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1984: Then and Now

(Novels for Students)

George Orwell’s dystopian (a fictional place where people lead dehumanized and fearful lives) vision of the year 1984, as depicted in what many consider to be his greatest novel, has entered the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world more completely than perhaps any other political text, whether fiction or nonfiction. No matter how far our contemporary world may seem from 1984’s Oceania, any suggestion of government surveillance of its citizens—from the threatened “clipper chip,” which would have allowed government officials to monitor all computer activity, to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to place security cameras in Central Park—produces cries of “Big Brother is watching.” Big Brother, the all-seeing manifestation in 1984 of the Party’s drive for power for its own sake, has come to stand as a warning of the insidious nature of government-centralized power, and the way that personal freedoms, once encroached upon, are easily destroyed altogether.

Critics generally agree that the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, may be recognized by his name as related to both the great British statesman and World War II leader Winston Churchill and a non-descript Everyman. However, the point is not that Winston is a great man, or even that he is one man among many; rather, O’Brien, while torturing Winston, says that if Winston is “a man,” as he claims to think of himself, then he is the last man. In fact this echo of the novel’s original title, The Last Man in Europe, reveals Winston as symbolic of what critic Ian Watt has described as Orwell’s conception of a dying humanism. Whether Winston Smith is truly a humanist, in the classical sense of the term, is of no matter; in comparison to the totalitarian regime which destroys him, Winston is, in fact, the last embodiment of the human. In converting Winston to the love of Big Brother, the last man in Europe is destroyed.

Winston maintains, throughout the novel, two avenues of hope for a life outside the confines of the Party and the watchful eyes of Big Brother, a life which may undermine or even overthrow the Party’s hold on Oceania. One of these possibilities is conscious, spoken: the proles. Just as Marx foresaw, in the nineteenth century, that the Revolution would come from a spontaneous uprising of the proletariat as they shook off the chains of their oppressors, so Winston writes in his diary that if there is hope, it lies in this 85 percent of Oceania’s population that exists outside the confines of the Party. And yet, the impossibility of a proletarian uprising presents itself to him at every turn. Echoing Marx, Winston writes: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” And, unfortunately, he is right; as O’Brien admonishes Winston in the Ministry of Love, “The proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million. They cannot.” Thus this small bit of hope is crushed.

The second possibility remains mostly unspoken and unconscious: desire. It is this possibility, the momentary destruction of the Party through intimate union with another person, which solidifies Winston’s relationship with Julia. Though they are drawn together at first by what seem to be basic animal urges, it is precisely the baseness and the animality of those urges that gives them their liberatory potential. As Winston relates earlier, in contemplating the sterility of his relationship with his wife: “The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime.” Desire is thoughtcrime in Oceania because it elevates the human, the individual, above the powers of the state to control him. In fact, as Winston and Julia begin to make love for the first time, this piece of repressed knowledge becomes conscious; “the animal instinct,” he thinks, “the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that could tear the Party to pieces.”

The...

(The entire section is 7,760 words.)