Like the ever-present, ever-watchful eyes of Big Brother, George Orwell’s visionary novel, first published in 1949, continues to haunt readers to this day. At its most basic, 1984 examines a totalitarian futuristic society tightly controlled by a police state and governed by the all-seeing Big Brother. Although it is a work of fiction, it raises questions relevant to any organized society in any time and place, and probes as well the deeper moral questions of the corrupting influence of power and how individuals determine their very existence. As we follow Winston Smith through Oceania, we confront institutions and ideas we consider inherent to a functioning civilization: art and expression; the role of family as the backbone of society; the importance and unassailability of history; and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual.
That this story reads as fresh and frightening to generations twice, thrice, four times removed from World War II is no small literary feat. For this is a novel clearly borne of England’s waning colonialism, of catastrophic world wars and tenuous alliances, of the rise of brownshirts and gulags and fascism. It is impossible, and perhaps imprudent, to read 1984 without considering the political history that frames the novel. Yet as the book makes clear, power has a funny effect on people, from the Left to the Right. Is it really that far of a stretch from “the end justifies the means” to “power is the end, not the means”? Not just then, but now?
A brilliant and timeless socio-political treatise, no doubt, but what makes this book so relevant to our day and age is the cautionary note it strikes on technology, power, and the shifting nature of truth. It is in the day-to-day effects of Party protocol—fractured relationships, isolated workers, lost privacy, endless political sound bites, the pillaging of language and expression—that modern readers find a universal thread. Whether or not Facebook is monitoring your “friends” or you willingly post your every move, word, and thought online, technology has forever altered our social landscape. It has changed how we connect with one another, isolating some while linking others, facilitating like-seeking-like. In our post–9/11 world, where everyone from pop stars to presidents Tweet their own necessarily brief newsfeed to legions of pledged followers, questions of language, control, and expression are even more prescient than ever. Given the nature of the themes and questions raised in this remarkable book, it’s hard to imagine 1984 as any less relevant for generations to come.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe the importance of freedom of expression in society using examples from Winston’s daily life in Oceania.
2. Show through examples Winston and Julia’s different attitudes toward a totalitarian regime and their different ways of subverting it.
3. Cite several current-day examples that show how 1984’s theme of individual privacy continues to be an issue even well beyond the year 1984.
4. Explain why intimate relationships—friendship, marriage, family—are dangerous to a totalitarian regime.
5. Explain the various steps the Party took to finally break Winston.
6. Explain what is meant by the slogan “War is Peace.”
7. Cite through examples how the Party succeeds in controlling and manipulating information.