What makes 1984 a classic?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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That's a very good question. Most people will have their own idea of what counts as a classic, but for myself I would say that a classic should, at the very least, deal with universal themes that speak to many different people throughout the ages, in all cultures and civilizations, and I would argue that 1984 fits that description perfectly.

In an age of fake news, with its unbridled attack on truth through the cynical distortion and manipulation of language, the dystopian world of Oceania takes on a special relevance to contemporary Western society, but 1984 also gives us much more than that. It speaks to those in the developing world, most of whom live under brutal, repressive dictatorships. Such appalling regimes, no less than the one-party state of Oceania, systematically lie to their own people while keeping them in a state of permanent subjection.

Also, in the character of Winston Smith, one can see the power of the human spirit to transcend the harshest conditions and the very greatest adversity. If this isn't an enduring, universal theme that speaks to all humankind, then nothing is.

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emsteph eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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A classic is a work of art that retains interest beyond the time and place in which it was created. For example, we still perform and discuss Shakespeare's plays, even though they are centuries old. They are classics because people are still moved and intrigued by Shakespeare's characters, language, ideas, and artistry.

Orwell's 1984 is considered a literary classic for two reasons:

1. It's a well-crafted story.

Orwell's setting is brilliantly brought to life with his creation of a fictional dialect, Newspeak, and the way he organizes Oceania. The characters are complicated and interesting. And many scenes, particularly the climactic moments of horror in the Ministry of Love, are effective drama few readers ever manage to forget.

2. Its themes of oppression, totalitarianism, and freedom are still relevant over seventy years later.

1984's concerns about surveillance, brainwashing, and the tyrannies of a state more interested in perpetuating its own power than enriching the lives of the individuals beneath its banner are still relevant in the modern world.

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Scott David eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Orwell's 1984 is primarily a classic because of the ideas it entered into public awareness, some of which are still invoked today. It is important to remember that Orwell's work was, at its core, an analysis of the nature of political suppression, oppression, and the internal mechanisms (and even psychological underpinnings) of totalitarian states, and this does make for a deeply disturbing and harrowing read, not least because these insights are grounded in reality.

Orwell warns readers about what happens when the state seeks to extend its control over language and history, and he also discusses the psychology of surveillance, just to give a few examples of the kinds of themes you can find in 1984. Even looking beyond its literary qualities, its insights and observations have made 1984 deeply influential and continuously relevant.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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1984 is a classic for several reasons. A classic novel is written to a high level of quality and stands the test of time.

First, the novel is well planned and well written, yielding more with every reread. Orwell has carefully set up his plot and theme—nothing is slapdash or off-handed. Song lyrics, nursery rhymes, and symbols—such as the coral paperweight—are placed carefully to create a tightly meshed work. Further, Winston develops as a character as he regains his humanity through falling in love with Julia. Scenes are well-rendered and convincing, and the novel is grippingly paced to keep the pages turning. Orwell has created a persuasive dystopia.

Second, although 1984 was published in 1949, the problems it describes are still relevant to life today: in fact, possibly more so, given technological advances. We still worry about government surveillance, disinformation ("fake news"), the rewriting of history, the problem of endless minor wars, the "dumbing down" of language, and individual freedom and autonomy. We can still imagine ourselves living in a world not dissimilar to the one Orwell creates. Therefore, the novel has withstood the test of time and continues to have a wide appeal.

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Douglas Horley eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think what makes it a classic is the profound effect it can have on the reader. You cannot help but feel almost claustrophobic reading this novel—such is the suffocating atmosphere of oppression that Orwell creates in the setting. Just as we might connect some of the novel's ideas to the societies of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, at times we might also be struck by similarities of our own society to Oceania.

The tactics used for "rehabilitating" citizens are particularly disturbing, as they go beyond simple brutality into highly effective brainwashing. Winston's experiences at the hands of O'Brien and the secret police is the most chilling aspect of the novel—by utilizing its best resources, a state can indeed "get inside us."

1984 is a novel which achieves much in moving readers to compare the nightmarish world of Orwell's creation to the realities of the society in which they live.

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e-martin eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This is a good question because the qualities of 1984 as a novel are, let's say, questionable, yet it remains a great book.

I believe that this is true because of the power of the book's ideas, which are referenced very often in Western culture. 1984 describes a world that is frighteningly familiar and which presents us with a warning, if we want to take it that way. If we don't want to take it that way, the book presents us with a view of a world where politics have taken over society in ways that diminish humanity.

That being said, there are flaws in this text in regards to plot and structure. The long political statement made in the last third of the novel is out of place and disruptive to the narrative, even as it stands as the book's clearest statement on the political ideas it expounds.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that the manner in which Orwell has configured the role of government and its control over people is what makes 1984 a classic. Even if the work is disparaged because of its dystopian nature, Orwell's book makes it clear that there is a precarious relationship between individuals and the government. One reason why Orwell's work can be considered a classic is because it shows how government can seek to consolidate its control over its citizens. The use of technology, the drive for conformity, the punishment for dissent, and the need to constantly immerse a nation in war are all ways in which "the state" becomes healthy at the cost of its people. While Orwell's work is not meant to be taken literally, it is one that speaks to how modern government seeks to take power away from citizens and will do so in manners that might not appear to be disempowering but end up serving that effect. In this statement about modern politics, the work has to be seen as a classic. It has changed the way in which individuals view their government and how their government views them. This is what makes the book so powerful and so much a classic.

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