorial control that the schools he attended exercised over their students’ lives.
The rise to power of dictators such as Adolf Hitler in Germany and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union inspired Orwell’s mounting hatred of totalitarianism and political authority. Orwell devoted his energy to writing novels that were politically charged, first with Animal Farm in 1945, then with 1984 in 1949.
1984 is one of Orwell’s best-crafted novels, and it remains one of the most powerful warnings ever issued against the dangers of a totalitarian society. In Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, Orwell had witnessed the danger of absolute political authority in an age of advanced technology. He illustrated that peril harshly in 1984. Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), 1984 is one of the most famous novels of the negative utopian, or dystopian, genre. Unlike a utopian novel, in which the writer aims to portray the perfect human society, a novel of negative utopia does the exact opposite: it shows the worst human society imaginable, in an effort to convince readers to avoid any path that might lead toward such societal degradation. In 1949, at the dawn of the nuclear age and before the television had become a fixture in the family home, Orwell’s vision of a post-atomic dictatorship in which every individual would be monitored ceaselessly by means of the telescreen seemed terrifyingly possible. That Orwell postulated such a society a mere thirty-five years into the future compounded this fear.
Yet 1984 remains an important novel, in part for the alarm it sounds against the abusive nature of authoritarian governments, but even more so for its penetrating analysis of the psychology of power and the ways that manipulations of language and history can be used as mechanisms of control.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith wrestles with oppression in Oceania, a place where the Party scrutinizes human actions with ever-watchful Big Brother. Defying a ban on individuality, Winston dares to express his thoughts in a diary and pursues a relationship with Julia. These criminal deeds bring Winston into the eye of the opposition, who then must reform the nonconformist. George Orwell’s 1984 introduced the watchwords for life without freedom: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.
The three most important aspects of 1984:
- The setting of1984 is a dystopia: an imagined world that is far worse than our own, as opposed to a utopia, which is an ideal place or state. Other dystopian novels include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Orwell’s own Animal Farm.
- When George Orwell wrote 1984, the year that gives the book its title was still almost 40 years in the future. Some of the things Orwell imagined that would come to pass were the telescreen, a TV that observes those who are watching it, and a world consisting of three megastates rather than hundreds of countries. In the novel, the country of Eastasia apparently consists of China and its satellite nations; Eurasia is the Soviet Union; and Oceania comprises the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies.
- Another of Orwell’s creations for 1984 is Newspeak, a form of English that the book’s totalitarian government utilizes to discourage free thinking. Orwell believed that, without a word or words to express an idea, the idea itself was impossible to conceive and retain. Thus Newspeak has eliminated the word „bad,” replacing it with the less-harsh „ungood.” The author’s point was that government can control us through the words.
George Orwell’s 1984, like many works of literature, unmistakably carries with it literary traditions reaching back to the earliest of storytellers. Among the literary traditions that Orwell uses is the concept of utopia, which he distorts effectively for his own purposes. Utopia, or Nowhere Land, is an ideal place or society in which human beings realize a perfect existence, a place without suffering or human malady. Orwell did not originate this genre. In fact, the word utopia is taken from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516. The word is now used to describe any place considered to be perfect.
In 1984, Orwell creates a technologically advanced world in which fear is used as a tool for manipulating and controlling individuals who do not conform to the prevailing political orthodoxy. In his attempt to educate the reader about the consequences of certain political philosophies and the defects of human nature, Orwell manipulates and usurps the utopian tradition and creates a dystopia, a fictional setting in which life is extremely bad from deprivation, oppression, or terror. Orwell’s dystopia is a place where humans have no control over their own lives, where nearly every positive feeling is squelched, and where people live in misery, fear, and repression.
The dystopian tradition in literature is a relatively modern one and is usually a criticism of the time in which the author lives. These novels are often political statements, as was Orwell’s other dystopian novel, Animal Farm, published in 1945. By using a dystopian setting for 1984, Orwell suggests the possibility of a utopia, and then makes very clear, with each horror that takes place, the price humankind pays for „perfect” societies.
Orwell wrote 1984 just after World War II ended, wanting it to serve as a warning to his readers. He wanted to be certain that the kind of future presented in the novel should never come to pass, even though the practices that contribute to the development of such a state were abundantly present in Orwell’s time.
Orwell lived during a time in which tyranny was a reality in Spain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries, where government kept an iron fist (or curtain) around its citizens, where there was little, if any freedom, and where hunger, forced labor, and mass execution were common.
Orwell espoused democratic socialism. In his essay, „Why I Write,” published in 1947, two years before the publication of 1984, Orwell stated that he writes, among other reasons, from the „[d]esire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Orwell used his writing to express his powerful political feelings, and that fact is readily apparent in the society he creates in 1984.
The society in 1984, although fictional, mirrors the political weather of the societies that existed all around him. Orwell’s Oceania is a terrifying society reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union — complete repression of the human spirit, absolute governmental control of daily life, constant hunger, and the systematic „vaporization” of individuals who do not, or will not, comply with the government’s values.
Orwell despised the politics of the leaders he saw rise to power in the countries around him, and he despised what the politicians did to the people of those countries. Big Brother is certainly a fusing of both Stalin and Hitler, both real and terrifying leaders, though both on opposite sides of the philosophical spectrum. By combining traits from both the Soviet Union’s and Germany’s totalitarian states, Orwell makes clear that he is staunchly against any form of governmental totalitarianism, either from the left or the right of the political spectrum.
By making Big Brother so easily recognizable (he is physically similar to both Hitler and Stalin, all three having heavy black mustaches and charismatic speaking styles), Orwell makes sure that the reader of 1984 does not mistake his intention — to show clearly how totalitarianism negatively affects the human spirit and how it is impossible to remain freethinking under such circumstances.
The Role of the Media
Orwell spent time in Spain during the time of Franco’s Fascist military rebellion. Although he was initially pleased with what he considered to be the realization of socialism in Barcelona, he quickly saw that dream change; such a political climate could not maintain that kind of „ideal” political life. The group with which Orwell was associated was accused of being a pro-Fascist organization, a falsehood that was readily believed by many, including the left-wing press in England. As a reflection on this experience, in 1984, Orwell creates a media service that is nothing more than a propaganda machine, mirroring what Orwell, as a writer, experienced during his time in Spain.
Orwell worked with the BBC during World War II when certain kinds of restrictions limiting what news could be disseminated were common, and he became disturbed by what he perceived to be the falseness of his work. It is noteworthy that Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, works in the media and is responsible for creating what is, essentially, deceptive propaganda. In fact, it is Winston’s position in the media that gives the reader the most insight into the duplicity of the society in which he lives and therefore, the society that Orwell most condemns.
The setting of 1984 is Oceania, a giant country comprised of the Americas; the Atlantic Islands, including the British Isles; Australia; and the southern portion of Africa. Oceania’s mainland is called Air Strip One, formerly England. The story itself takes place in London in the year 1984, a terrifying place and time where the human spirit and freedom are all but crushed. In the novel, war is constant. The main character, Winston Smith, born before the World War II, grew up knowing only hunger and political instability, and many of the things that he experiences are hyperboles of real activities in wartime Germany and the Soviet Union.
It is important to remember that Orwell based 1984 on the facts as he knew them; hunger, shortages, and repression actually happened as a result of the extreme governmental policies of these countries. The war hysteria, the destruction of the family unit, the persecution of „free thinkers” or those who were „different” or not easily assimilated into the party doctrine, the changing of history to suit the party’s agenda, were all too real. Orwell’s speculation of the future is actually a creative extension of how the masses were treated under Franco, Hitler, and Stalin.
By setting 1984 in London, Orwell is able to invoke the atmosphere of a real war-torn community, where people live in „wooden dwellings like chicken houses” in bombed-out clearings. His intent clearly was to capitalize on a memory that every reader, especially a British reader, was likely to have. London in 1984, then, becomes not just a make-believe place where bad things happen to unknown people, but a very real geographical spot that still holds some connection for the modern reader.
In 1984, the world is sliced into three political realms — the super states of Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. Orwell drew these lines fairly consistent with the political distribution of the Cold War era beginning after World War II. Each of these three states is run by a totalitarian government that is constantly warring on multiple fronts. By creating an entire world at war, Orwell not only creates a terrifying place, but he also eliminates the possibility of escape for Winston, who is forced to live within his present circumstances, horrible and unremitting as they are.
Oceania’s political structure is divided into three segments: the Inner Party, the ultimate ruling class, consisting of less than 2 percent of the population; the Outer Party, the educated workers, numbering around 18 to 19 percent of the population; and the Proles, or the proletariat, the working class. Although the Party (Inner and Outer) does not see these divisions as true „classes,” it is clear that Orwell wants the reader to see the class distinctions. For a socialist such as Orwell, class distinctions mean the existence of conflict and class struggle. In Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, for example, the few people who comprised the ruling class had a much higher standard of living than the masses, but in these nations, as in 1984, revolt was all but impossible.
Orwell’s primary goal in 1984 is to demonstrate the terrifying possibilities of totalitarianism. The reader experiences the nightmarish world that Orwell envisions through the eyes of the protagonist, Winston. His personal tendency to resist the stifling of his individuality, and his intellectual ability to reason about his resistance, enables the reader to observe and understand the harsh oppression that the Party, Big Brother, and the Thought Police institute. Whereas Julia is untroubled and somewhat selfish, interested in rebelling only for the pleasures to be gained, Winston is extremely pensive and curious, desperate to understand how and why the Party exercises such absolute power in Oceania. Winston’s long reflections give Orwell a chance to explore the novel’s important themes, including language as mind control, psychological and physical intimidation and manipulation, and the importance of knowledge of the past.
Apart from his thoughtful nature, Winston’s main attributes are his rebelliousness and his fatalism. Winston hates the Party passionately and wants to test the limits of its power; he commits innumerable crimes throughout the novel, ranging from writing “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in his diary, to having an illegal love affair with Julia, to getting himself secretly indoctrinated into the anti-Party Brotherhood. The effort Winston puts into his attempt to achieve freedom and independence ultimately underscores the Party’s devastating power. By the end of the novel, Winston’s rebellion is revealed as playing into O’Brien’s campaign of physical and psychological torture, transforming Winston into a loyal subject of Big Brother.
One reason for Winston’s rebellion, and eventual downfall, is his sense of fatalism—his intense (though entirely justified) paranoia about the Party and his overriding belief that the Party will eventually catch and punish him. As soon as he writes “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in his diary, Winston is positive that the Thought Police will quickly capture him for committing a thoughtcrime. Thinking that he is helpless to evade his doom, Winston allows himself to take unnecessary risks, such as trusting O’Brien and renting the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. Deep down, he knows that these risks will increase his chances of being caught by the Party; he even admits this to O’Brien while in prison. But because he believes that he will be caught no matter what he does, he convinces himself that he must continue to rebel. Winston lives in a world in which legitimate optimism is an impossibility; lacking any real hope, he gives himself false hope, fully aware that he is doing so.
Julia is Winston’s lover and the only other person who Winston can be sure hates the Party and wishes to rebel against it as he does. Whereas Winston is restless, fatalistic, and concerned about large-scale social issues, Julia is sensual, pragmatic, and generally content to live in the moment and make the best of her life. Winston longs to join the Brotherhood and read Emmanuel Goldstein’s abstract manifesto; Julia is more concerned with enjoying sex and making practical plans to avoid getting caught by the Party. Winston essentially sees their affair as temporary; his fatalistic attitude makes him unable to imagine his relationship with Julia lasting very long. Julia, on the other hand, is well adapted to her chosen forms of small-scale rebellion. She claims to have had affairs with various Party members, and has no intention of terminating her pleasure seeking, or of being caught (her involvement with Winston is what leads to her capture). Julia is a striking contrast to Winston: apart from their mutual sexual desire and hatred of the Party, most of their traits are dissimilar, if not contradictory.
One of the most fascinating aspects of 1984 is the manner in which Orwell shrouds an explicit portrayal of a totalitarian world in an enigmatic aura. While Orwell gives the reader a close look into the personal life of Winston Smith, the reader’s only glimpses of Party life are those that Winston himself catches. As a result, many of the Party’s inner workings remain unexplained, as do its origins, and the identities and motivations of its leaders. This sense of mystery is centralized in the character of O’Brien, a powerful member of the Inner Party who tricks Winston into believing that he is a member of the revolutionary group called the Brotherhood. O’Brien inducts Winston into the Brotherhood. Later, though, he appears at Winston’s jail cell to abuse and brainwash him in the name of the Party. During the process of this punishment, and perhaps as an act of psychological torture, O’Brien admits that he pretended to be connected to the Brotherhood merely to trap Winston in an act of open disloyalty to the Party.
This revelation raises more questions about O’Brien than it answers. Rather than developing as a character throughout the novel, O’Brien actually seems to un-develop: by the end of the book, the reader knows far less about him than they previously had thought. When Winston asks O’Brien if he too has been captured by the Party, O’Brien replies, “They got me long ago.” This reply could signify that O’Brien himself was once rebellious, only to be tortured into passive acceptance of the Party. One can also argue that O’Brien pretends to sympathize with Winston merely to gain his trust. Similarly, one cannot be sure whether the Brotherhood actually exists, or if it is simply a Party invention used to trap the disloyal and give the rest of the populace a common enemy. The novel does not answer these questions, but rather leaves O’Brien as a shadowy, symbolic enigma on the fringes of the even more obscure Inner Party.
Big Brother and Emmanuel Goldstein
Big Brother and Emmanuel Goldstein are the conceptual leaders of the opposing forces in Oceania: Big Brother is the titular head of Oceania, and Goldstein is the leader of his opponents, the Brotherhood. They are similar in that Orwell does not make clear whether they actually exist.
Using doublethink, O’Brien tells Winston Smith that Big Brother does and does not exist. Big Brother does exist as the embodiment of the Party, but he can never die. O’Brien will not tell Winston whether Goldstein and the Brotherhood exists, but it is likely that both are merely Party propaganda; the fact that O’Brien claims to have written Goldstein’s book is a good indication of this.
Big Brother is aptly named for his position in Oceania — a name of trust, protection, and affection — another example of doublethink. Big Brother, or, the Party, is as unlike a benevolent big brother as Hitler or Stalin. Orwell gave Emmanuel Goldstein a traditionally Jewish name that is suggestive of the power structure in World War II. Noteworthy is that Emmanuel literally means „God.”
It makes no difference in Winston’s life whether these two forces exist. Winston’s fate is sealed, as is the fate of the society in which he lives, regardless of their existence. Big Brother and Goldstein exist in effect, and that is the only thing that matters to Winston. Orwell intended for these figures to represent totalitarian power structures; in essence, they are both the same. O’Brien, in his incarnation as a Brotherhood leader, asks Winston and Julia if they are willing to commit atrocities against the Party, many of which are no better that the atrocities that the Party commits against its people. Political extremism, as Orwell shows, is not positive under any name.
THE DANGERS OF TOTALITARIANISM
1984 is a political novel written with the purpose of warning readers in the West of the dangers of totalitarian government. Having witnessed firsthand the horrific lengths to which totalitarian governments in Spain and Russia would go in order to sustain and increase their power, Orwell designed 1984 to sound the alarm in Western nations still unsure about how to approach the rise of communism. In 1949, the Cold War had not yet escalated, many American intellectuals supported communism, and the state of diplomacy between democratic and communist nations was highly ambiguous. In the American press, the Soviet Union was often portrayed as a great moral experiment. Orwell, however, was deeply disturbed by the widespread cruelties and oppressions he observed in communist countries, and seems to have been particularly concerned by the role of technology in enabling oppressive governments to monitor and control their citizens.
In 1984, Orwell portrays the perfect totalitarian society, the most extreme realization imaginable of a modern-day government with absolute power. The title of the novel was meant to indicate to its readers in 1949 that the story represented a real possibility for the near future: if totalitarianism were not opposed, the title suggested, some variation of the world described in the novel could become a reality in only thirty-five years. Orwell portrays a state in which government monitors and controls every aspect of human life to the extent that even having a disloyal thought is against the law. As the novel progresses, the timidly rebellious Winston Smith sets out to challenge the limits of the Party’s power, only to discover that its ability to control and enslave its subjects dwarfs even his most paranoid conceptions of its reach. As the reader comes to understand through Winston’s eyes, The Party uses a number of techniques to control its citizens, each of which is an important theme of its own in the novel. These include:
- PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION
The Party barrages its subjects with psychological stimuli designed to overwhelm the mind’s capacity for independent thought. The giant telescreen in every citizen’s room blasts a constant stream of propaganda designed to make the failures and shortcomings of the Party appear to be triumphant successes. The telescreens also monitor behavior—everywhere they go, citizens are continuously reminded, especially by means of the omnipresent signs reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” that the authorities are scrutinizing them. The Party undermines family structure by inducting children into an organization called the Junior Spies, which brainwashes and encourages them to spy on their parents and report any instance of disloyalty to the Party. The Party also forces individuals to suppress their sexual desires, treating sex as merely a procreative duty whose end is the creation of new Party members. The Party then channels people’s pent-up frustration and emotion into intense, ferocious displays of hatred against the Party’s political enemies. Many of these enemies have been invented by the Party expressly for this purpose.
In addition to manipulating their minds, the Party also controls the bodies of its subjects. The Party constantly watches for any sign of disloyalty, to the point that, as Winston observes, even a tiny facial twitch could lead to an arrest. A person’s own nervous system becomes his greatest enemy. The Party forces its members to undergo mass morning exercises called the Physical Jerks, and then to work long, grueling days at government agencies, keeping people in a general state of exhaustion. Anyone who does manage to defy the Party is punished and “reeducated” through systematic and brutal torture. After being subjected to weeks of this intense treatment, Winston himself comes to the conclusion that nothing is more powerful than physical pain—no emotional loyalty or moral conviction can overcome it. By conditioning the minds of their victims with physical torture, the Party is able to control reality, convincing its subjects that 2 + 2 = 5.
- CONTROL OF INFORMATION AND HISTORY
The Party controls every source of information, managing and rewriting the content of all newspapers and histories for its own ends. The Party does not allow individuals to keep records of their past, such as photographs or documents. As a result, memories become fuzzy and unreliable, and citizens become perfectly willing to believe whatever the Party tells them. By controlling the present, the Party is able to manipulate the past. And in controlling the past, the Party can justify all of its actions in the present.
By means of telescreens and hidden microphones across the city, the Party is able to monitor its members almost all of the time. Additionally, the Party employs complicated mechanisms (1984 was written in the era before computers) to exert large-scale control on economic production and sources of information, and fearsome machinery to inflict torture upon those it deems enemies. 1984 reveals that technology, which is generally perceived as working toward moral good, can also facilitate the most diabolical evil.
One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing. If control of language were centralized in a political agency, Orwell proposes, such an agency could possibly alter the very structure of language to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because there would be no words with which to think them. This idea manifests itself in the language of Newspeak, which the Party has introduced to replace English. The Party is constantly refining and perfecting Newspeak, with the ultimate goal that no one will be capable of conceptualizing anything that might question the Party’s absolute power.
Interestingly, many of Orwell’s ideas about language as a controlling force have been modified by writers and critics seeking to deal with the legacy of colonialism. During colonial times, foreign powers took political and military control of distant regions and, as a part of their occupation, instituted their own language as the language of government and business. Postcolonial writers often analyze or redress the damage done to local populations by the loss of language and the attendant loss of culture and historical connection.
The idea of “doublethink” emerges as an important consequence of the Party’s massive campaign of large-scale psychological manipulation. Simply put, doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time. As the Party’s mind-control techniques break down an individual’s capacity for independent thought, it becomes possible for that individual to believe anything that the Party tells them, even while possessing information that runs counter to what they are being told. At the Hate Week rally, for instance, the Party shifts its diplomatic allegiance, so the nation it has been at war with suddenly becomes its ally, and its former ally becomes its new enemy. When the Party speaker suddenly changes the nation he refers to as an enemy in the middle of his speech, the crowd accepts his words immediately, and is ashamed to find that it has made the wrong signs for the event. In the same way, people are able to accept the Party ministries’ names, though they contradict their functions: the Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages, the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth conducts propaganda and historical revisionism, and the Ministry of Love is the center of the Party’s operations of torture and punishment.
Urban decay proves a pervasive motif in 1984. The London that Winston Smith calls home is a dilapidated, rundown city in which buildings are crumbling, conveniences such as elevators never work, and necessities such as electricity and plumbing are extremely unreliable. Though Orwell never discusses the theme openly, it is clear that the shoddy disintegration of London, just like the widespread hunger and poverty of its inhabitants, is due to the Party’s mismanagement and incompetence. One of the themes of 1984, inspired by the history of twentieth-century communism, is that totalitarian regimes are viciously effective at enhancing their own power and miserably incompetent at providing for their citizens. The grimy urban decay in London is an important visual reminder of this idea, and offers insight into the Party’s priorities through its contrast to the immense technology the Party develops to spy on its citizens.
Throughout London, Winston sees posters showing a man gazing down over the words “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” everywhere he goes. Big Brother is the face of the Party. The citizens are told that he is the leader of the nation and the head of the Party, but Winston can never determine whether or not he actually exists. In any case, the face of Big Brother symbolizes the Party in its public manifestation; he is a reassurance to most people (the warmth of his name suggests his ability to protect), but he is also an open threat (one cannot escape his gaze). Big Brother also symbolizes the vagueness with which the higher ranks of the Party present themselves—it is impossible to know who really rules Oceania, what life is like for the rulers, or why they act as they do. Winston thinks he remembers that Big Brother emerged around 1960, but the Party’s official records date Big Brother’s existence back to 1930, before Winston was even born.
THE GLASS PAPERWEIGHT AND ST. CLEMENT’S CHURCH
By deliberately weakening people’s memories and flooding their minds with propaganda, the Party is able to replace individuals’ memories with its own version of the truth. It becomes nearly impossible for people to question the Party’s power in the present when they accept what the Party tells them about the past—that the Party arose to protect them from bloated, oppressive capitalists, and that the world was far uglier and harsher before the Party came to power. Winston vaguely understands this principle. He struggles to recover his own memories and formulate a larger picture of what has happened to the world. Winston buys a paperweight in an antique store in the prole district that comes to symbolize his attempt to reconnect with the past. Symbolically, when the Thought Police arrest Winston at last, the paperweight shatters on the floor.
The old picture of St. Clement’s Church in the room that Winston rents above Mr. Charrington’s shop is another representation of the lost past. Winston associates a song with the picture that ends with the words “Here comes the chopper to chop off your head!” This is an important foreshadow, as it is the telescreen hidden behind the picture that ultimately leads the Thought Police to Winston, symbolizing the Party’s corrupt control of the past.
THE PLACE WHERE THERE IS NO DARKNESS
Throughout the novel Winston imagines meeting O’Brien in “the place where there is no darkness.” The words first come to him in a dream, and he ponders them for the rest of the novel. Eventually, Winston does meet O’Brien in the place where there is no darkness; instead of being the paradise Winston imagined, it is merely a prison cell in which the light is never turned off. The idea of “the place where there is no darkness” symbolizes Winston’s approach to the future: possibly because of his intense fatalism (he believes that he is doomed no matter what he does), he unwisely allows himself to trust O’Brien, even though inwardly he senses that O’Brien might be a Party operative.
The omnipresent telescreens are the book’s most visible symbol of the Party’s constant monitoring of its subjects. In their dual capability to blare constant propaganda and observe citizens, the telescreens also symbolize how totalitarian government abuses technology for its own ends instead of exploiting its knowledge to improve civilization.
THE RED-ARMED PROLE WOMAN
The red-armed prole woman whom Winston hears singing through the window represents Winston’s one legitimate hope for the long-term future: the possibility that the proles will eventually come to recognize their plight and rebel against the Party. Winston sees the prole woman as a prime example of reproductive virility; he often imagines her giving birth to the future generations that will finally challenge the Party’s authority.
The Role of Language and the Act of Writing
Newspeak, the „official” language of Oceania, functions as a devise of extreme Party control: If the Party is able to control thought, it can also control action. In the year 1984, Newspeak is not fully employed, and for good reason; we would not understand the novel otherwise. However, Orwell makes certain to choose a date, 2050, when Newspeak will be the only language anyone will understand. Even though the year 1984 has passed, the book is still timely due to Orwell’s vision and foresight. The decline of language troubled Orwell, who was a writer with political and historical agendas. If language could change for the worse, then truth could change into lies, and that was something that Orwell fought against, both in his personal life and in his writing.
The Purpose of Newspeak
Orwell was sure that the decline of a language had political and economic causes. Although he had no solid proof, he presumed that the languages of countries under dictatorships, such as the Soviet Union or Germany, had deteriorated under their respective regimes. „When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” Orwell writes in his essay, „Politics and the English Language.” „If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” he continues. Here is the very concept behind the invention of Newspeak.
To illustrate this idea that language can corrupt thought and that totalitarian systems use language to restrict, rather than broaden, ideas, Orwell created Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. Without a word for freedom, for example, the concept of freedom cannot exist.
In his Appendix, Orwell explains the syntactical arrangement and the etymology of the Newspeak. A living language, such as English, one that has the capability of diverse expression, has the tendency to gain words and therefore broaden the awareness and knowledge of its speakers. Newspeak, on the other hand, loses words, by removing words that represent opposing concepts. Therefore, for example, because the word „good” presumes the opposite of „bad,” the word „bad” is unnecessary. Similarly, all degrees of „goodness” can be expressed simply by adding standard prefixes and suffixes to this one root word: ungood (bad) and plusgood (very good) and doubleplusgood (wonderful). In so doing, Newspeak not only eliminates „unnecessary” words, but it also promotes a narrowing of thought and, therefore, awareness. The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled. Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.
The Role of the Author
Orwell lived in a time in which he felt oppressed in terms of his writing — publication was difficult in general, and his important work, Animal Farm, for example, had a difficult time finding a publisher. So it is not hard to see why he made Winston Smith a kind of writer, giving him such an intense urge to write that Winston risks his existence to begin a journal. Winston’s work in the Records Department is also a kind of writing, even though he is essentially producing propaganda that he knows to be lies. Orwell plainly reveals some of his own frustrations about the challenges of being a writer in a highly political time, war time and post-war Europe, through Winston’s experience.
Orwell uses writing and the role of the author to illustrate the particular horror of the environment in 1984. The printed word in 1984 is so dangerous, most books are banned. Winston even has to toss away Julia’s note professing her love for fear that three words printed on a scrap of paper would have them both „vaporized.” Letters to others are checked off according to purpose, books are written by machines, and many of the acceptable canonized writers, such as Shakespeare, are translated (mutilated) into Newspeak. In Orwell’s Oceania, in fact, authors are essentially „vaporized.” With books written by machine, the artist is useless. Orwell further emphasizes the danger to literature by having Shakespeare „translated” into Newspeak, effectively destroying that as well.
Orwell also uses the book supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, enemy of the people, as a „bible” of sorts to show how the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, at least in theory. Of course, whether the book — and even its claimed author, Goldstein — is an authentic revolutionary document itself or an elaborate lie of the Party is purposefully left unclear. In 1984, Orwell strongly implies that even this book is a forgery.
The Mutability of History
One of the issues raised in 1984 is the idea that history is mutable or changeable, that truth is what the Party deems it to be, and that the truths found in history are the bases of the principles of the future. Some Fascist German leaders of the time boasted that if you tell a lie loud enough and often enough, people will accept it as truth. The Stalinists perfected this modus operandi by re-writing people and events in and out of history or distorting historical facts to suit the Party’s purposes. „Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” runs the Party slogan in 1984.
Winston Smith’s position in the Ministry of Truth is that of creating or forging the past into something unrecognizable to any person with an accurate memory (even memory is controlled in 1984) so that each forgery „becomes” historic fact. One moment, Oceania is and always has been at war with one enemy, the next moment it is and has always been at war with another, and the people of Oceania accept the information as true. It is an exaggeration of a phenomenon that Orwell observed in his own time and reported with true clarity in 1984: People most readily believe that which they can believe most conveniently.
The novel makes the distinction between truth (the actual issues and circumstances of an event) and fact (what are believed to be the issues and circumstances of an event) and then explores the social-political-ethical-moral nuances of the evil manipulation of facts in order to control individuals and societies for political gain. Orwell was concerned that the concept of truth was fading out of the world. After all, in the arena of human intercourse of which politics is a part, what is believed is much more powerful than what is actual. If the leaders of nations are the people dictating the what, where, when, who, and how of history, there can be little question that lies find their way into the history books, that those lies are taught to school children, and that they eventually become historical fact.
This concern is quite obvious in 1984. During Orwell’s time as a resistance fighter in Spain, he experienced this rewriting of history first-hand: He noticed that newspaper stories were often inaccurate: There were often reports of battles where no fighting had occurred or no report at all of battles where hundreds of men had died. Orwell conceded that much of history was lies, and he was frustrated by the fact that he believed that history could be accurately written.
This „rewriting” of events is not reserved for totalitarian governments. Even in our own time, candidates for all levels of government, including those for President, „remember” things differently, and politico’s nationwide attempt to put their „spin” on events that affect us all. It is as if an event can be stricken from history if the population does not remember it. And again, at all levels, non-specific or ambiguous language is used to shade or change the actual events to favor the candidates’ or leaders’ position or ideology. With every era, our „heroes” are disclaimed, and history books rewritten. As the culture and the ideology change, history changes. Sometimes these distortions are innocent and innocuous differences of perspective; other times, they are deadly dangerous.
Resources: cliffnotes, sparknotes