George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

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Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is, with the same author’s Animal Farm, one of the most widely read pieces of political writing of the twentieth century. Its vision is of a world in which three rival superpowers – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia – are locked in an endless but, in fact, symbiotic war (there are alternating periods of peace between two of the powers, which remain at war with the third, with alliances changing depending on who is at war with whom). The war is a stalemate (or, rather, an ideological fiction in which all three sides collaborate) whose continuance ensures that the citizens of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia remain in a constant state of submission to the forces of hatred, artificial collective feeling, and propaganda. The supreme head of Oceania, Big Brother, is the leader of the Party, which controls everything. There are four Ministries,

[…] between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs.

The names of the Ministries are in direct opposition to their actual functions, a sign early on in the novel of the essential chasm in this society between language and truth. The Ministry of Peace is named in direct contradiction to its real purpose, as is also the Ministry of Love (specifically drawing attention to the central importance of Hate in this social economy). The Ministry of Plenty presides over a shortage economy in which everything is rationed, and where everyday necessities such as razor-blades and soap are in short supply. The gloss on the Ministry of Truth makes an additional, subtler, satirical point about “news, entertainment, education and the fine arts” in the present – all of these “ideological state apparatuses”, to use Althusser’s term, conceal rather than reveal truth. In Oceania (and in the other two world states by analogy) the state is wholly devoted to controlling every aspect of its citizens’ lives, through an array of material and ideological means. The Ministry of Truth plays a central role in this, particularly through the use of the “telescreen”, Orwell’s dark version of what the effects of newly resumed television broadcasting might be. Giving television a slight twist (though not so much of a twist, given the more recent spread of CCTV systems), all citizens in Oceania [except the 'Proles', which is the collective name given to the working classes of Oceania, i.e. the proletariat] are not only passively subject to the “telescreen” but are actively controlled by it, since it is a two way transmissions system: “6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower please”. It is mandatory to have the telescreen on at all times. Most of the people of Oceania do not seem to realise that they are subject to, and reproducers of, a system of total social control – or cannot admit to such an idea, since the Party has progressively eliminated any space or place where such “thoughtcrime” could be expressed. But from time to time individuals do notice that the reality they know about and live in does not match the reality the party presents: vaporisation is reputed to be the usual fate of these “criminals”. Such a citizen is Winston Smith. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, revising past news stories to ensure that they match the current version of reality. This is a continuous task, since reality needs constant adjustment to match the Party’s reality, as the Party is openly asserting in its slogan: “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past”. However, despite his job of altering narratives to suit the present (a job which he enjoys because of the pleasure he feels in playing with language), he feels no inner conviction or loyalty to the Party’s vision of truth. Indeed, he knows that it is a truth which is produced, rather than one that exists in its own right. He knows that three party members executed for treason were innocent because he remembers seeing “unmistakable documentary evidence that their confessions were false”. He also knows that sometimes Oceania has been at war with Eastasia and sometimes with Eurasia, but there is no documentary proof of that, since all documents are rewritten to make the Party line invariable and always infallible (according to current alliances and wars). Winston cannot accept the current reality as the only reality: he knows that it bears a secondary (at best) relationship to what actually happened.

One day, Winston begins a diary which records the truth as he knows it: unconsciously he finds himself writing “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER”. Knowing that his inner knowledge of truth differs from the Party line, Winston is tempted into dissent in two connected forms. Firstly, he and Julia (ostensibly a pillar of the Anti-Sex league, a Party apparatus designed to dampen the individualist loyalties inspired by sex and love) have an illicit affair. Secondly, he begins to read the forbidden critique of the Party by the banished Goldstein (a figure based on Trotsky, though the book is also modelled partly on Marx’s Capital). Both activities take place in their secret hideout – a room above an antique shop in the proles’ quarters, a space he thinks beyond the surveillance of the Party. In fact, however, the owner of the antique shop is an agent of the Party: even rebellion has been scripted by the Party, and though Goldstein seems to be an opposition figure, he has actually been invented by the Party as a channel to control opposition. Winston and Julia are taken separately to Room 101, where everyone’s worst fear meets them. None can resist, and the traditional romance plot puts up little resistance to state power: both Winston and Julia confess to their imaginary ‘crimes’. Their interrogation is conducted by O’Brien, the nearest they get to the perhaps fictional Big Brother: he only requires them to admit that 2+2=5. At the end of the novel, the broken Julia and Winston meet, indifferent to each other, knowing that nothing personal can survive the power of the Party: “Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me” plays a popular song on the radio. “Nothing was your own”, thinks Winston early on in his rebellion, “except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull”. But even that small ownership is denied by the end of the novel: there is no possible resistance to the state, which has co-opted dissidence into its routine domination of everything and anything which can be said.

The novel offers a comprehensive dystopian vision of the absolute power of ideology under totalitarianism and even perhaps the impossibility of “truth” in any state. It includes an appendix about the language being introduced into Oceania: “Newspeak” – a language in which it would be impossible to think, let alone utter, “thoughtcrime": “the purpose of Newspeak was [...] to make all other modes of thought impossible”. Newspeak is based partly on the contemporary idea of Basic English, and partly on contemporary idioms and practices, including political euphemisms, which Orwell thought reduced the clarity of English and hence its capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood. Newspeak is intended to achieve the suppression of any non-conformist possibilities in language by reducing the vocabulary of English to the point where synonyms, and hence the nuances, ambiguities and different implications of different selections of words, would virtually disappear.

The novel was an immediate success with critics and readers, building on the reputation of Animal Farm, and, like it, was seen as highly readable, intelligent and immediately relevant. Orwell’s publisher Frederic Warburg, anticipating the impact of the novel, made an initially large printing of 265,575 copies, which sold out within six months of publication, There was also a separate US edition by Harcourt Brace, of 20,000 copies, and then a US Book of the Month edition of 190,000. The figures show how much impact Orwell’s writing was now having – especially when compared with his earlier estimate of success: sales of 3,000 copies. Part of the success of Nineteen Eighty-Four came from the combination of Orwell’s already developed realist techniques and the mainstays of the dystopian genre (as in the opening chapter: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen . . . The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats”). Together, these made it a more distinctive and more sharply constructed novel than some of those he had written in the thirties. Additionally, the relationship between recent past, present and future gave some of the representations of the future a satiric edge, as shown earlier in the discussion of the Ministry of Truth.

However, part of its success also arose because it was published as the post-war settlement was edging into the Cold War, with a permanent-seeming state of hostility between the Soviet bloc, communist China and the US / Western European spheres of influence. This echoed the political partition of the world in the novel, but also led many to see the novel as anti-communist. Indeed, even Frederic Warburg initially saw the novel as anti-socialist, saying in his publisher’s report on the typescript that “Ingsoc = English Socialism. This I take to be a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism”, and observing that the novel might gain “a cool million votes for the conservative party”. Orwell was displeased by this reading and took some pains to deny that the novel was anti-socialist and to identify more correctly the intended meaning of this kind of dystopia. Even before publication, Orwell prepared a statement, dictated to Warburg, to make clear that he was not attacking the current British Labour government in any simple sense: “Members of the present British government . . . will never willingly sell the pass to the enemy”. Both Warburg and Orwell did their best after publication to contradict anti-socialist readings. Thus, when the Daily News in New York made precisely the interpretation Orwell feared in 1949, Warburg sent a corrective statement (which was not published), while Orwell wrote a letter to the US Union leader Francis A.Hanson (which was published in part) explaining that: “My recent novel 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 to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism.”

The novel certainly does draw widely on aspects of Soviet communism and Nazism for its imagination of totalitarian power, but those are not its only sources. Equally it derives some of its atmosphere and detail from life in war-time Britain, such as rationing, the official encouragement of community-spirit and optimism, the newsreels and the forms of censorship practised by the BBC during the war. It also draws on and carefully critiques a number of other visions of the future, including both optimistic and pessimistic narratives by H.G. Wells (When the Sleeper Wakes of 1899 and In the Days of the Comet of 1906 have both been suggested as part models), as well as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1923) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The novel’s exploration of rebellion and conformity, i.e. the question of whether it is possible to maintain any relevant individual difference in the modern world, also picks up strong interests from Orwell’s pre-war novels. His Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) has a protagonist, Gordon Comstock, who tries to defy the expectation of the modern, money-centred world, by being a poet, but eventually learns that there is no escape from conformity. A good deal of the imagery of political violence and hatred in Nineteen-Eighty-Four is foreshadowed in his 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air, which again has a hero who tries to be different, but finds there is no possibility of not conforming. Thus there is a rehearsal for Hate Week, as the central character George Bowling reflects on how a political speaker at a Left Book Club meeting seems to him to be promoting hate: “The same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let’s all get together and have a good hate”.

Though the novel was, as discussed, widely interpreted as being about the Soviet state, it suggested – and continues to suggest – a deeper pessimism about the possibility of any objective truth outside the interests of particular social orders. In this way it anticipated the scepticism about truth that became a mainstay of postmodernism. The novel was Orwell’s last work before his premature death from TB in 1950.

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Citation: Hopkins, Chris. "Nineteen Eighty-Four". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 November 2002; last revised 03 November 2005. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3313, accessed 23 June 2024.]

3313 Nineteen Eighty-Four 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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