Writing under the pen name George Orwell, Eric Blair was a British political novelist and essayist whose pointed criticism of totalitarian governments and British colonial ambitions made him one of the most important chroniclers of his times. He is best known for his dystopian novel, 1984 and the allegorical novella, Animal Farm which satirizes conditions in Stalin ruled post revolution Russia. Together, these two books have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th century author. Such was Orwell’s sway over English thought that some of his neologisms, like Cold War and Big Brother, entered common use even during his time. Orwell served with the Imperial Police in Burma which gave him close knowledge of British imperial practices in its colonies. Along with this, the snobbery and the class consciousness that he encountered during his days at Eton persuaded him to speak strongly against social elitism and class divisions. 1984 is the best known novel of the dystopian genre. While utopia describes life and conditions in a perfect society, dystopia is the opposite. Here, society is flawed in every possible way. Individualism is suppressed and people are constantly monitored to see if anyone is stepping out of line.
Relevance of the Title
The title is the only part that critics have no clear answers for. Why did Orwell choose this year and none other? There is no answer that is convincing. This book was written in 1948 and then ’84 may have seemed far enough. Totalitarianism was still in its infancy in 1948 and Orwell may have assumed that in 36 years, it may have grown to adulthood and assumed these looming proportions.
Totalitarianism and its dangers
The primary thrust of 1984 is to warn its readers of the lurking dangers that lie within the totalitarian system. Orwell had seen firsthand, the dangers of the sweeping powers that governments in Spain and Russia assumed after coming to power. For a time there was great hope that these governments would change the life of its people for the better. But what happened was that those in power became power hungry and went to great lengths to quell dissent and independent opinion. Though technology was at a nascent stage, Orwell foresaw that it could be used to snoop on the citizens to check opposition. Finally, totalitarianism aimed to wipe out individualism and create a nation of robot like humans who cannot think for themselves. For this, they used spying, physical torture and control of sex.
The use of a giant telescreen installed in every room that constantly pries on citizens and blasts propaganda day and night was one of the ways the state manipulated the minds of people. History is constantly altered to project the rulers as having been successful and just though that may have been far from truth. The family structure crumbles as children are encouraged to spy on parents and report instances of disloyalty to the party. Children are inducted into an organization called Junior Spies which brainwashes them into believing that their loyalty lies with the party only.
The state keeps the citizens physically exhausted so that they have no energy to undertake any activity that is not basic. The day starts for the nation with mass morning exercises. Till late they work in government departments doing meaningless and repetitive work. There is also the threat of physical torture for even trifling misdemeanors. Even involuntary physical movements like a facial tic could irrationally be taken as disloyalty to the party!
The unlikely hero of 1984 is Winston Smith, a thin and frail thirty nine year old who resists the efforts of the party which tries to enforce complete loyalty to it. He hates the forced conformity and the constant presence of the state in his life, trying to control every aspect of it. It is through the thoughts of Winston that Orwell explores the theme of manipulation, language control and physical torture that all totalitarian governments indulge in to terrorize and enforce obedience.
Though he is aware of the manipulation that the party engages in, Winston is gullible. He does not realize that people are not what they seem. O’Brien pretends to be working as a leader of opposition but that is just a front he maintains to trap citizens who harbor hatred for the state.
Julia, like Winston, rebels against the dictates of the party. But they do it for different reasons. Julia hates the restrictions placed on sex by the state. She considers this an infringement on her personal freedom. She often talks of the casual relationships she has had with party officials earlier. Julia hopes that she will be able to sustain her relationship with Winston for a long time but Winston has no such hopes. Julia is an expert in subterfuge; she can avoid being caught. She and Winston have nothing much in common; he is an intellectual whereas she is low brow.
In most totalitarian societies, there is much that is not known about the rulers. They live a shrouded life, often living behind high walls. We know a lot about Winston life but O’Brien is an enigma. He is said to be part of the Brotherhood that works secretly to oppose the ruling party. But when the truth is told, he turns out to be someone who works as an undercover agent to trap people like Winston. He encourages Winston to join the Brotherhood to work against the party. The shopkeeper who sold Winston the diary was also an undercover agent. Using Winston’s dislike for the restricted life, O’Brien able to manipulate and indict him.
Winston is a low ranking party member who lives in London which is the capital of Oceania. Oceania is a totalitarian state. Every moment of their lives, the ordinary citizens of the country like Winston are pried upon by large telescreens that also beam pictures of the Big Brother, the all powerful head of the party. No one has seen him in real life. This mystery adds to the enigma of the man. The party is at work trying to change the history of the place and enforcing the use of a language called Newspeak which contains only words that promote the state and the party. (We are reminded of the state of affairs in countries like North Korea and Stalinist Russia.)
Winston is a man who is oppressed by life in Oceania where the party controls all aspects of life. Winston feels that he has to put down his thoughts for which he buys a diary which is an illegal act. Winston also fixates on O’Brien who is a powerful party member who is said to belong to a secret anti party society called the Brotherhood that seeks to overthrow the party. Winston works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth where historical facts are altered to the benefit of the party. Along with him works Julia who appears to be interested in him. Eventually they begin living together though the party forbids the citizens from indulging in sex as that may create allegiances that bypass the party. Winston is intellectual in his dislike of the party whereas Julia seems to find it merely a big inconvenience. Winston is a fatalist who believes that sooner or later he will be caught and punished because he has committed too many crimes in the eyes of the state. One day, he gets a message from O’Brien asking Winston to meet him.
When Emma and Winston visit O’Brien in his palatial home, he tells them that he too hates the ways of the party and life in Oceania as a whole. He wants them to read the works of Emmanuel Goldstein who was the chief ideologue of the Brotherhood. That night while reading out from the book, soldiers barge in and Julia and Winston are arrested. Imprisoned in the ironically named Ministry of Love which is nothing but a torture chamber, Winston learns that the man who sold him the diary and O’Brien himself are undercover agents for the party to seek and eliminate those who oppose the party. As O’Brien prepares to torture Winston using hungry rats which will chew up his face, Winston begs to be spared. He implicates Julia in the conspiracy. Giving up Julia was what the party and O’Brien had wanted all along. That done, Winston is released back into the mainstream. His spirit is broken; he doesn’t seem to care for anything, not even Julia.
Big Brother is the face of the party. All the over the country, there are huge posters showing a man staring down with the words “BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” prominently written. Winston has not been able to decide whether Big Brother is a real person or a figment created to control the minds of the citizens. Some people think of him as being a protective figure given the name “Brother” but he is an omniscient figure whose gaze one cannot hope to escape. Orwell purposely keeps the figure shrouded in mystery; it works better when people don’t quite know who controls their lives.
St. Clement’s Church
The party has bombarded the citizens with propaganda regarding their past portraying it as the force that has saved them from the clutches of rapacious capitalists. They have also destroyed most symbols of the past. With no images left to remind them of their history and no independent thought, people believe what they have been told. Winston strives to recover his memory of live before the party became all powerful. When Winston rents the room above the stationers, the picture of the church becomes a way for him to connect with his past. But it turns out that there was a telescreen hidden behind it which watched Julia and Winston. For Winston, nothing in Oceania was what it seemed.
- WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
The idea of doublethink is introduced to the reader through this party motto which is emblazoned on a pyramid outside the Ministry of Truth. It brings together conflicting ideas, weakening the resolve of people’s minds and confusing them. The Ministry of Truth is in the business of rewriting history, the Ministry of Peace wages war and the Ministry of Love houses the torture chamber.
- Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
The party manipulates history, projecting it as a terrible period of deprivation and suffering. The present is said to be far better and the promise is that future will be perfect under the party’s rule. By deliberately obliterating history, the state ensures that there is no memory of past days against which people can measure their present. The present is under the complete control of the party; by rewriting history, they are able to control the past too.
- In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.
In many novels critical of the ruling party like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, authors have written of how the government tried to alter scientific truths too to suit their ends. The party felt that the writ of the party had to be felt everywhere, even in scientific facts. They did not bother with truth, they just wanted people to blindly believe whatever was fed to them.
- Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
In this paradox lies the dilemma the proles face in Oceania. In order to rebel, they need to become conscious of their predicament but before they do that, that they need to become conscious. So what do they do first?