1984 Critical Overview
by George Orwell

1984 book cover
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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

In the late 1940s, Orwell used many aspects of existing totalitarian and communist governments to construct the fictional government of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Pictured here are Chinese army tanks bearing down on a man during the Tiananmen Square uprising o Published by Gale Cengage

When 1984 was published, critics were impressed by the sheer power of George Orwell’s grim and horrifying vision of the future. They praised Orwell’s gripping prose, which captured so well the details of life under an oppressive regime, from the tasteless, sodden public meals Winston eats to the gritty dust of the gray streets. In 1949, critic Mark Shorer wrote in his New York Times Book Review essay that “no real reader can neglect this experience with impunity.… He will be asked to read through pages of sustained physical and psychological pain that have seldom been equaled and never in such quiet, sober prose.” In the same year, British novelist V. S. Pritchett wrote his reaction to the novel in New Statesman and Nation. “I do not think,” the critic concluded, “I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down.”

Critics also praised Orwell’s ability to provoke moral outrage at Oceania, a society that so completely destroys the human values many people hold dear, from love to art.

Because 1984 was published during the reign of Russian leader Joseph Stalin a former ally of England and the United States who was proving to be a cruel and violent dictator, critics of the time believed that the novel was about the events in the Soviet Union. Some mistakenly believed that by setting the story in England, Orwell meant to criticize British socialism, particularly since he names the Inner Party Ingsoc (“ENGlish SOCialism”). Orwell strongly denied this. Then again, some critics saw the novel as a satire of the contemporary social and political scene. Certainly, many of Orwell’s details bear a resemblance to life in London post-World War II. However, over time critics came to realize that Orwell meant the story to be a universal warning about the dangers of any totalitarian dictatorship.