Critics of every aspect along the political spectrum, no matter what their views about the validity of Orwell’s social analysis in Nineteen Eighty-Four, agree on one thing: Considered politically and historically, Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most important books of the twentieth century. The bleakness of its vision of a totalitarian society became a profound warning, and Orwell’s accuracy was attested by dissidents in Eastern Europe and Russia both before and after the dissolution of the Soviet empire; Orwell, said a Russian philosopher, “understood the soul, or soullessness” of Soviet life. Not only did the words “Newspeak” and “doublethink” enter the English language but Russians refer to the Novoyaz of Communist Party language. Orwell’s examination of the political uses and abuses of language became the basis for a more critical perception of governmental pronouncements and declarations everywhere. For these reasons alone, Nineteen Eighty-Four deserves to be studied, and the clarity and transparency of Orwell’s language make it particularly appropriate for young adult audiences.
Some critics have pointed out that another layer of meaning exists within the novel. They connect Orwell’s dissection of Oceanian society to his portrayal of his depressing and unhappy preparatory school days, which he discussed in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” (1952). Young English boys were removed from the warmth and security of their families, mini-societies governed by love and respect, and hurled into a world dominated by fear, repression, and an all-pervading sense of guilt. There, Orwell was imprisoned “not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.” In such a society, rebellion or even dissent becomes almost impossible, and even personal relationships are viewed with hostility and suspicion by the ruling “class,” that is, the masters and proprietors of the school. That Orwell’s school was run by a husband and wife made the situation even more ironic and perhaps gave Orwell the unconscious inspiration to have his totalitarian society ruled by Big Brother, a pseudo-member of a much larger “family.”
Thus, as far as a young adult audience is concerned, Orwell’s theme of establishing one’s individuality in the face of an all-powerful and inimical society might be the most important, and it is intensified by the way in which he reproduces the psychic atmosphere of childhood and adolescence in his portrayal of Winston’s rebellion. Winston knows that life is not meant to be lived as it is in Oceania, and he tries to construct his ideal society out of fragments of dreams, nursery rhymes, and his love for Julia. Their affair is an attempt to set up briefly and furtively an independent life of their own. This freedom of personal relationships echoes Winston’s struggles to establish the freedom of his own mind, if only to assess the existence of external reality, symbolized by the equation “2 + 2 = 4.” That Winston’s and Julia’s rebellion is doomed to failure—O’Brien demonstrates to Winston that “2 + 2” can equal “5” if the Party declares it so—will trouble some readers. Yet, since Orwell’s vision is that of a satirist, prophetic only in the sense that it is a warning, such a conclusion is inevitable both within and outside the framework of the novel, as are the endings of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Orwell’s own Animal Farm (1945).