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Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four (sometimes 1984) is a darkly satirical political novel and love story by George Orwell. The story takes place in a nightmarish dystopia, in which an ever surveillant State enforces perfect conformity among citizens through indoctrination, fear, lies and ruthless punishment. The bulk of the novel was written in the year 1948 (although Orwell had written small parts of it since 1945), and it was first published on June 8, 1949. It is Orwell's most famous work, and is the source of the word "Orwellian."

The novel introduced the concept of the ever present all-seeing Big Brother, the notorious Room 101, the thought police who use telescreens (televisions that contain a surveillance camera - found in almost every room of the apartments of members of the party), and the fictional language Newspeak (pronounced 'new-speak').

Orwell had originally chosen the year 1980 for his work. But as the writing dragged on due to illness, Orwell changed it to 1982 and then to 1984, simply switching around the year 1948.

Along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the world of 1984 is one of the first and most cited characterizations of a realistic dystopia to have appeared in English literature. It has been translated into many languages. Orwell acknowledged the influence on 1984 of Yevgeny Zamyatin's Russian language novel We, completed in 1921.

The book starts on April 4th, 1984 (the first entry in Winston Smith's diary), at 1:00 PM ("It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen..."). The book is divided into three sections. Part One deals with the world of 1984. Part Two deals with Winston's forbidden sexual relationship with Julia, as well as Winston's eagerness to rebel against The Party. Part Three deals with Winston's capture and torture by O'Brien. The time frame for the book is from April 1984 to the spring of 1985, although Winston is never quite sure how much time had passed during his imprisonment.


The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four

The world described in Nineteen Eighty-Four has striking and deliberate parallels to the Stalinist Soviet Union; notably, the themes of a betrayed revolution, which Orwell put so famously in Animal Farm, the subordination of individuals to "the Party", and the extensive and institutional use of propaganda, especially as it influenced the main character of the book, Winston Smith.

Orwell is also reported to have said that the book described what he saw as the actual situation in the United Kingdom, where he lived, in 1948, where rationing was still in place, and the British Empire was dissolving at the same time as newspapers were reporting its triumphs. The structure of the government also resembled that of the British government, at least in nomenclature: the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four has four major ministries, each focused on an object which is, in exquisite irony, utterly antithetical to its name. "The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation."

Citizens have no right to a personal life or personal thought. Leisure and other activities are controlled through strict mores. Sexual pleasure is discouraged, with females being taught not to enjoy it; sex is retained only for the purpose of reproduction.

The mysterious head of government is the omniscient, omnipotent, beloved Big Brother, or "BB". Big Brother is described as "a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features." He is usually displayed on posters with the slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU".

His nemesis is the hated Emmanuel Goldstein, a Party member who had been in league with Big Brother and The Party during the revolution. Goldstein is said to be a major part of the Brotherhood, a vast underground anti-Party fellowship. The reader never truly finds out whether the Brotherhood exists or not, but the implication is that Goldstein is either entirely fictitious or was eliminated long ago.

The three slogans of the Party, visible everywhere, are


While by definition these words are antonyms, in the world of 1984 the world is in a state of constant war, no one is free, and everyone is ignorant. Through the universality of the extremes the terms become meaningless, and the slogans become axiomatic. They echo the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work Is Liberty") on the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps; the slogans are obvious non sequiturs being passed off as truth by a totalitarian power.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some boundaries are not stated in detail in the book, and speculatively approximated here. Note: At the end of the novel, there are news reports that Oceania has captured all of Africa, though as propaganda, the credibility of the reports is uncertain.
The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some boundaries are not stated in detail in the book, and speculatively approximated here. Note: At the end of the novel, there are news reports that Oceania has captured all of Africa, though as propaganda, the credibility of the reports is uncertain.

The world is controlled by three functionally similar authoritarian superstates engaged in perpetual war with each other: Oceania (ideology: Ingsoc (English Socialism)), Eurasia (ideology: Neo-Bolshevism) and Eastasia (ideology: Death Worship or Obliteration of the Self). In terms of the political map of the late 1940s when the book was written, Oceania covers the areas of the British Empire and Commonwealth, the United States of America and Latin America; Eastasia corresponds to China, Japan, Korea, and India, and Eurasia corresponds to the Soviet Union and Continental Europe. The United Kingdom's placement in Oceania rather than in Eurasia is commented upon in the book as an undisputed historic anomaly.

London, the novel's setting, is the capital of the Oceanian province of Airstrip One, the renamed Britain and Ireland. Goldstein's book explains that the three ideologies are basically the same, but it is imperative to keep the public uninformed about that. The population is led to believe that the other two ideologies are detestable.

Newspeak, the "official language" of Oceania, is extraordinary in that its vocabulary decreases every year; the state of Oceania sees no purpose in maintaining a complex language, and so Newspeak is a language dedicated to the "destruction of words". As the character Syme puts it:

"Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well... If you have a word like 'good', what need is there for a word like 'bad'? 'Ungood' will do just as well... Or again, if you want a stronger version of 'good', what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like 'excellent' and 'splendid' and all the rest of them? 'Plusgood' covers the meaning, or 'doubleplusgood' if you want something stronger still.... In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words; in reality, only one word." (Part One, Chapter Five)

The true goal of Newspeak is to take away the ability to adequately conceptualize revolution, or even dissent, by removing words that could be used to that end. Since the thought police had yet to develop a method of reading people's minds to catch dissent, Newspeak was created so that it wasn't even possible to think a dissenting thought. This concept has been examined (and widely discounted) in linguistics: see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is foremost a political, not a technological, dystopia. (Hence it can be quite inaccurate to refer to it whenever there are concerns about new technologies.) The technological level of the society in the novel is mostly crude and less advanced than in the real 1980s. Apart from the telescreens and speech-recognizing typewriters, it is no more advanced than in wartime Britain. Living standards are low and declining, with rationing and unpalatable ersatz products; in that regard, Orwell's vision is diametrically opposed to the technological hedonism of Brave New World.

None of the three blocs has much genuine interest in technological progress, since it could destabilize their grip on power. Nuclear weapons, in particular, are avoided in the perpetual war, since its whole point is to be indecisive. The technologies that are employed are obsolete and perhaps deliberately wasteful, such as huge floating fortresses. This stagnation is related to what is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the novel: for all their brutality, the regimes are not going to burn themselves out in strategically significant conquests or technological arms races. Rather, they have reached a stable equilibrium that could last for ever.

To understand why Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, one only has to look at his less famous writings: most significantly, Homage to Catalonia does a lot to explain his distrust of totalitarianism and the betrayal of revolutions; Coming Up For Air, at points, celebrates the individual freedom that is lost in Nineteen Eighty-Four; and his essay Why I Write explains clearly that all the "serious work" he had written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism" [1].

Influence of the novel

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been used to the point of cliché in discussions of privacy issues. The term "Orwellian" has come to describe actions or organisations that remind one of the society depicted in this novel. Some note the closed circuit television cameras used in shopping centres, speed cameras on the roads, technologies such as ECHELON and Carnivore, the restrictions imposed on the export of strong cryptography by the US government and supermarket loyalty cards as signs that 'Big Brother' already exists, and is already controlling our lives. Even the personal computer (and, to a lesser extent, the television) could remind one of the novel's telescreens. This despite the fact that the most prevalent and effective form of surveillance in both the novel and the real world is the one by people close to you, the co-workers, neighbours, friends and even the closest family.

In the United States, the state of perpetual war as justification for domestic surveillance and limits on civil liberties is seen by some as being mirrored in the unending War on Terrorism and related actions like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Information Awareness Office, and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The use of personal ridicule and emotional hatred to wipe out rational political thought in the novel was epitomized in the "two minute hate." During this ritual citizens were expected to shout, yell, and ridicule at a video of the hated Goldstein expounding his alternative philosophy (indeed, the image ultimately morphed into a bleating sheep). Some see this concept mirrored in many modern political campaigns that have come to focus less on rational debate of positions and issues, and more on personal vilification of lifestyle choices and wildly exagerated, intentionally offensive chracterizations of political players (although this phenomenon predates Orwell's era).

Newspeak's use of language and euphemism to cover up harsh political realities has been seen as a parallel to the United States' renaming of the Department of War, making it the milder Department of Defense; in noble-sounding names like the PATRIOT Act and Operation Enduring Freedom; and the use of "political correctness" in terms like "gaming" for gambling (see doublespeak).

The atmosphere of control and change inspired the British TV show The Prisoner, the film Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam, and A Clockwork Orange, both the novel by Anthony Burgess and the film version directed by Stanley Kubrick. Burgess later wrote a book entitled 1985, which was half a detailed analysis of Orwell's novel and half a short dystopian novel of his own.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been made into a cinematic film twice, in 1956 and in 1984, and has twice been adapted for television by the BBC, in 1954 and 1965. The 1984 cinematic film 1984 is a faithful adaptation of the novel and was critically acclaimed. It is notable as Richard Burton's final performance before his death.

The term Big Brother was borrowed by a reality television programme first produced in the Netherlands in 1999 and later copied by many other countries around the world. A group of contestants live in a house under constant surveillance, they are set many tasks and their progress is broadcast on television and the Internet. In what many intellectuals regard as a clanging irony, the show has become a pop culture phenomenon around the world, to the point where it is considered to be important news.

Room 101 is also the title of a BBC TV programme presented by Paul Merton. Guests on the show talk about the people or items they wish to send to Room 101.

It is quite possible that the famous Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem wrote his novel Eden under the influence of 1984.

Apple Computer parodied 1984 in its world famous commercial by the same name. It aired nationally in the USA only once, during Super Bowl XVII (1984), introducing the Macintosh due to be released. In the commercial, Big Brother symbolised IBM. A young heroine, with a Macintosh logo on her chest, throws a sledgehammer into the screen where Big Brother is preaching propaganda to an audience of bald-headed "zombies".

Rock band Radiohead recorded a concept album titled OK Computer that is believed by some people to be based around the events in the book.

See also


Related topics:


  • Howe, Irving, ed. 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism In Our Century. New York: Harper Row, 1983. ISBN 0-060-80660-5.
  • Hillegas, Mark R. The Future As Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. Arcturus Books/Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. ISBN 0-809-30676-X.
  • The book itself: ISBN 0451524934

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45