George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, completed in 1948 and published a year later, is a classic example of dystopian fiction. Indeed, it’s surely the most famous dystopian novel in the world, even if its ideas are known by far more people than have actually read it. (According to at least one survey, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the book people most often claim to have read when they haven’t.)
Like many novels that are more known about than are carefully read and analysed, Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually a more complex work than the label ‘nightmare dystopian vision’ can convey. Before we offer an analysis of the novel’s themes and origins, let’s briefly recap the plot.
Nineteen Eighty-Four: plot summary
In the year 1984, Britain has been renamed Airstrip One and is a province of Oceania, a vast totalitarian superstate ruled by ‘the Party’, whose politics are described as Ingsoc (‘English Socialism’). Big Brother is the leader of the Party, which keeps its citizens in a perpetual state of fear and submission through a variety of means.
Surveillance is a key part of the novel’s world, with hidden microphones (which are found in the countryside as well as urban areas, and can identify not only what is said but also who says it) and two-way telescreen monitors being used to root out any dissidents, who disappear from society with all trace of their existence wiped out. They become, in the language of Newspeak (the language used by people in the novel), ‘unpersons’. People are short of food, perpetually on the brink of starvation, and going about in fear for their lives.
The novel’s setting is London, where Trafalgar Square has been renamed Victory Square and the statue of Horatio Nelson atop Nelson’s Column has been replaced by one of Big Brother. Through such touches, Orwell defamiliarises the London of the 1940s which the original readers would have recognised, showing how the London they know might be transformed under a totalitarian regime.
The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, who works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting historical records so they are consistent with the state’s latest version of history. However, even though his day job involves doing the work of the Party, Winston longs to escape the oppressive control of the Party, hoping for a rebellion.
Winston meets the owner of an antique shop named Mr Charrington, from whom he buys a diary in which he can record his true feelings towards the Party. Believing the working-class ‘proles’ are the key to a revolution, Winston visits them, but is disappointed to find them wholly lacking in any political understanding.
Meanwhile, hearing of the existence of an underground resistance movement known as the Brotherhood – which has been formed by the rival of Big Brother, a man named Emmanuel Goldstein – Winston suspects that O’Brien, who also works with him, is involved with this resistance. At lunch with another colleague, named Syme, Winston learns that the English language is being rewritten as Newspeak so as to control and influence people’s thought, the idea being that if the word for an idea doesn’t exist in the language, people will be unable to think about it.
Winston meets a woman named Julia who works for the Ministry of Truth, maintaining novel-writing machines, but believes she is a Party spy sent to watch him. But then Julia passes a clandestine love message to him and the two begin an affair – which is itself illicit since the Party decrees that sex is for reproduction alone, rather than pleasure. We gradually learn more about Winston’s past, including his marriage to Katherine, from whom he is now separated. Syme, who had been working on Newspeak, disappears in mysterious circumstances: something Winston had predicted.
O’Brien invites Winston to his flat, declaring himself – as Winston had also predicted – a member of the Brotherhood, the resistance against the Party. He gives Winston a copy of the book written by Goldstein, the leader of the Brotherhood. When Oceania’s enemy changes during the ritual Hate Week, Winston is tasked with making further historical revisions to old newspapers and documents to reflect this change. Meanwhile, Winston and Julia secretly read Goldstein’s book, which explains how the Party maintains its totalitarian power. As Winston had suspected, the secret to overthrowing the Party lies in the vast mass of the population known as the ‘proles’ (derived from ‘proletarian’, Marx’s term for the working classes). It argues that the Party can be overthrown if proles rise up against it.
But shortly after this, Winston and Julia are arrested, having been shopped to the authorities by Mr Charrington (whose flat above his shop they had been using for their illicit meetings). It turns out that both he and O’Brien work for the Thought Police, on behalf of the Party. At the Ministry of Love, O’Brien tells Winston that Goldstein’s book was actually written by him and other Party members, and that the Brotherhood may not even exist. Winston endures torture and starvation in an attempt to grind him down so he will accept Big Brother.
In Room 101, a room in which a prisoner is exposed to their greatest fear, Winston is placed in front of a wire cage containing rats, which he fears above all else. Winston betrays Julia, wishing she could take his place and endure this suffering instead. His reprogramming complete, Winston is allowed to go free, but he is essentially living under a death sentence: he knows that one day he will be summoned by the authorities and shot for his former treachery.
He meets Julia one day, and learns that she was subjected to torture at the Ministry of Love as well. They have both betrayed each other, and part ways. The novel ends with Winston accepting, after all, that the Party has won and that ‘he loved Big Brother.’
Nineteen Eighty-Four: analysis
Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the most famous novel about totalitarianism, and about the dangers of allowing a one-party state where democracy, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and even freedom of thought are all outlawed. The novel is often analysed as a warning about the dangers of allowing a creeping totalitarianism into Britain, after the horrors of such regimes in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere had been witnessed. Because of this quality of the book, it is often called ‘prophetic’ and a ‘nightmare vision of the future’, among other things.
However, books set in the future are rarely simply about the future. They are not mere speculation, but are grounded in the circumstances in which they were written. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that most dystopian novels, whilst nominally set in an imagined future, are really using their future setting to reflect on what are already firmly established social or political ideas. In the case of Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, this means the novel reflects the London of the 1940s.
By the time he came to write the novel, Orwell already had a long-standing interest in using his writing to highlight the horrors of totalitarianism around the world, especially following his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. As Orwell put it in his essay ‘Why I Write’, all of his serious work written since 1936 was written ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’.
In his analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four in his study of Orwell, George Orwell (Reader’s Guides), Jeffrey Meyers argues convincingly that, rather than being a nightmare vision of the future, a prophetic or speculative work, Orwell’s novel is actually a ‘realistic synthesis and rearrangement of familiar materials’ – indeed, as much of Orwell’s best work is. His talent lay not in original imaginative thinking but in clear-headed critical analysis of things as they are: his essays are a prime example of this. Nineteen Eighty-Four is, in Meyer’s words, ‘realistic rather than fantastic’.
Indeed, Orwell himself stated that although the novel was ‘in a sense a fantasy’, it is written in the form of the naturalistic novel, with its themes and ideas having been already ‘partly realised in Communism and fascism’. Orwell’s intention, as stated by Orwell himself, was to take the totalitarian ideas that had ‘taken root’ in the minds of intellectuals all over Europe, and draw them out ‘to their logical consequences’.
Like much classic speculative fiction – the novels and stories of J. G. Ballard offer another example – the futuristic vision of the author is more a reflection of contemporary anxieties and concerns. Meyers goes so far as to argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually the political regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia ‘transposed’ into London of the early 1940s, during the Second World War.
Certainly, many of the most famous features of Nineteen Eighty-Four were suggested to Orwell by his time working at the BBC in London in the first half of the 1940s: it is well-known that the Ministry of Truth was based on the bureaucratic BBC with its propaganda department, while the infamous Room 101 was supposedly named after a room of that number in the BBC building, in which Orwell had to endure tedious meetings.
The technology of the novel, too, was familiar by the 1940s, involving little innovation or leaps of imagination from Orwell (‘telescreens’ being a natural extension of the television set: BBC TV had been established in 1936, although the Second World War pushed back its development somewhat).
Orwell learned much about the workings of Stalinism from reading Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed (1937), written by one of the leading figures in the Russian Revolution of 1917 who saw Stalinist Russia as the antithesis of what Trotsky, Lenin, and those early revolutionaries had been striving to achieve. (This would also be important for Orwell’s Animal Farm, of course.)
And indeed, many of the details surrounding censorship – the rewriting of history, the suppression of dissident literature, the control of the language people use to express themselves and even to think in – were also derived from Orwell’s reading of life in Soviet Russia. Surveillance was also a key element of the Stalinist regime, as in other Communist countries in Europe. The moustachioed figure of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four recalls nobody so much as Josef Stalin himself. Not only the ideas of ‘thought crime’ and ‘thought police’, but even the terms themselves, predate Orwell’s use of them: they were first recorded in a 1934 book about Japan.
One of the key questions Winston asks himself in Nineteen Eighty-Four is what the Party is trying to achieve. O’Brien’s answer is simple: the maintaining of power for its own sake. Many human beings want to control other human beings, and they can persuade a worrying number of people to go along with their plans and even actively support them. Despite the fact that they are starving and living a miserable life, many of the people in Airstrip One love Big Brother, viewing him not as a tyrannical dictator but as their ‘Saviour’ (as one woman calls him). Again, this detail was taken from accounts of Stalin, who was revered by many Russians even though they were often living a wretched life under his rule.
Another key theme of Orwell’s novel is the relationship between language and thought. In our era of fake news and corrupt media, this has only become even more pronounced: if you lie to a population and confuse them enough, you can control them. O’Brien introduces Winston to the work of the traitor to the Party, Emmanuel Goldstein, only to tell him later that Goldstein may not exist and his book was actually written by the Party. Is this the lie, or was the book the lie? One of the most famous lines from the novel is Winston’s note to himself in his diary: ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’
But later, O’Brien will force Winston to ‘admit’ that two plus two can make five. Orwell tells us, ‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.’ Or as Voltaire once wrote, ‘Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.’ Forcing somebody to utter blatant falsehoods is a powerful psychological tool for totalitarian regimes because through doing so, they have chipped away at your moral and intellectual integrity.