1984 Themes


The Power of Big Brother
The sinister, mustachioed face symbolizing the Party's power is completely inescapable in George Orwell's parable of the future. When Winston Smith comes home to Victory Mansions, he feels the eyes of Big Brother on him thanks to posters on every landing in the stairwell. It is the same when he looks at a coin or cigarette packet. Each day, at the end of the Two Minutes Hate session directed at Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, all Party workers return to a state of calm when Big Brother appears on the giant telescreen, illustrating the near-hypnotic hold he exercises over the masses. It is just as Winston reads in Goldstein's The Theory of Oligarchic Collectivism: "[Big Brother's]function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt toward an individual than towards an organization."

When Winston is arrested and separated from the corrupting influence of Julia, O'Brien strives to make the rebellious civil servant an empty vessel that will once again surrender to Big Brother's all-consuming love. And in the end, Winston gives in: "He loved Big Brother." Orwell uses this figurehead for tyranny to powerfully illustrate the effect totalitarian government can have on the human spirit.

Freedom and Enslavement/Free Will
Orwell’s 1984 is set in Oceania, a totalitarian state ruled by a god-like leader named Big Brother who completely controls the citizens down to their very thoughts. Anyone who thinks subversive thoughts can be turned in by spies or by Big Brother, who monitors them through highly sensitive telescreens. If someone does not have the proper facial expression, they are considered guilty of Facecrime, so all emotions must be extremely carefully guarded. It is even possible to commit Thoughtcrime by being overheard talking in one’s sleep, which Winston Smith fears will happen to him; it actually happens to his neighbor Tom Parson. Freedom exists only in the proletarian ghetto, where crime and hunger are commonplace. Winston feels he could not live in this ghetto, even though his life is almost as grim as that of the ghetto dwellers.

The punishment for even minor crimes is severe, yet people occasionally choose to break the law. The Party knows that people instinctively want to have sex, form loving bonds, and think for themselves instead of accepting unquestioningly whatever the totalitarian government tells them. As long as people choose to exercise free will, the Party must be ever-vigilant against crime and make their punishments severe in order to remain in control.

Appearances and Reality
In totalitarian Oceania, it seems as if everyone is slavishly devoted to Big Brother and believes everything the government tells them. However, as we can understand from Winston’s thoughts, all is not as it seems. Some people secretly feel and believe differently from how they behave; of course, they are extremely careful not to betray themselves. Moreover, the Party is in control of all information and revises history, even yesterday’s history, to reflect their current version of events. Winston is very much aware of this, because it is his job in the inaccurately named Ministry of Truth to change the records of history. He cannot ignore what he remembers: Oceania was at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia yesterday, and not vice versa. If anyone else remembers differently, they certainly won’t say so.

Only the old man, a powerless prole who lives on the street, speaks about what really happened in the past, but in short and irrelevant snippets about his personal experiences. It is Winston’s need to reconcile what he knows with the Party’s version of reality that leads to his downfall. The Party cannot allow people to have a perception of reality that is different from theirs. As Winston writes in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Loyalty and Betrayal
In order to remain all-powerful, the Party destroys loyalty between people: co-workers, friends, even family members. Children are encouraged to betray their parents to the state if they suspect them of Thoughtcrimes (thinking something that goes against the Party line).

The Party has outlawed sex for pleasure and reduced marriage to an arrangement between a man and woman that exists only for procreation. Sexual urges must be repressed for fear they will lead to love, human connection, and personal loyalty, all of which threaten the Party. Winston believes that love like the love he and Julia share will eventually destroy the Party, but he underestimates the Party’s ability to destroy that love and loyalty. Winston and Julia both give in to torture and betray each other. When they are released, their love and loyalty to each other has been destroyed.

Because the Party can easily detect Thoughtcrimes, people always act as if they are completely loyal to the Party. No one trusts anyone else completely. Winston makes fatal mistakes when he trusts O’Brien and Charrington,...

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1984 Social Concerns / Themes

As his final and perhaps most significant literary work, Nineteen Eighty-Four is often perceived as the inevitable culmination of Orwell's development as a writer and undoubtedly formulated as a creative entity over much of the last decade of his life. Consequently, the tone and thematic content of the novel suggest that Orwell was greatly influenced by the social and political events of the period. Stemming from his experience in Spain in 1936, Orwell witnessed a highly volatile world situation become increasingly more threatening to the existence of peace, liberty, and social order. Against the backdrop of the Moscow "purge" trials, the horror of world war, the subsequent division of Europe into Eastern and Western blocs, and the formidable reality of atomic warfare, Orwell created his nightmarish version of the mythical future.

The setting of Nineteen Eighty-Four is London, capital of what is now known as "Airstrip One," located in "Oceania." Analogous to the Cold War consciousness permeating modern society, Oceania is one of three countries comprising the world of the novel. Invariably at war with one another, each country is controlled by an oligarchy which has systematically and brutally eliminated the primary characteristics of democratic civilization. In this capacity, Orwell is clearly demonstrating his unmistakable repudiation of the totalitarian state. As the novel unfolds, the very essence of the human spirit is virtually...

(The entire section is 379 words.)