Penned during a period in history when the fate of the world still hung in balance in World War II, George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) describes a dystopian society of the not-too-distant future that places the interests of the ruling party over individual citizens in ways that make life unbearable for many, including Winston Smith, the novel’s long-suffering protagonist. Although many “experts” today continue to debate the true meaning of the symbols and events depicted in 1984, there is no real controversy concerning the adverse impact that life in this efficient but brutal totalitarian regime had on ordinary people who were kept in check through relentless propaganda, mind-numbing work, perpetual misery, slow starvation and daily but barely adequate rations of cheap gin.
Although the world of 1984 is technologically advanced and could even potentially rise to the level of a utopian society if these resources were applied to this objective, the ruling elite makes sure this eventuality does not occur by ensuring that every time a disruptive “nail” in the form of dissidence pops up, it is immediately hammered back down into the subjugated and terrified masses. The violent events of the 20th century resulted in a world divided into three major countries, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. These three nations were composed of the scarred remnants of the nations that survived the revolution, but incessant wars are always being fought between these survivors over a disputed zone in order to keep the delicate balance of power in check.
Against this backdrop is the hapless Winston Smith, the unlikely protagonist of the story. Winston is a member of the Outer Party (accounting for about 13% of Oceania’s population) and minor functionary in the relentless manipulation of information by Big Brother (more on these characters below) begins his downward spiral where he seeks to discover some of the secretive workings of the Inner Party to manipulate the downtrodden masses. Although Winston does not succeed in making any meaningful changes in IngSoc (the English Socialist Party which rules Oceania), Orwell does succeed in major ways by communicating the horrors of living in a 1984-ish world that he saw developing even as the book was being written.
The overarching issue that emerges from 1984 is the importance of information and how it is controlled by the state to maintain control over people. This means that the state can easily explain its seemingly contradictory slogans that, “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, and Ignorance Is Strength.” One of the minor members of the Outer Party of Oceania who is charged with information “management” is the main character, protagonist and narrator of 1984, Winston Smith, an initially beaten but not completely broken individual whose fragile humanity and grasp on reality are made clear throughout the story. Although Winston is just another cog in this enormous machine, he is set apart from most of his peers by virtue of his inquisitiveness and some critical thinking skills.
From Winston’s perspective, the best thing he can do with his miserable life is to resist the IngSoc party’s efforts to micromanage every aspect of his life and retain a sense of autonomy in a society that abhors individuality. While Winston is different, he is also a realist and realizes that his efforts to remain autonomous in the face of Big Brother’s omnipresent thought police is futile. Nevertheless, he gains some satisfaction from resisting and only wants to continue to do so for as long as he can without coming under Big Brother’s radar.
While he looks much older due to the hard life most people live in Airstrip One (the term applied to Britain after it became part of Oceania), Winston Smith is just 39 years old and works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. Although he is still married, Winston is separated from his wife and lives alone in a run-down apartment building called “Victory Mansions.” In fact, Orwell describes Winston’s apartment in great detail, underscoring its dilapidated condition. For instance, the very beginning of chapter one provides a good clue about the sorry quality of Winston’s living conditions: “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. . . . It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours.” Although Winston’s back story remains unclear, what is known for certain is that he detests the IngSoc Party and how it controls every aspect of people’s lives which contribute to his revolutionary views.
This character works at the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth who becomes involves in an illicit sexual relationship with Winston. Julia is a sharp contrast to Winston. Unlike Winston, Julia is optimistic about the future and she’s beautiful. Further, Julia has a lengthy history of engaging in sexual relations with other members of the Party and her matter-of-fact attitude makes her rebellion against the Party less ideological and more personal than Winston’s larger but nebulous plans to resist.
The primary antagonist of the story, this character is a prominent leader in IngSoci’s secretive Inner Party and Winston comes to believe that he belongs to the revolutionary “Brotherhood,” the semi-mythical band of rebels that work actively against the IngSoc Party. In fact, although his precise title and function within the Inner Party remain unclear, it is intimated the O’Brien may also be part of the group of people that comprise Big Brother who is described below.
Although contemporary readers likely readily understood the harsh realities of life in the world of 1984 due to the brutal and repressive actions by the Axis powers during World War II, modern readers may not recognize the importance of Winston’s various struggles against the totalitarian regime of Oceania. Throughout the storyline, though, this protagonist wages his own private war against the Inner Party, the Thought Police and the ever-watching surveillance of Big Brother in ways that even modern readers can readily appreciate. Seemingly born a rebel, Winston is hard-wired to challenge authority during an era when this individualistic trait is regarded as sufficiently dangerous and threatening to warrant state intervention.
Confirming the adage that “opposites attract,” Winston differs from Julia in a number of important ways, including most especially his compulsion to rebel against the Party for his own satisfaction while Julia appears less concerned about politics in favor of her own self interests. In addition, Winston is intellectually curious and wants to learn the secrets behind the Party’s efforts to repress the masses of ordinary citizens of Oceania. Indeed, Winston is eager to become a member of the nebulous but like-minded Brotherhood and to get his hands on a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s manifesto concerning why Big Brother must be destroyed. Winston’s thoughtful inner musings provide an effective ways for Orwell to examine the book’s main themes, such as the centrality of information, especially about the past, for controlling people as well as the other strategies that are used by the Inner Party to maintain its position of power.
Anyone who has experienced a temporary power outage (which is to say just about everyone) can readily attest to the importance of having access to timely and accurate information. In many ways, the theme of information control overlays all of the other subthemes that emerge from a close reading of 1984. Moreover, there are a number of eerie similarities between the manner in which information is controlled in Oceania and the real world of the early 21st century as well. For example, government entities today routinely eavesdrop on private telephone calls or intercept emails, and the intrusive snooping does not stop there. By controlling what information the citizens of Oceania receive and how history is written, the Inner Party ensures that the masses are kept in a frenzy of patriotic fervor in which they are willing and even eager to make additional personal sacrifices for the good of Oceania.
The main takeaway about this theme is that the Inner Party manipulates information – including history – to maintain its control over the Outer Party members and the impoverished masses. This month, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia but just last month Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Who can remember the truth? Actually, it does not matter which country Oceania is fighting at any given point in time, though, so long as the Big Life is repeated often enough. In fact, the Newspeak dictionary and Oceania’s history are constantly updated to reflect changes in Inner Party policies. These issues also relates to the theme of the threats that totalitarianism represent to modern societies as discussed below.
Fans of Animal Farm will quickly recognize this theme in 1984. According to a popular dictionary entry for this term, totalitarianism means “a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.” This definition describes life in Oceania perfectly, but it fails to describe the social horrors that this system of government entails. Based on his empirical observations of totalitarian states in Europe, Orwell was convinced that innovations in technology would be used by totalitarian states in ways that resembled the methods used by the Inner Party and uses this theme to underscore the growing threat it represented.
Although the totalitarian states that Orwell witnessed first-hand were good examples of how nations can dominate their citizenry, they did not rise to the level of totalitarianism in Oceania. Indeed, Oceania could be regarded as the perfect exemplar of a true totalitarian state, and Orwell provides numerous examples concerning how the Inner Party exerts control over the masses, including some extremes such as even thinking disloyal thoughts is against the law, and the fates of those who defy the Inner Party are well known even if they are not widely publicized. Moreover, some truly benign activities such as writing in a diary or having unauthorized relationships are considered to be sufficiently threatening to the Inner Party that they are also outlawed and carry the heaviest of penalties.
While Winston initially believes he is succeeding in thwarting the Inner Party’s efforts to subjugate him along with everyone else, his exchanges with O’Brien and newfound insights into the pervasiveness of its influence as the storyline progresses convinced him that the government was far more powerful than even his worst imaginings, but this realization came far too late. Although the novel does not address the point directly, it is reasonable to conclude that like Winston – and O’Brien – not everyone is convinced that Oceania is the best of all possible worlds and the Thought Police have more job security than anyone in Air Strip One. This theme is also tied inextricably to the manner in which the Inner Party uses various technologies to facilitate control over the masses as discussed below.
As noted previously, the novel is divided into three main “books” that provide a linear narrative of the events that swirl around Winston as he explores his apparent newfound individuality in his relationship with Julia and his clandestine efforts to record his treasonous thoughts in a personal diary. Modern readers will recognize that something is not quite right from the very beginning of book one where Orwell writes: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Clearly, the only way clocks would strike thirteen is if they were keeping military time, and that turns out to be case for Winston Smith and the people of Ocenia. The stage is also quickly set for the events that follow in book one, beginning with a description of his miserable living accommodations and the additional, constant sacrifices that ordinary people must make to satisfy the Party’s demands for absolute obedience.
The first book also describes the looming presence of Big Brother whose visage is pasted on posters and telescreens everywhere and just how difficult life is for the residents of Oceania. Although he engages in far more serious transgressions against the Inner Party as the novel progresses, Winston’s journey to personal destruction begins in book one with his purchase of a handsome and completely blank diary from a secondhand store in the prole district. Simply purchasing and owning a diary, of course, was highly forbidden, but Winston takes a much larger and irrevocable step towards his ultimate doom when he actually begins to record his thoughts in his diary.
Moreover, Winston readily understood the implications of his actions, but he proceeded to engage in them nonetheless. In this regard, Orwell writes: “[Winston] was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote: ‘Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.’” Since Winston had essentially sealed his own fate by codifying his rebellious thoughts on paper, he became committed to staying alive for as long as possible in or