In 1984, both the setting and the time are important because they complement the novel's key themes and help Orwell to develop his message.
The setting, for example, is in the future, though not far away from the time of publication in 1948. England has experienced a revolution and transformed into Oceania, one of three superpowers in the world. The living conditions in Oceania are generally squalid, as we learn in Orwell's description of Winston's apartment block in the opening chapter:
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats...It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours.
The use of irony here is striking: Victory Mansions is neither victorious nor like a mansion. In contrast, it is oppressive and depressing and, therefore, is symbolic of life under the Party. Inner Party members, like O'Brien, however, live in relative luxury and comfort. O'Brien drinks wine, has a servant and is able to turn off his telescreen whenever he wishes. This sharp contrast highlights the inequality which is prevalent in Oceania and supports Goldstein's belief that the Party uses poverty to keep people in a state of submission.
In addition, Orwell uses the concept of time to develop Winston's sense of rebellion. Winston can remember, for instance, snippets of life before the Party came to power and, in Part One, Chapter Eight, he speaks with an old prole man in a pub in the hope that he can gain a better insight into the past. For Winston, then, the past represents a sense of freedom which he wants to recapture. Similarly, Winston develops a concept of the future which is filled with hope and optimism because he believes that the proles will eventually realise their oppression and will overthrow the Party. The problem is that Winston is stuck in the present and must overcome the Thought Police if he is ever to realise his dreams of freedom.
Setting is generally thought of as the time and place in which the story occurs. In George Orwell’s 1984, both are important, but time is probably the most important aspect of his setting.
One important thing to keep in mind when we think about the setting for George Orwell’s 1984 is the degree to which technology, particularly communication technology, has begun to affect the daily lives of people. Orwell wanted to create a future in which the government had access to advanced surveillance tools. To do this, he had to create a world that existed in a future far enough away to make such advancements believable, but not so far away that readers would lose the ability to identify with the scary idea of such an oppressive society. By setting the book in the year 1984, he was asking his readers to jump ahead less than forty years—a span which many of them would live through. Readers could accept the idea of technological advancements occurring in that time and still identify with the time period as something they might experience.
In the 1940s, when Orwell was writing the book, much of the technology he depicts was not yet in use. While television was in its infancy at this time, governments were certainly not able to mount telescreens all over the place to keep tabs on people and conduct two way communications. The listening devices that Winston was so worried about were not yet available on such a wide scale either. So he couldn't set the novel in his current time frame or in a future only a decade or so away: it wouldn't have been believable to the reader.
The setting of 1984 is the fictional country of Oceania some time in the future. Orwell, having written the book in 1948 project this future as the year 1984. Oceania is one of three world powers; the other two are Eurasia and Eastasia. War with one or the other world power is constant.
The setting is important because the war between the world powers mimics the events of the aftermath aftermath of WWII and the impending Cold War. Dictators like Stalin, Trotsky and Hitler had all made attempts at domination, drawing attention to the power of large nations. Communisim also struck fear in many Americans and Europeans. The idea of secret police and intricate spy rings begin to rise, which is reflected in Oceania's omnipresent Big Brother.
Generally, the book uses a fictious and futuristic dystopia to parallel the possible course for the world in the late 1940s.