Top 10 Facts about George Orwell’s Novel 1984
1984 is one of the 20th Century’s greatest novels. Together with Animal Farm Orwell’s other well-known anti-communist novel it comprises a frightening example of a world where totalitarianism has run rampant. In a drab city in a drab state an oppressed man discovers a small spark of his unique humanity before he is tortured back into line. As we follow the hero on his journey we acknowledge the ultimate futility of his attempt to fight the system, a fight he was always doomed to lose.
1984 can be read on many levels, a thriller, a love story, a predictive novel, a searing satire or warning of the potential for a dystopian future. Orwell dedicated himself and his writing to the fight against totalitarianism and the promotion of true socialism. He was inspired to write the book as a protest against the unthinking English liberal acceptance of the existence of Stalin’s Russia and the failure to acknowledge the true nature of their ally against fascism.
A book very much of its time it has, nevertheless, stood the test of time and is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1949. The book is extensively studied and used in many Western Schools as an aid to teach pupils about the tactics and techniques employed by totalitarian regimes worldwide.
With that in mind here are our top 10 interesting facts about 1984.
10. Orwell Understood The Seductive Nature Of And The Ultimate Consequences Of The Use Of Power
The young George Orwell (then known by his birth name of Eric Blair) spent 4 and a half years working for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. This gave his a significant degree of personal responsibility over people and their circumstances at a comparatively young age. As a policeman George Orwell was required to witness hangings. He wrote about the experience in two short pieces, firstly the short story ‘The Hanging’ published in 1931 and again in 1946, this time as part of his ‘As I please’ newspaper column. In his writings on the subject Orwell shows the process by which he came to realize how monumental an undertaking it was to execute a man in cold blood and what it is like to have total power over someone else.
In his book ‘Shooting an Elephant and Other Stories’ Orwell talks candidly about his time in Burma and about how sights such as the scarred buttocks of men who had been caned and prisoners stuck in awful cages made him feel that the society he served and the power he wielded was an evil thing. He learned how to hate both the regime he served and the people it oppressed but be completely powerless to do anything about it. He later said ‘I have been part of an oppressive system and it has left me with a bad conscience….I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.’
This is what makes the description of the wielding and abuse of power in 1984 so hauntingly real – it is based on Orwell’s real life experiences.
9. While A Committed Socialist Orwell Understood The Fickle Nature Of Totalitarianism
His experiences in Burma caused George Orwell to develop a lifelong commitment to and deep belief in socialism. Like many British socialists he travelled to Spain to serve with the POUM (Party of Marxist Unification in the Spanish Civil War (he claimed, he went to ‘Fight Against Fascism’).
Somewhat confusingly the Spanish Communist Party, pursuing a Russian foreign policy wanted to dial back the revolution with the aim of securing the friendship of Britain and France. While Orwell was in Barcelona the communist party in Spain (and abroad) started spreading rumors about POUM and claiming that it was hand in hand with the fascists. The rumors were directed in a very personal manner and the communist party tried to use the opportunity to wipe out key POUM men including Orwell. Having been branded a fascist by the communists Orwell was so disgusted by their conduct that he decided to join a different front altogether.
As a result of his direct interaction with communism in Spain Orwell realized, relatively early on compared with other western socialists that Communist Russia was no worker’s paradise but every bit as dangerous to the right of individual liberty as a fascist state. He had also experienced, first hand, the fickle nature of totalitarian regimes that allow them to turn on their friends in an instant and recast them in the guise of enemies, rewriting history. These themes shine through in 1984.
8. 1984 Is Orwell’s Attempt To Rationalize His Belief That Change Is Inevitable. It Was A Prediction For A Possible Future Rather Than One Set In Stone, Some Of The Predictions Are Incredibly Accurate
The book serves as a chilling warning to those who were being seduced by the imaginary benefits of a totalitarian society with the end resulting in a travesty of his deeply held socialist ideals.
At the time Orwell returned from Spain he realized that nobody was interested in what he had to say about the dangers of totalitarianism and the ruthless betrayals perpetrated by the communists. The overwhelming narrative that the media wanted to publish was left good, right bad. Orwell was one of the first British socialists to try to combat this perception. His two great novels 1984 and Animal Farm were written in part to address this problem and warn people that they had to be wary of all extreme totalitarian systems.
Orwell firmly believed that the British political system could not survive the war, he was convinced it would go; the only question being whether through a top down fascist coup or a bottom up socialist revolution. He later admitted that war and revolution are not inseparable and one does not automatically lead to the other. In 1984 Orwell attempts to explore what can happen when socialist ideals are perverted and how change and totalitarianism could combine to give rise to a possible nightmare future where the original aims of the revolution are betrayed by those who perpetuate its existence.
The post war carve up of spheres of influence and the cold war (a phrase coined by Orwell in a 1945 essay) swayed Orwell’s division of the world in 1984 into three separate spheres of control (analogous to real life superpowers Russia and the US and, to some extent predicting the rise of China) engaged in a perpetual war of changing allegiances. 1984 even anticipated the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) balance that kept the real life Cold War cold and ensured that atomic weapons were never launched. In the novel the superpowers had made liberal use of atomic weapons in the past but agreed to suspend their use as it might lead to the ascendency of one of the three powers. They all need the state of constant war to maintain power and drive their imbalanced economies. Peace would be a disaster.
7. 1984 Is One Of The World’s Most Universally Acclaimed Novels And Is Loved And Hated In Equal Measure
1984 is a critically acclaimed novel and has an enduring popularity with readers. It has been voted one of the 100 best novels for the time period from 1923-2005. Editors voted 1984 the 13th best of the top 100 modern novels and readers elevated the book’s position even further to number 6. In a ‘Big Read’ survey of UK readers 1984 came in at number 8.
The book is however, hated as much as it is loved. Parents in Florida challenged the dystopian novel for being ‘pro-communist’ and for having explicit sexual scenes. This stance is somewhat ironic given that the book was banned in the Soviet Union and was subject to restrictions in many Warsaw Pact nations for being seen as an anti-Stalin polemic. Indeed the book had a checkered history in the USSR being alternately condemned and studied.
After Stalin’s death the Soviets started to paint Orwell’s future 1984 as a prediction for the future of America, a state full of sexually corrupt capitalists who would be subject to endless scrutiny by the FBI and conflating the Pentagon with the ‘Ministry of Peace’ from the book. Later Soviet critics attributed the book’s criticisms of totalitarian communism as a treatise against fascism and compared the cult of personality for Big Brother to Chairman Mao not Stalin.
6. 1984 Draws Heavily On The Influence Of Other Dystopian Fiction
1984 is heavily influenced by the dystopian book We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. We describes a future humanity governed by a ‘benefactor’ and reduced to a series of numbers in place of names. All daily activities are monitored by the government and even sexual relations are rationed. Orwell was certainly aware of the book as he reviewed it in1946 and considered it to be an influence for Huxley’s Brave New World.
There are, however, key differences. 1984 was set only a few decades, not centuries in the future, and Orwell is a much superior wordsmith capable of formulating his ideas into a credible, if frightening, vision of the future. We attracted very little attention, other than from the censors. Perhaps because it was published in a free country Orwell’s book had an immediate, powerful and worldwide cultural impact as a primer of all the worst possible ideas for the governance of humanity.
5. The Book Was, Originally, Set In A Different Year And Had A Completely Different Name
George Orwell intended to call the book The Last Man in Europe but a discussion with his editor resulted in the use of the name 1984. The book was originally set in 1980 but the date was changed to 1984 – perhaps in part because it was written in 1948 and the reversal of the final two digits made sense in terms of a prediction for the future world.
4. Room 101 Was Real
In the book Room 101 is the infamous torture chamber in the Ministry of Love (Minilove) where victims are forced to face ‘the worst thing in the world’. This is, of course personal to each individual and in the novel Winston Smith is forced to put his head in a cage full of rats.
The aim of Room 101 is to get the victims to force them to betray all that they hold most dear by confronting them with everything that they hate. Winston Smith, unable to bear the thought of having his face gnawed by rats begs that his lover be tortured in his place. With that one request he betrays his most sacred promises and his will to resist is broken.
Room 101 is based on a room with the same number at the BBC in which Orwell worked during the war. The concept of Room 101 is so powerful that it has entered our cultural consciousness and is commonly used to refer to places where people will undergo difficult experiences.
3. 1984 Is One Of The Most Accurate Fictional Descriptions Of Life In A Totalitarian State And Draws Liberally On Real Life Examples
In 1984 the party seeks power at all costs and socialist ideals are subverted to the concept of power for power’s sake. The novel paints a picture of a miserable society where people are subjected, not only to constant propaganda but also constant surveillance. Love in all forms other than for the ‘party’ is considered to be treason; a loving sexual relationship is considered subversive as is taking a solo walk and loyalty to the state is to be put before loyalty to oneself. This is, in all respects a hauntingly accurate summary of life in a totalitarian dictatorship. So much so that readers from Russia wondered how a man who had never lived there could describe their experience so perfectly.
Orwell used some of the most reprehensible practices of repressive regimes to provide inspiration for 1984. So the Kempetai, the secret police who kept an iron hold over wartime Japan, arresting people on suspicion of having ‘unpatriotic thoughts’ provided the basis for the concept of Thought Crime, the confessions of Bukharin et al at their show trials provided the example for ‘Thought Criminals’ while Stalin’s feared NKVD became the ‘Thought Police’.
When Winston Smith is facing interrogation he is repeatedly tormented with the statement 2+2=5. This is taken directly from a Soviet slogan which was used countrywide to encourage workers in the aim to complete the aims of the 5 year plan in 2 years. The Nazi’s also used this convoluted arithmetic to demonstrate the primacy of the will of the Fuhrer – so powerful he could demand that 2+2=5 and it would be so. The ability of totalitarian regimes to exercise this level of thought control truly terrified Orwell.
Orwell uses other Soviet experiences in his book; residents of Oceania are required to participate in regular hate sessions comprising the ‘two minute hate’ and the ‘hate week’. These bear a striking similarity to the loyalty rallies of Soviet Russia. The achievements of Stakhanovite equivalents are celebrated in the wildly overinflated figures published by Miniplenty (the Ministry of Plenty).
At the start of the book Oceania (the home of Big Brother and Winston Smith) is allied to Eastasia. This allegiance ends suddenly but has little impact on the wider population. We are notified of the change when a Hate Week orator starts his speech demonizing Eurasia and switches to Eastasia part way through. The audience accepts the change without protest. At the start of World War II Stalinist Russia was allied with Nazi Germany, the pact lasted until 1941 when the Nazis betrayed the Soviets and invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa, almost overnight the USSR found itself on the other side of the war.
The Inner Party (upper class) enjoys access to privileges denied to the Outer Party (middle class) and the proletariat. This closely mirrors the inequalities in Soviet Russia where party officials enjoyed access to rare delicacies from across the USSR and received perks such as bigger and better appointed apartments. Of course during Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union senior party members were never sure how long they would remain in favor. When a previous favorite was abandoned all references to them in books or photographs would be removed and this was common practice in other similarly repressive regimes such as Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany. In the novel Winston Smith’s job is to rewrite history in exactly this way.
2. Winston Smith Is A Fallible Hero – A True ‘Everyman’
Winston Smith is Orwell’s everyman in 1984. He is completely ordinary, a member of the Outer Party with a job at the Ministry of Truth requiring him to rewrite history to suit the beliefs of the day.
Smith’s rebellion is short lived and the end predictable. When faced with his worst fear he betrays everything that he is in his soul to save his physical form and in his degradation finds once more the love for Big Brother. Before he gets to this stage, however, he is shown his reflection in the mirror and told that he is looking at the ‘last man’. As he submits to his degradation and re-education he ushers in the new era of humanity.
Following his release Smith runs into his former lover Julia. They both admit to having failed to stay true to their beliefs and to having betrayed each other but they are now little troubled by this realization. Should we judge Smith for his capitulation? His experience mirrors that of so many people who survived repressive regimes that it seems illogical to do so. Indeed who among us can truly say that we would not, when faced with the horrors of Room 101 do exactly as Winston Smith did.
1. The Use Of Language In 1984 Predicted Modern Linguistic Developments Such As Political Correctness
George Orwell was a gifted writer who uses language to transport the reader into the heart of his books. In 1984 Orwell invents ‘Newspeak’ a language designed by the leaders of Oceania to prevent free thought by limiting the vocabulary of the population; this limited vocabulary effectively erases undesirable political concepts such as personal liberty.
Vocabulary is reduced to the absolute basics. All synonyms are removed and superlatives are banned so, for example,’ good’ is an acceptable work but great and excellent are redundant and replaced with ‘plusgood’ and ‘doubleplusgood’, bad becomes ‘ungood’. Words to express certain ideological concepts were created, these descriptive words are often in complete contradiction to the reality they express so the Miniluv or Ministry of Love is responsible for the police and torture.
Many of the words are compounds of two incompatible ideas so ‘Blackwhite’ is described as the ‘ability to believe that black is white…to know that black is white and to forget that one has ever believed to the contrary’. This is similar to ‘doublethink’ or ‘holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’.
Newspeak and its attempts to control thought and expression predicted the by turns frightening and yet amusing rise of rampant political correctness. We now live in a society where schools worry about references to dinosaurs in text books in case it offends those who do not believe in evolution and where lawyers sue bars that have ‘Ladies’ Nights’ for gender discrimination. Attempts to change language for reasons of political correctness are almost always spearheaded by politicians manufacturing a potential grievance on behalf of a ‘community’
The reason 1984 retains its power, even in our high tech age, is that it comprises one of the most brutally thorough descriptions of the life we might face should we fail to defend ourselves against tyranny. Orwell himself had been seduced by the easy control over people that comes with potentially limitless power. He used this experience to inform his writing of the book and it is, to date, one of the most compelling literary descriptions of the love of power for power’s sake and the abuse of that power.
The book goes on to predict the potential results of submission to totalitarianism. While 1984 is an example of one possible outcome many of Orwell’s prophecies have come to pass. We live in a world dominated by superpowers who engage in proxy wars in disputed territories. These days our engagement with the ‘other’ may take the form of economic competition in Africa but it is no less real than the proxy conflicts of Vietnam and Korea. Newspeak has become part of our daily lives in the form of political correctness and we carry our smart ‘phones with us everywhere each one of which is capable of being tapped and data mined to give a complete view of our habits and routines.
Winston Smith always thought that any hope for change lies with the ‘proles’. Big Brother and his agents control them through the easy availability of pornography and other meaningless entertainment. These days many people return from their daily grind to digest a schedule of reality television and meaningless websites.
Nietzsche warns us that we should take care not to look into the abyss incase the abyss stares back at us. 1984 is a stark warning of what happens if we stare to long into the abyss of political and social apathy and that lesson is as valuable today as it was in 1949.