THE LITERARY WORK
A satirical novel set in London in the fictional future year 1984; published in 1949.
Winston Smith lives in a society in which “the Party” keeps a ruthless stranglehold on power through total control over the thoughts and actions of its members. When Winston and his lover Julia defy the Thought Police and join an underground resistance movement, they soon discover the powerlessness of the individual in the face of absolute political oppression.
Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari, Bengal, India on June 25,1903, to English parents. Though offered a university scholarship, Blair instead opted to serve in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. On leave in England in 1927, he dropped out and decided against returning to Burma. Troubled by the caste and racial barriers that had prevented him from getting to know a wider cross-section of the populace there, he began mixing with the downtrodden of Europe, gathering material for Down and Out in Paris and London. He changed his name upon the publication of this first book (1933) to George Orwell after the Orwell River in Suffolk, England. In his fiction and essays, Orwell stresses the importance of intellectual and human liberty, attacking imperialism, totalitarianism, and left-wing hypocrisy as its enemies. These convictions found perhaps their ultimate literary expression in his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In 1516. Sir Thomas More published a book that criticized the injustice of his own society and at the same time portrayed an ideal state in which peace and order reign and poverty and misery are erased. Its title was Utopia, referring to the name of its imaginary island setting, a word of Greek origin that literally translated as “no place.” Since that time, the term has been adopted as a general term for various ideal states in works such as Plato’s Republic and St. Augustine’s City of God. Other famous pre-nine-teenth-century Utopias include François Ra-belais’s description of the Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532), Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1632), and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627). The concept of Utopia changed in the eighteenth century with the popularization of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea that a primitive, uncor-rupt society existed before the development of civilization. This faith in natural order and the innate goodness of humankind became the ideological foundation of Utopian socialism, the notion that class divisions and competition could evolve into a new classless cooperative society, whose inhabitants live under ideal conditions. Proponents of the notion included the nineteenth-century social theorists Pierre Joseph Proudhon and Robert Owen.
The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of the Utopian romance. These novels depicted the sometimes glowing, sometimes frightening social implications of the new industrialism. Among the more prominent titles are Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backard (1888), and H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905). In Looking Backward, the hero Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000 in a Utopia achieved peacefully through the operation of one huge national trust run by the government. All of the nation’s citizens aged twenty-five to forty-five work in an industrial army, after which they retire to read, pursue hobbies, and provide the little leadership needed in the povertyless and crime-free society.
THE ATOMIC BOMB
The history of atomic warfare in Orwell’s novel begins with the first detonation in the 1940s, followed by a full-scale atomic war about ten years later, in which hundreds of bombs are dropped on industrial centers in European Russia, Western Europe, and North America. Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four tour years after the destruction of Hiroshima—the dawn of the nuclear age. After World War II, the United States submitted a proposal to the United Nations to form an international regulatory body with the right to send atomic weapons inspectors into countries and enforce sanctions against any country found guilty of unauthorized use of atomic power. But the Americans at that time were the sole possessors of the bomb, and the Soviets rejected the proposal and proceeded with their own atomic research. By the time of the novel’s publication in 1949, the Soviets were equipped to conduct atomic warfare, and the arms race had begun.
The Utopian romance was followed in the early to mid-twentieth century by a number of novels that portrayed negative Utopias, sometimes called dystopias. These dystopias are imaginary places wracked by misery and wretchedness; the people lead dehumanized and often fear-ridden lives. Examples include Yevgeny Za-myatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932; also covered in Literature and Its Times), and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). These books reflect to varying degrees the sense of general disillusionment experienced in the first half of the twentieth century. After undergoing two wars and their attendant mass destruction, a severe international economic crisis, the genocide of the Holocaust, the totalitarian terror in the Stalinist Soviet Union, and the advent of the atomic bomb, it seemed as if Western civilization was on the brink of certain collapse. Negative Utopias express the powerless-ness and hopelessness of modern man just as the early Utopias expressed the self-confidence and hope of postmedieval humankind. Brave New World, for example, portrays a scientifically balanced state that permits no individual emotions or responses, considers art disruptive, and forbids the use of “mother” or “father” since all the inhabitants belong to one another.
In the novel Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth consists of falsifying historical documents in such a way as to make the Party, or administration, appear infallible. This kind of systematic eradication had precedent, most notably during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. After Josef Stalin consolidated power, the names of once-revered leaders of the Russian Revolution—men like Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and Lev Kamenev—were deleted from the history books, their faces obliterated even on historical photographs. The articles devoted to them were eliminated from the official encyclopedia and new pages were supplied to replace those that subscribers were ordered to cut out (Esslin, p. 128).
But the Soviets were not alone in engaging in such practices. The British government undertook its own propaganda efforts as well, of which Orwell himself was both a witting and later unwitting participant. From 1939 to 1941, Stalin was portrayed in the British press as an arch-villain who had sacrificed Poland by signing a nonaggression pact with Germany’s Adolf Hitler. But on the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin was instantly remade into a hero and friend of Britain. In its radio broadcasts, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stressed the fortitude of the Russian people and the heroism of the Red Army. Orwell worked for the BBC during this period in which Stalin was so lionized; at the same time, Orwell’s satirical novel Animal Farm, which condemned Stalin as a despot, was steadily rejected by British publishers. Only two years later, after the war came to an end and Stalin was no longer an “ally,” did Orwell find a house willing to publish the book.
In Orwell’s fictional Oceania, radio broadcasts consist of special announcements of victories and large doses of martial music and fanfares. This bears a distinct resemblance to the successful tactics used by Germany’s minister of propaganda under Hitler, Joseph Goebbels. Additionally, Orwell’s concept of the “Newspeak” language, which plays such a critical element in the debasement of society in Nineteen Eighty-Four, bears a striking resemblance to Goebbels’s Sprachregelung (“language manipulation”). In Sprachregelung, for example, Churchill was referred to by officials as “that brandy-sodden alcoholic Winston Churchill,” and Roosevelt “that syphilitic degenerate Roosevelt” (Esslin, p. 129).
International political alignment after World War II
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world is divided into three great powers—Oceania (the United States and Britain), Eurasia (continental Europe and Russia), and Eastasia (China and Southeast Asia). This scenario is grounded in the actual political realignments that followed World War II. At a conference in the Iranian city of Tehran in December 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met with Stalin and discussed, among other things, the postwar occupation and demilitarization of Germany. Not wishing to lose the cooperation of the Soviets in the war against the Germans, Roosevelt put off confrontational territorial issues until victory was assured. At the Tehran meeting it was agreed that a secret Allied assault on German-occupied France would take place in the spring of 1944. This would force Germany to fight a war on two fronts, both east and west; since 1941 it had been trying to take over the Soviet Union. A grateful Stalin promised to launch a simultaneous offensive effort on the eastern front. This is the strategy that would win the war in the next eighteen months, but it was also a plan that all but guaranteed the Russian domination of eastern Europe. By the time the leaders met again at Yalta in February of 1945, Stalin’s armies had driven the Nazi forces back to within forty miles of Berlin, and were in control of Poland and nearly all of eastern and central Europe.
Fearful that the Soviets would impose a totalitarian political system on this vast area, Roosevelt and Churchill pressed Stalin to pledge the earliest possible establishment of sovereign governments in the region through free elections. Stalin conceded verbally, but he refused to allow international supervision of the elections. In the decade following the war’s end, a ravaged Europe became a battleground for the two ideologies, and nowhere was their inability to agree more evident than in the political division of Germany into East and West, and indeed even within the former capital of Berlin itself. At Yalta the leaders had also agreed to a founding conference for the United Nations, set up that same year to maintain international peace and security. Yet even a multinational cooperative coalition had little substantive effect on the growing rift between the United States and the Soviet Union. From 1945 to 1955, obstructing the progress of concerted international action, the Soviets used their veto in the United Nations seventy-five times, the Americans three times. The ongoing diplomatic and ideological clash of interest between these two nations came to be known as the Cold War.
WHAT ORWELL IS ATTACKING
The question arises why Orwell, a socialist himself, would write a novel that attacked English socialism. Socialism had been promoted in England since the late 1800s, with men such as science-fiction writer H. G, Wells calling for gradual reform through government intervention in social areas for the benefit of the people. In fact, Orwell contended that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not an antisocialist novel at all, but rather a warning against totalitarianism, as explained by Michael Sheldon in his biography:
“The scene of the book,” he [Orwell] explained, “is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.” (The italics are Orwell’s.) He also made it clear that he did not see his book as a specific assault on socialism. . . . “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism. . . but as a show-up ot the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism.”
(Sheldon, p. 433)
The third great power to emerge out of World War II was the People’s Republic of China. The triumph of Mao Zedong’s (Tse-tung’s) Red Army was the final episode in a long civil war between the Guomindang (Kuomintang), or Nationalists, and the Communists that had begun in 1927. The uneasy alliance formed between the two groups in 1937 to fight the Japanese barely held together through the war years. After the war, fighting broke out and continued from 1946 to 1949. Despite the aid given to the Nationalists (who were themselves undemocratic, but at least not communist) by the United States, the Red Army emerged triumphant in 1949, forcing the defeated Guomindang to withdraw to the island of Taiwan. Mao then reestablished the national capital in the ancient city of Beijing, and for the next twenty-seven years proceeded to rule the People’s Republic of China.
When Vladimir I. Lenin, the leading force behind the Russian Revolution in 1917, died seven years later, his obvious successor appeared to be Leon Trotsky, a companion of Lenin’s during the revolution. But unlike Lenin, Trotsky was essentially an intellectual, uncompromising in his devotion to the ideals of the revolution and outspoken in his contempt for what he perceived to be the recent erosion of those ideals. At the party congress elections in 1927, he was displaced by a figure who wielded much less political clout, Josef Stalin. Not long afterwards, Trotsky was exiled to Siberia, and later banished completely from the Soviet Union. With the rise of Stalin, the Communist Party underwent a drastic purge. A third of its membership was expelled for allegedly sympathizing with Trotsky (who in this respect bears a striking resemblance to Goldstein, the traitor vilified by the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four). During the 1930s, large numbers of political insiders and common citizens alike were accused of crimes against the state. In such show trials, the accused confessed in full to their crimes. Many—including Bukharin and Kamenev—were summarily executed. The news that all had confessed seemed highly suspect to the rest of the world, causing it to doubt the honesty of the proceedings.
More than a decade later, these grisly events were to some extent repeated in China. Soon after Mao Zedong’s Communists captured power from the Nationalists in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, totalitarianism again appeared in the newly formed communist state—although its appearance seems less indicative of communist ideology than a long history of despotic rulers in both Russia and China. Mao and his lieutenants manipulated all organs of information for indoctrination purposes. Political education was accompanied by mass arrests and executions, forced labor, and the liquidation of anticommunist opponents. Later, Mao would admit that in the first five years of the revolution hundreds of thousands of opponents had been purged. As the years passed, repression continued , but coercion was often less important in China than the mobilization of social pressures for conformity. Political opponents were rehabilitated rather than liquidated, and often permitted to return to positions of responsibility. The fact that the majority of these events, which are strikingly similar to those recounted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, occurred after the publication of the book is a testament to the novel’s uncanny prescience.
It is the year 1984, and the world is divided into three superstates—Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. The novel takes place in London, portrayed as a drab city in a province known as Airstrip One in a place called Oceania. Although the superstates are perpetually at war with one another, the atomic devastation of the past has been replaced by distant conventional warfare over border disputes in far-flung lands.
Oceania is governed by an oppressive totalitarian regime known simply as the Party. The Party’s ideology is called English Socialism, or In-gsoc, the slogans of which are “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 7).
Symbolized by the ubiquitous image of Big Brother, the Party controls every conceivable aspect of human action and thought. Even language falls under its control. “Standard English” is being systematically replaced by “Newspeak,” a language “which has been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism,” and at the same time “to make all other modes of thought impossible” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 246).
Winston Smith is a thirty-nine-year-old minor official and Outer Party member who works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where he falsifies historical documents. At heart, Winston is an enemy of the Party because he questions hierarchical authority and because he cannot help but retain some semblance of his “ancestral memory,” which provides him with some understanding of the present—and therefore an awareness of his own individuality. When he comes across a photograph at work proving that the Party falsely accused and executed three innocent men, he begins to write down his thoughts in a diary—an act that qualifies him as a criminal.
Winston grows progressively preoccupied with the past; not the official past, but “what it was like in the old days, before the Revolution” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 76). In a society in which individuality has all but ceased to exist, Winston becomes an outcast. He walks the streets aimlessly, wandering into the section of town reserved for the “proles,” the underclass that make up 85 percent of the population. When he runs across an old man in a pub, he asks him about the past, but the man can’t seem to answer his question, or perhaps doesn’t understand what he means. In defiance of the Thought Police, who monitor every movement of every Party member, Winston enters a junk shop run by a prole named Mr. Charrington. There he buys a paperweight, which he carries home with him. Although it appears to be a worthless object, the paperweight is valuable to Winston because it is old, and therefore provides a link to the past.
Winston finds little comfort in his patriotic workmates Parsons and Syme, but does seem to have an unspoken connection with a man named O’Brien. Before Winston can find the courage to approach O’Brien, though, a young woman named Julia approaches Winston, handing him a secret note that says “I love you.” In Julia, Winston finds a sympathetic companion and someone who has mastered the art of deceiving the Party. Not only does she perform her perfunctory Party duties, she volunteers additional time as well, all in order to throw the Thought Police off her track. In private, she despises the Party and everything for which it stands. Winston and Julia become lovers, and eventually they rent a room above Charrington’s junk shop to use as a meeting place. For the first time since he was a little child, Winston is happy.
Having found each other, Winston and Julia wonder if there are more people out there like them and speculate again about the existence of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, according to Party propaganda, is a guerrilla organization dedicated to overthrowing the Party, and is led by a legendary enemy of the party named Goldstein. Soon afterwards, O’Brien discreetly approaches Winston, and just as Winston suspected, O’Brien turns out to be a member of the Brotherhood. He initiates the couple into the secret society and gives them a book written by Goldstein called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism that details the methods by which the Party exercises complete control over the population. Before Winston can finish reading the book, however, he and Julia are ambushed in their private room by the Thought Police, who beat them into submission and drag them away.
Winston wakes up in a jail cell in the win-dowless Ministry of Love, where he is greeted by O’Brien, who is not really a genuine member of the Brotherhood but is actually a member of the Inner Party. O’Brien proceeds to systematically torture Winston within an inch of his life, and although Winston confesses every crime he can think of, including those he did not commit, O’Brien is not satisfied. According to O’Brien, the torture is not meant to punish or elicit a confession. The Party, he explains, wants no martyrs. The ignorant proles must never have a leader to rouse them. It is not enough to obey Big Brother, you must love him too. “We do not merely destroy our enemies,” O’Brien explains, “we change them” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 209). In the end, Winston is taken to the mysterious “Room 101,” where prisoners are confronted with their worst fear. In Winston’s case, that fear is rats. As a cage filled with hungry rats is being strapped to his face, the terrified Winston finally commits the ultimate betrayal, crying, “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia!” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 236).
Winston is released a changed man. Nothing interests him beyond the petty duties of his new job, his Victory Gin, and his daily chess game (in which the white pieces must always win). Even his chance encounter with Julia is characterized by indifference. Each admits having betrayed the other under torture, and then they part. One day in the tavern the telescreen announces that Oceania has won a critical military victory, and something snaps inside Winston. He starts to cry. Now finally he can be put to death, for at last he loves Big Brother.
Living conditions in Britain after World War II
The world in which Winston Smith lives is a spartan one. Luxury items such as chocolate are rationed by the Party, and even common items are scarce: “At any given moment there was some necessary article which the Party shops were unable to supply. Sometimes it was buttons, sometimes it was darning wool, sometimes it was shoelaces; at present it was razor blades. You could only get a hold of them, if at all, by scrounging more or less furtively on the ’free’ market” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 43-4). Products sponsored by the party, such as “Victory Cigarettes” and “Victory Gin,” are very poor quality. “Regulation lunch” consists of the following: “metal pannikin of pinkish-gray stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory Coffee, and one saccharine tablet” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 44). As unappealing as this life may sound, it is in fact a fairly accurate representation of the standard of living in Britain at the time the novel was written . The conclusion of World War II did not bring an end to the suffering of the British. The war had cost a quarter of the nation’s wealth, and for several years afterward life in postwar Britain was dismal. Basic goods and services were limited. Certain foods and industrial products were rationed, and in the winter of 1946-47 fuel shortages were so severe that the government was forced to impose drastic rations on the use of power for both industrial and private consumers. Orwell himself, though he was not poor, ran out of coal that winter and was forced to burn peat in his fireplace to keep warm.
Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as he was dying. In the spring of 1947 he rented a secluded house in the Scottish island of Jura, where he began to compose the novel. He was hospitalized in December for tuberculosis, from which he had suffered for many years. Six months later, in spite of the warnings of his physician, he returned to Jura and resumed his work. He collapsed almost immediately upon completing the manuscript and never completely recovered.
Many critics point to the circumstances of Orwell’s illness to account for the dark tone of the work, and indeed the author himself is rumored to have said that the novel “wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I hadn’t been so ill” (Orwell in Poupard and Person, p. 296). But regardless of how readers choose to interpret Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is clear that Orwell himself saw it as a political work. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” Orwell states, “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer” (Orwell, A Collection of Essays, p. 313).
There is evidence as well to support the claim that Nineteen Eighty-Four is also a personal novel, for much of its content can be traced to Orwell’s own experiences. For two years Orwell produced propaganda materials as a member of the Indian section of the BBC’s Empire Service. The first outline of Nineteen Eighty-Four, entitled “The Last Man in Europe,” can be dated close to the end of 1943, about the time Orwell left the BBC. Martin Esslin, in his essay “Television and Telescreen,” points out that the “hive of propaganda activity” in the offices of the Empire Service bore a striking resemblance to the propaganda efforts of Winston Smith’s Ministry of Truth in the novel (Esslin, p. 127). The media’s manipulation of the masses in Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, is drawn not only from Soviet and Nazi propaganda tactics, but also from Orwell’s own experiences as a propagandist in the BBC’s English-language service to India as well.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Britain and the United States in June of 1949 and received tremendous acclaim. Within a year of its publication, 50,000 copies had been sold in Great Britain and 170,000 in the United States. Mark Schorer, writing for the New York Times, called it “the most contemporary novel of this year and who knows how many past and yet to come” (Schorer, p. 16). The English writer V. S. Pritchett said “I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down” (Pritchett in Poupard and Person, p. 301). A month after the novel’s publication, the New York Times Book Review stated that of the sixty reviews in American publications, 90 percent were “overwhelmingly admiring, with cries of terror rising above the applause” (Poupard and Person, p. 430).
Nevertheless, there were some dissenting voices. Julian Symons asserted that the book emphasized ideas at the expense of depth of character. In his review, Symons characterized the trajectory of Orwell’s career as one marked by an increasing tendency to ignore characterization in favor of ideas: “in Nineteen Eighty-Four, [characterization] has been as nearly as possible eliminated. We are no longer dealing with characters, but society” (Symons in Poupard and Person, p. 298). But doubtless the most virulent response of all came from Samuel Sillen in the communist magazine Masses and Mainstream:
Like his previous diatribe against the human race, Animal Farm, George Orwell’s new book [Nineteen Eighty-Four] has received an ovation in the capitalist press. The gush of comparisons with Swift and Dostoyevsky has washed away the few remaining pebbles of literary probity. . . . Indeed, the response is far more significant than the book itself; it demonstrates that Orwell’s sickness is epidemic.... The literary mouthpieces of imperialism have discovered that crude anti-Stalinism … is not enough; the system of class oppression must be directly upheld and any belief in change and progress must be frightened out of people.
(Sillen, pp. 79-81)
Esslin, Martin. “Television and Telescreen.” In On Nineteen Eighty-four. Edited by Peter Stansky. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Alumni Association, 1983.
Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1946.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. Reprint. New York: Signet, 1981.
Poupard, Dennis, and James E. Person Jr., eds. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 15. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.
Reilly, Patrick. Nineteen Eighty-Four: Past, Present, and Future. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Schorer, Mark. “An Indignant and Prophetic Novel.” The New York Times Book Review (June 12, 1949): 1.
Sheldon, Michael. Orwell: The Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Sillen, Samuel. “Maggot of the Month.” Masses and Mainstream 2, no. 8 (August 1949): 79-81.