Nineteen Eighty-Four

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First edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four published in Britain, 1949.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (also 1984) [1] is a dystopian novel by George Orwell about the excesses of totalitarian regimes and specifically of Stalinist communism. The book's original title was The Last Man in Europe, but it was changed at the publisher's suggestion. [2]

Orwell was influenced by Jack London's novel The Iron Heel, and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. The ideas of the American conservative James Burnham were especially influential in shaping the political situation described in the book.

Though Orwell was deeply critical of communism, 1984 was not intended as a condemnation of all forms of socialism, as evidenced by a quote from one of his essays: "My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."[3]

The book is, at its heart, a condemnation of the ultra-liberal menace that arose in Europe at his time. The fictional Oceanic dictatorship is the logical extreme of the liberal attitude towards government Orwell saw creeping in around him, both at home and abroad. The breakdown and perversion of home and family ties, the eradication of religion to make room for secular cult worship, the manipulation of language and history to suit the agenda of the day, and the use of deliberate economic strangulation in order to ensure compliance in the population were all tactics that Orwell predicted would come into play should an ultra-liberal government arise. One need only examine the regimes of Stalin and Kim Jong Il to see examples of Orwell-type dictatorships; atheism and state-worship forcibly substituted for religion, the deliberate starvation of all but the most elite members of society, even Orwell's nightmarish vision of sons spying on their parents for the state came true in the Soviet Union, and still persists in North Korea. Thus he uses the book to attack the intrusiveness and arrogance of big government.

Plot Summary

In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, individual, free nations no longer exist; the world has been divided up into three massive empire-states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Religion is not mentioned in the book and is speculated to have been stamped out. A worship of Big brother, similar to Juche, is imposed as an alternative.

Oceania is, roughly, the English-speaking world: the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and South Africa. It is perpetually at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia, and allied with the other. The book describes a hyper-liberal dystopia where the government, known as the Party, monitors and controls nearly all aspects of every individual's life. Extreme liberal fanaticism and ignorance are promoted by Oceania through relentless propaganda. This is practiced to the point that citizens unthinkingly (or, in Newspeak, use bellyfeel) accept everything said and done by the Party, and hate everything associated with the empire-state which happens to the enemy at the moment. Relationships among people, whether platonic or intimate, are discouraged or sometimes forbidden outright, as they distract from worship of the leader, Big Brother (who may or may not exist). It is later revealed that in reality all three empire-states have the same government and are essentially identical in their pursuit of a liberal, pagan social system.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth, a department of the Oceanian government altering records to fit the Party's current version of history. However, Smith gradually grows to disagree with the Party and what it stands for. Julia, a woman who also works in the Ministry of Truth and ostensibly a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, becomes Winston's lover, and after meeting in several different places, they finally rent an upstairs room in a prole shop. However, the owner of the shop turns out to be an agent of the Thought Police and Winston and Julia are captured by the thought police right in their room, brought to the Ministry of Love, and tortured to the point where they once again love the Party.

Much of the novel is taken up with discussions of the nature of power and societal control, and words and mottoes from the novel – "doublethink", "We have always been at war with Eastasia", "the memory hole" and many more – have become standard shorthand in political discussions, while terms such as "thought police", "Room 101" and "Big Brother" have entered the language.

Background of Novel

The environmental background to the action of the story is a satirical portrayal of late-1940s London, a city where war damage was still very evident, and rationing and shortages a way of life. The Ministry of Truth, as described by Orwell in the novel, is based upon the Senate House building of London University, at the time one of the tallest buildings in the capital, and home during the Second World War to the Ministry of Information.

Governmental Structure

The structure of government in Oceania is sharply pyramidal; the mythical, probably non-existent Big Brother rests forever at the top of the pyramid, followed by the tiny Inner Party made up of only 1 million people. Then follows the larger Outer Party, and lastly the "proles," or the Proletariat, who make up, according to the novel, 95 percent of the population. Since Big Brother is probably only a personification of government, it is really the Inner Party which rules Oceania, making it an oligarchy. Goldstein's book refers to the system as "Oligarchical Collectivism." Conservative commentators have noted that the system Orwell describes seems like a parody of the worst aspects of liberalism.

The government is horribly inefficient in all things except constant and oppressive surveillance over Party members. The proles are considered mindless and unimportant, and so are allowed to go free, kept occupied by trashy entertainment known as prolefeed. This is one of Orwell's many swipes at the news and entertainment industry, which was a haven for liberals even in the 1940's. Orwell once remarked that "no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper,"[4] and he was a known critic of the arts and television, which he considered to be a tool of the elite to spread liberalism and take the world towards a Big Brother-type society.

There are four "ministries" or sections of government: the Ministry of Truth, which primarily rewrites history (and in which Winston, the story's protagonist, is employed); the Ministry of Plenty, which squanders resources; the Ministry of Peace, which fuels the perpetual war with Eastasia or Eurasia by using these resources for war purposes; and finally the Ministry of Love, where Party enemies, usually those guilty of thoughtcrime, are tortured and brainwashed into loving the Party before eventually being killed. The novel describes the Ministry of Love as the most terrifying, as it has no windows and is surrounded by barbed wire and gorilla-like guards with truncheons.

Note that all of these names are quite ironic:

  • The Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, in newspeak, is in fact a ministry of lies, where the Party maintains control over newspapers, television and historical records in a never-ending race to edit the past to conform to the attitudes of the present. This campaign of historical revisionism, usually the provenance of academics trying to "uncover" new information, is performed here by an army of Party members who knowingly edit the truth and fabricate people, dates and events whole cloth. By systematically changing what records state, so that never, is the party seen as wrong. Ironically, the Ministry of truth, is indeed spreading truth, if the past only exists in records, and memory, and all who hold that memory will cease to hold it.
  • The Ministry of Plenty rations almost all food and drink, with the notable exception of cheap "Victory Gin." Orwell was very insightful to note the connection between heavy alcohol use and compliance to the whims of a totalitarian state, where the government is the only source of food and money for the population. All other food products are of poor quality, made in government-owned factories that are constantly behind on schedule because of the (intentional) inefficiency of the government-run industries in Oceania. Orwell was almost eerily prescient to have had this insight, as in the following years Stalin proved just how far a totalitarian would go to starve his people into compliance. The ministry of Truth is behind the misinformation, that plagues the Ministry of Plenty's output quotas, by blatantly lying about how much is actually produced.
  • The Ministry of Peace conducts perpetual war, but intentionally sabotages its own forces so that the government can keep the people of Oceania in a state of fear. This state of fear makes it easier for the Big Brother government to control the populace and cement their dependency on the "generosity" of the Party. In the book, Smith postulates that the rocket bombs dropped daily on Airstrip One are not enemy weapons, but a false flag operation by the government of Oceania to justify their continued state of paranoia and economic stagnation. Also ironically, in Newspeak, the Ministry of Peace is indeed the force behind peace, as explained in Goldstien's book.
  • The Ministry of Love, or MiniLuv deals with those who don't love Big Brother. Another insight of Orwell's is the sinister redefinition of the word love, from traditional definitions to ones decided on by the Party. The Party's meddling in the bonds of family leads to a population almost completely ignorant of anything resembling real love. The Ministry is in charge of correcting the thoughts of citizens who fall outside of the political orthodoxy of the Party's Big Brother ideology. This comes in forms both small and large, from chastising a person through the television screen for not exercising enough, to murdering a man for speaking in his sleep. Also ironically, the Ministry of Love, does indeed bring love, by rewriting the memories of the unfortunate within, so that they will love the Party and Big Brother. As postulated by Goldstien's book, the Ministry of Love prevents martyrs, because nobody truly hates the Party, after the Ministry of Love is through with them.

Online version

Notes and references

  1. The title is spelled out, in words, in the original 1949 editions, both as published in England by Secker and Warburg[1] and in the United States by Harcourt, Brace[2]. It is sometimes presented numerically, in digits – 1984, in modern reprints and derivative works such as screenplays.
  2. It is often suggested that "eighty-four" is a reversal of "forty-eight", the year in which the book was written, but this has never been confirmed.
  3. The Collected Essays: Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4, p. 546

See also