Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning. What was he warning us about?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Orwell's novel cries out in protest against totalitarianism, loss of collective memory (history) and loss of language. 1984, though written in reaction to the abuses of Stalin's government in the USSR, was more generally a polemic directed against totalitarianism in whatever form, with Orwell imagining what a totalitarian state would look like in the context of English culture. 

The novel warns the reader of the dangers of letting too much power flow into the hands of too few people, and it focuses on the ways a government can maintain too much power. For Orwell, a concentration of power leads to abuse. In the novel, Orwell depicts power in negative terms--the boot in the face--and defines it through O'Brien as precisely the ability to force people to do what they hate. 

Orwell depicts a dystopian state which controls every aspect of an individual's life, subjecting Party members to constant surveillance and, by making nothing an explicit crime, making everything a potential crime. People are kept busy all the time, live miserably with poor food, clothing and housing and have their aggressions manipulated and directed against manufactured enemies. Films are aggressively violent and audiences are desensitized to the point of laughing at graphic violence.

Winston struggles to hold onto memories of the time before the state of Oceania established total control. He remembers, for example, that the Party did not invent the airplane. For him, this kind of concrete knowing is important. Truth, he believes, is objective, not whatever the people in power want it to be. His job rewriting newspaper accounts to accord with whatever is the current thinking on "truth," while sending the old "truth" down a memory hole to be obliterated, symbolizes his conflict with a society in which those in power believe rhetoric can control reality. Winston contends that there is a real history independent of politics and that it is important.

Orwell is at pains to warn against the dumbing down of language, for he identifies a robust and sophisticated language as a precondition for complex thought. Symes, a character Winston early on understands will end up vaporized because he is too intelligent, explains it this way:

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions.... Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

By showing us the fictional results of losing control of our government, our past and our speech, Orwell warns us of the dangers of doing so in real life.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly the first warning is against totalitarianism. This political model consists of one governmental body taking complete control of the population in both individual and public matters. The warning is not just about the dangers of this type of politics but also about the danger of becoming compliant and blinded to the obvious abuse entailed in the political model of totalitarianism. 

In 1984 the power of the government over the people is such that even the language has become controlled.

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? [...] we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word,[...] rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.

The monitoring system carried out by Big Brother manipulates everything from the historical facts that the people are allowed to know to the way that people are supposed to think.  

In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.'s idea originally, of course," he added as an afterthought.

This extreme political manipulation includes psychological control of individuals. This is why the people go on with life as usual; they have become entirely psychologically dominated by the system. 

Therefore, 1984 warns about control and complacency. If we entrust our lives to someone or something other than ourselves, we are basically allowing someone or something else to "own" us, to decide for us, to provide for us. This is why it is so imperative to always be true to who we are, to question the intentions of others, and not to be afraid of speaking on our own behalf. 

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Orwell was warning about the dangers of a totalitarian state. He was warning us to be on guard against unjustifiable encroachments of the state. Citizen's passivity can lead to a situation where the state has stripped individuals of all rights, including the most basic right of freedom of thought. In Orwell's dystopian future, the state so regulated language that it became nearly impossible for people to even think a thought that would not meet with the government's disapproval. So much internal control was in place that little external control was needed. Orwell was warning that if we are not careful, such control could become a reality.