Few novels have had the impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even those who have not read the novel are familiar with terms such as “Big Brother” and “doublethink.” Although the novel may be read as a grim political satire on George Orwell’s time—the horrors of the modern totalitarian state, whether Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930’s or Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1940’s—it easily qualifies as a dystopic vision of a nightmarish future awaiting the world if it ignores modern assaults on human freedom. Its warning of a negative utopia has not diminished with the passage of the year 1984, for its menace is just as possible for 2084 or 2184.
Clearly, Oceania, like the other superstates of Eurasia and Eastasia, is an extension of twentieth century totalitarianism’s efforts to eradicate individuality. Orwell’s analysis of the planned exhaustion of excess economic productivity on military expenditures to preserve the inequities of a traditional class system is brilliant. In fact, “the book” that O’Brien claims he coauthored with the Inner Party reads like the secret history of twentieth century political economics.
Unlike other classics of speculative or science fiction such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Orwell’s science fiction lacks much of the advanced technological hardware readers associate with the genre. That lack, however, is justified within Nineteen Eighty-Four by Oceania’s spokesman, O’Brien, who tells Winston that science and technology persist only as weapons of oppression. These weapons include use of psychology to engineer pain or technology like the telescreen for surveillance. Weaponry itself has retreated to pre-Hiroshima levels, nuclear weapons having been eliminated as threats to the status quo of the three superstates. Science and technology, Orwell suggests, had to be curtailed because in their purest forms they are grounded in the spirit of innovation and free inquiry. As O’Brien brags, Big Brother could rewrite astronomy to make the stars mere miles away from Earth if such a “truth” accorded with unrestrained exercise of power by the Party.
It is no coincidence that Winston works in the Ministry of Truth. Like other totalitarian leaders in the twentieth century, “Big Brother,” or the Inner Party collectively, knows that truth is textual. The most successful dictators control their subjects through propaganda and the manipulation of history. Winston wanders through the proles’ district hoping to find some corroboration of his own recollection of life before Big Brother but discovers the unreliability of the proles’ memory and returns to his own job of rewriting history, a job he finds so stimulating that he passes up the opportunity to fade into the proles’ world with Julia. Besides, in this hierarchical system, Winston prides himself on his superiority to these “masses.”
Winston envisions his experience in the novel as a tragic contest with the state to demonstrate his own superiority as an individual. Time and again, he boasts to Julia that although they will inevitably be tortured and killed, they, or at least he, will never surrender his humanity. Love, loyalty, decency, and nobility represent “humanness” to Winston and also to Orwell. Tragedy, the narrator indicates, may no longer be possible because the privacy and family loyalty on which it depends are under threat. Winston casts himself in the role of a traditional tragic hero, flaunting his pride in the individual’s capacity to suffer all yet maintain dignity. When Winston proclaims the “spirit of Man” and O’Brien tells him to look in a mirror, Winston sees an image chillingly like those that confronted the liberators of the Nazi concentration camps. Winston embodies the tragedy of liberal humanism, naïvely confident that it could withstand any suffering without the surrender of a quintessential “humanity.”
As a vision of a dystopic future, Nineteen Eighty-Four is grounded in a psychology Orwell both fears is valid but hopes is not. First, the novel asks whether a state constructed on terror and unrestrained power can survive without a collective “mental breakdown.” O’Brien’s insane lust for the sadistic exercise of power has seemed to some more terrifying than his menacing rats. Another question on which the novel’s psychology rests is whether the “spirit of man,” or faith in the individual, can be destroyed by torture and brainwashing such as Winston’s in Room 101. How responsible are individuals for what is beyond their control? Finally, the novel poses the question of the individual’s ability to stay sane in an insane world, where all the texts that might confirm reality are manipulated by a state intent on serving its mad religion of power. Readers must answer these profound questions for themselves.