1984 Special Commissioned Entry on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, W. Scott Lucas - Essay

George Orwell


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Entry on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

See also Animal Farm Criticism and George Orwell Criticism.

The following chronology offers an overview of the key events as they occur in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

1944/1945: Winston Smith is born.

1950s: The Revolution takes place in Oceania. War between Oceania and other powers culminates in the dropping of atomic bombs, mainly upon continental Europe and North America. At least one falls upon Colchester in eastern England. After this, the superpowers wage a permanent “phony” war to prevent total destruction and to maintain power in their respective territories.

1955/1956: Winston's mother and baby sister disappear.

1958: Julia is born.

Mid-1960s: Widespread purges remove most of Oceania's original revolutionary leaders, including Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford.

1970: Big Brother is established as the sole leader of Oceania.

1973: Winston and Katharine are married but soon separate.

1973: Winston accidentally receives evidence of a “true” event, concerning the purges of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford, but destroys it out of fear.

1977: O'Brien first speaks to Winston: “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.”

1980: Oceania ends its declared war with Eastasia and begins “war” against Eurasia.

1981: Winston picks up a prostitute and, despite his revulsion, has sex with her. The episode is so traumatic that he unsuccessfully tries to purge it by recording it in his diary three years later.

April 4, 1984: Winston begins his diary.

April 1984: Winston and Julia begin their sexual relationship.

May 1984: Winston and Julia's relationship haltingly proceeds because of the difficulty of meeting.

June 1984: Winston rents the room above Mr. Charrington's shop, where he and Julia meet more frequently

Summer 1984: O'Brien makes contact with Winston and then meets Winston and Julia to discuss the revolution of “The Brotherhood.” He arranges for Winston to receive Emmanuel Goldstein's manifesto.

Summer 1984: Hate Week is held. On the sixth day, it is suddenly announced that Oceania is at war with Eastasia rather than Eurasia.

Summer 1984: With Julia in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop, Winston reads the Goldstein manifesto. Minutes later, he and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love for torture, “confession,” and re-education.

Evolution Of Nineteen Eighty-Four

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

W. Scott Lucas

SOURCE: Lucas, W. Scott. “An Analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 129, edited by Scott Darga and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003.

[In the following original essay, Lucas examines Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, themes, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication.]


In 1943 George Orwell outlined a novel titled “The Last Man in Europe.” It is possible that this was being sketched as part of a trilogy. As early as 1940, Orwell was writing friends of “incubating an enormous novel, the family saga sort of thing.” “Last Man” could have been the culmination of the saga in which “The Quick and the Dead,” described in 20 pages of the 1943 notebook, would have described the collapse of the old order, and Animal Farm followed with the tale of the revolution betrayed. The hypothesis conveniently ignores the far different literary form of Animal Farm—how does the reader move easily from the human family of Book 1 to the animal allegory of Book 2?—but the notebook does illustrate that Nineteen Eighty-Four was only part of a broader approach that Orwell was taking towards both his fiction and his politics.

The existence of the notebook may also undermine the argument that the direct inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four was the trauma of Orwell's childhood experiences at a boarding school. In the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” submitted for publication as he was writing the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had portrayed a school, led by a cruel headmistress and an unfeeling headmaster, which crushed the spirit of the individual. Passages in the essay about “irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings” conjure the image of petty totalitarianism which would distinguish Nineteen Eighty-Four.1 Yet, if the general recollection of an oppressive education always had a resonance in Orwell's work (he had also savaged the public school system in A Clergyman's Daughter and in The Lion and the Unicorn), the specifics of his most vehement essay came three years after his sketch for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Between 1943 and 1946, there is no record of Orwell's thoughts on “The Last Man in Europe.” One could speculate that, between his full-time work as literary editor and columnist of Tribune, the weekly newspaper, the drafting of and protracted negotiations to publish Animal Farm, a stint as a war correspondent for The Observer, dozens of articles, essays, and book reviews, and the move from London to a new home on the Scottish island of Jura, Orwell had little time for another novel. Even without direct reference, however, Orwell was publicly testing ideas that would be themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

By August 1946, Orwell was writing a friend from Jura that he had “actually begun my new book and hope[d] to have done four or five chapters by the time I come back [to London] in October.”2 On return from Jura, however, he only had about 50 pages. While he would have to return to journalism to make ends meet, he was “try[ing] to do mostly highly-paid stuff which I needn't do so much of it.”3

Orwell was confident enough in early 1947 that he began pressing Victor Gollancz, who had published Orwell's initial novels and documentaries, to relinquish his contractual claim to Orwell's next three novels. Essays such as “The Prevention of Literature” (Polemic, January 1947) and “Toward European Unity” (Partisan Review, July-August 1947) outlined concepts such as the lulling of “the great mass people in the industrialized countries” through “some kind of low-grade sensational fiction” and “the division of the world among two or three vast super-states, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion.”4

Orwell returned to Jura in summer 1947, having written a third of the draft. Despite “wretched health,” he hoped to finish the rough manuscript by October and to complete it in early 1948.

The draft was indeed finished at the end of October, albeit at great cost. Orwell immediately took to bed with inflammation of the lungs and, from December 1947 to July 1948, was in a hospital near Glasgow.

Doctors forbade any typing, and Orwell, writing in pencil while imploring friends to get him a “Biro” (ballpoint pen), was limited to book reviewing until May. He despaired in a letter to Warburg, “[The draft] is just a ghastly mess as it stands, but the idea is so good that I could not possibly abandon it.”5 He was able to write several pages of notes on the main themes and representations in the novel, the title of which was still undecided.

Temporarily boosted by the experimental drug streptomycin, Orwell returned to Jura in July. He began to weaken in the autumn but, in a repeat of the previous year, pushed himself to exhaustion to finish (with ink or ballpoint pen) the revisions. At the beginning of November, he reached the end, opened the last bottle of wine in the house, and collapsed into bed. Orwell commented that the completed work was “a good idea ruined” and later wrote a friend, “I ballsed it up rather, partly owing to being so ill while I was writing it.”6 Still, even as he realized he would have to return to a sanatorium, Orwell fortified himself with cigarettes and spent the next month typing the final manuscript. He posted it to Warburg on 4 December. (Five weeks later, he checked into a sanatorium in western England.)

The process had not quite finished, however. When Orwell received the “blurb” for the cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he responded:

As to the blurb. I really don't think the approach in the draft you sent me is the right one. It makes the book sound as though it were a thriller mixed up with a love story & I didn't intend it to be primarily that. What it is really meant to do is to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into “Zones of influence” … & in addition to indicate by parodying them the intellectual implications of totalitarianism. It has always seemed to me that people have not faced up to these & that, e.g., the persecution of scientists in Russia is simply part of a logical process which should have been foreseeable 10-20 years ago.7

This was one of the few battles Orwell would lose. The trend in the 1950s, especially with paperback editions in the United States, was to play up sex and violence rather than political theory.

Orwell was more successful when the United States Book-of-the-Month Club asked for the deletion of most of the Goldstein manifesto and the entire appendix on Newspeak. Orwell stood his ground, and the Club proceeded with distribution.


Orwell rarely saved drafts. Fortunately, Nineteen Eighty-Four is an exception. A facsimile of the draft was kept amongst Orwell's papers, which were eventually placed in the library of University College, London. The facsimile was printed in 1984 with notations by Peter Davison, who has spent almost 20 years on a 20-volume collection of Orwell's correspondence and publications.

Orwell's five pages of notes from 1943, published as an Appendix to Bernard Crick's 1980 biography of the author, are also valuable.8 Orwell set down certain elements which would be central in the novel. These include the language of Newspeak, with an example being demonstrated through an article from The Times, the “position of the proles,” the “sexual code,” “films,” “party slogans” like War is Peace, and “The Two Minutes Hate.” Some elements such as “pacifists” and “interrelation between the party and the Trusts,” both important concerns of Orwell in 1943, would not survive. Some would be modified: the parody of socialism in “Bakerism and ingsoc” would remain but it is not clear who Baker is (did he become the leader of the principled opposition, Goldstein, or Big Brother?) or what “Bakerism” embodied. Finally, some references are curious such as the notation “window boxes.”

In the first of the projected two parts of the novel, Orwell indicates that he will weave together the portrayal of the totalitarian system, older concerns such as the oppressive environment of London, and the demoralizing effect upon the individual. He begins with “the system of organized lying,” “leader-worship, etc.,” and “the swindle of Bakerism and Ingsoc” to describe a protagonist beset by “the nightmare feeling caused by the disappearance of objective truth,” “his feeling of being the last man,” and “doubts of own sanity.”

The first part then shifts, awkwardly in the outline, to other areas. “The equivocal position of the proles, the Christians, and others” and “antisemitism” (& terrible cruelty of war etc.) are identified; only the proles, held down by the perpetual threat of war and occasional bombing, would be prominent in subsequent drafts. Orwell then mentions “love affair with Y” and “conversation with X” (O'Brien).

Part II is sketched only briefly. “Declaration of war against East Asia” and “the arrests & torture” would be featured in the novel but this is followed by a curious reference to “continuation of the diary, this time not written down.” Much clearer is Orwell's conclusion of “the final consciousness of failure” with “recognition of own insanity.”

There is an appendix of thoughts, on the fifth page of the notes, which focuses Orwell's concern upon totalitarianism and the individual upon history, propaganda, and memory. After a few questions to be resolved on the “history” in the novel, Orwell wrote:

Impossibility of detecting similar memories in anyone else. Non-memory [?] of the proles. Equivocal answers. Effect of lies & hatred produced by: Film. Extracts of anti-Jew propaganda. B-casts.

The Two Minutes Hate. Enemy propaganda & writer's response...

(The entire section is 4371 words.)

On Nineteen Eighty-Four

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell's sixth and final novel, is one of the most influential books in modern history. Whatever its literary merits, and these are still heatedly debated by scholars, it has had an enduring political significance. This is not necessarily because of the complexity of the book's themes, such as its portrayal of the machine society; its warning against the indiscriminate use of technology; its consideration of the erasure of history and memory; its depiction of the frailties of individual psychology; and even its representations of gender and class. Rather Nineteen Eighty-Four received notice, acclaim, and criticism, both from reviewers and from a general audience, because of...

(The entire section is 10686 words.)


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

In his study of The Great Gatsby, Roger Lathbury notes, “Novelists do not, as a general rule, start out writing about ideas. They begin with incident or mood.”1 Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is an exception to that general rule. The novel starts from the concept of “the last man in Europe” moving from acquiescence to questioning to rebellion against the power of the State and Party. While the novel begins with the mood of natural—“vile wind,” “gritty dust” (743)—as well as man-made oppression, this is used to establish immediately the image of a beaten-down man in a giant, unfeeling system.

Orwell's ideas are never far from the surface of the text. At some...

(The entire section is 8245 words.)

Critical Summary

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Because of its subject matter and the international environment at the time of its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four has not received conventional critical treatment. Its defenders often mention that it is flawed in “literary” terms of structure, theme, and character development, yet they eagerly dismiss these quibbles because of their anxiety to publish the political significance and wisdom of the novel. Detractors who might focus upon the weaknesses in the structure and development of the narrative challenge instead the political “meaning” of Winston's story.

The issue is not necessarily whether the literary merits of Nineteen Eighty-Four should be recovered. Andy Croft has...

(The entire section is 3102 words.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four In History

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Nineteen Eighty-Four went on sale in Britain on 8 June 1949; it was launched in the United States five days later. The book was an instant success. Within a year, almost 50,000 copies were sold in Britain and 170,000 in the United States. The Book-of-the-Month Club distributed another 190,000. This was only the beginning: Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a best-seller throughout the world ever since its initial printing. Between 20 and 40 million copies have been sold, with annual distribution of about 500,000 copies per year in English alone. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, it is likely that more than half of U.S. high school and college students have read the book by the time they graduate.

It isn't a book I would gamble on for a big sale, but I suppose one could be sure of 10,000 anyway.

(George Orwell, letter to Fredric Warburg, 21 December 1948, in CEJL, Vol. 4: 459)

Sales alone cannot capture the book's impact. Its very publication was a significant political intervention. The “Western” powers, in a show of unity, had just formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Soviet Union, after eleven months, had lifted the Berlin Blockade and admitted they could not disrupt the U.S.-backed economic bloc in Western Europe; the Communist Party was advancing towards Peking and final victory in the Chinese Civil War; Britain was facing an insurgency in Malaya; and there were stories of resistance to French domination to the “puppet” regime in a little-known place called Vietnam. Domestically, Britain was in crisis with the difficult task of reviving production after the war, supporting a rise in living standards following years of consumer sacrifices, and introducing the welfare state. In 1949, the Government reluctantly devalued the pound sterling, a powerful symbol of imperial influence, to avoid depletion of foreign reserves and what was, effectively, bankruptcy.

Nineteen Eighty-Four powerfully captured, reflected, and reinforced a mood of fear, pessimism, and even resignation. At the same time, the example of its publication in a “free” society was a reassurance that at least “we” were better than “they” were, be “they” the totalitarians of Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union.

When Warburg visited Orwell in the sanatorium on 15 June, only two days after the American publication, the author dictated a statement which Warburg turned into a lengthy press release. Orwell tried to move beyond the Communist/Socialist issue by stating that “danger lies … in the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colours.” He even issued a warning to “good” British and American citizens:

George Orwell assumes that if such societies as he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four come into being there will be several super states. … Two of the principal super states will obviously be the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. … [The Anglo-Americans] will have to find a new name for themselves. The name suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA the phrase “Americanism” or “hundred per cent Americanism” is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.

As for the present, Orwell assured readers that “the present British government … will never sell the pass to the enemy.” Yet, unable to resist one more slap at his intellectual and political peers, he undid all his words against the wild labelling of Communist and Socialist enemies: “The younger generation is suspect and the seeds of totalitarian thought are probably widespread among them. It is invidious to mention names, but everyone could without difficulty think for himself of prominent English and American personalities whom the cap would fit.”1

Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four were not passive victims of Cold War fighters, for the book, to some extent, was another assault in the author's ongoing war against intellectuals on the “Left.” Just months before the novel's publication, Orwell had mentioned names of the “suspect” not only to close friends but to British intelligence officers. In March 1949 Celia Kirwan, whom Orwell had tried to marry three years earlier, paid a friendly visit to the Cranham sanatorium. Kirwan told Orwell that she was working for the Information Research Department, a top-secret unit formed the previous year to spread anti-Communist propaganda in Britain and abroad. Orwell enthusiastically received the news and volunteered a notebook filled with 105 names of those he considered of dubious politics and character. (The list was annotated with comments by Arthur Koestler, who was Kirwan's brother-in-law.) Eventually the names of thirty-six individuals were handed over to IRD.

Harcourt Brace, the American publishers of Nineteen Eighty-Four, were also eager to use the Cold War to market the book. In April 1949, they approached J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for an endorsement: “We hope you might be interested in helping to call this book to the attention of the American public—and thus, perhaps, helping to halt totalitarianism.” Hoover declined and ordered that a file be kept on Orwell; however, the FBI later declared the film version of Animal Farm “hit the jackpot.”2

Orwell would continue protesting to correspondents from the U.S. that “my recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.” His early death, however, removed any possibility of correcting the record; to the contrary, Western governments leapt at the chance to use Nineteen Eighty-Four as a cultural weapon. MI6, the British intelligence service, subsidized the production and distribution of cheap copies abroad. The CIA sought the film rights for the book from Orwell's widow, who had already provided the rights to Animal Farm in exchange for a meeting with Clark Gable.

After the initial flourish of Cold War labelling, some authors sought a broader image of Orwell's “Englishness,” but the effect was the same: a focus on Orwell the personality rather than the style and techniques of his writing. John Atkins' 1954 study reduced analysis to the statement, “The common element in all George Orwell's writing was a sense of decency. … The special connotation of this English word is a complex of English living and English attitudes.”3

By the 1960s, Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four were up for grabs. On the one hand, figures of the “Old Left” such as Irving Howe, uncomfortable with the growing protest against social problems and the Vietnam War, held up the author as the virtuous face of dissent. On the other, some New Left groups used Orwell to represent their fight against State repression and propaganda. The FBI monitored George Orwell societies and film clubs at U.S. universities for evidence of “subversive” behavior. Meanwhile, “reviews” in the Communist bloc held up Nineteen Eighty-Four as a satire based on an America “where police surveillance and investigation has surpassed the world and had no equals. … Already today an American lives, so to speak, under a glass cover, and is viewed from all sides.”4

Conor Cruise O'Brien, in an incisive review written when The Collected Essays of Orwell were published in 1968, considered Orwell the scourge of the intellectual Left. He predicted that Orwell would have turned against the intellectuals who invoked him in the crusade against Communism in the 1950s:

From the point of view of the “committed socialists and dedicated anti-communists” who took part in the complex and camouflaged manoeuvres of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CIA front which sponsored … intellectual magazines), it was rather fortunate that Orwell died when he died. Had he lived, it might not have been so easy to claim him. As it is, it has been possible to claim him as a patron saint, and to exploit his merits, by a sort of parasitic reversibility, in the service of some dubious activities.

Unfortunately, O'Brien continued, Sonia Orwell's description of her husband as a “dedicated anti-communist” … commends Orwell to people—apologists for the Vietnam War, for example—whose approval would have horrified him. And this imposing, if rather inflated edition will be a welcome acquisition for the book-shelves of such people, at a time when anti-communist writers who are both dedicated and respected are not easy to find.”5

Over the next 20 years, O'Brien's prophecy was uncannily accurate. In the backlash against the “liberals” of the 1960s, Orwell was seized by American and Britain “neo-conservatives” who equated freedom with the renewed Cold War against the Soviet Union, suppression of “left” regimes around the world, and assaults against minorities and the poor at home. At the most basic level, the British tabloid The Sun heralded New Year's Day, 1984, with the editorial:

[ORWELL'S NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR] HAS HAPPENED in Poland, where basic human rights are regarded as a crime against the state.

IT HAS HAPPENED in China, under the lunatic Red Guards.

IT HAS HAPPENED everywhere in the third of the world that now lies under the Communist heel. …

As 1984 opens, we have been spared the Orwell nightmare. We have liberty under Margaret Thatcher. We hope of a better tomorrow.

Yet all these things are not automatic.

We have to deserve them. We have to earn them.

We must be vigilant every day in 1984 and beyond to preserve them from any assault.6


If Orwell were Alive Today, He'd be a Neo-Conservative.

(Norman Podhoretz, Harper's, January 1983)

There was an emerging division between the “eternal” Orwell, the “crystal spirit” praised by biographers and most literary critics, and the “contingent” Orwell, the writer who happened at the right time to adopt and propagate the “right” political philosophy. Bernard Crick, the foremost keeper of the “Orwell” image, maintained the “eternal” portrayal while showing either ingenuity or feigned surprise at the “contingent” position: “For a man who cultivated the skills and reputation of plain living, plain thinking, and plain writing, this diversity of reception, this propensity to be body-snatched by nearly everyone (except the Communists) is at least curious.”7

Crick's protests could not suffice. Some critics of the “Left” shared his immediate reaction to reclaim St. George, such as Crispin Aubrey's insistence that “[Orwell's] unorthodox, libertarian position should appeal in fact to many on the current British left concerned for a broader, more humanitarian socialism.”8 However, others recognized that, with his contradictions, problematic constructions, theoretical weaknesses, and antagonism towards fellow intellectuals, Orwell could not be preserved intact. Indeed, their notion of “contingency” extended to a literary analysis which has been eschewed by most over the last 30 years. As Christopher Norris wrote:

The ‘honest George’ style of plain, no-nonsense reportage has to be patiently deconstructed if we want to resist its more insidious rhetorical effects. Otherwise that style will continue to impose its bogus common-sense ‘values’ in the service of every kind of reactionary populist creed.9

With the “eternal” Orwell challenged by consideration of specifics such as gender and class and Nineteen Eighty-Four hindered by its conclusion of “dreariness and negativity,”10 the “contingent” Orwell was rescued from critiques such as Norris's through a return to Cold War stereotypes. Richard Rorty, the political philosopher, summarized: “I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other. … In the case of the Communist oligarchs, what Orwell and Solzhenitsyn did was to give us an alternative context, an alternative perspective, from which we liberals, the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do, could describe the political history of our century.”11

Thus Nineteen Eighty-Four was returned to its Cold War reading, albeit one which uses the Communists as a specific warning of the general possibility of “totalitarianism.” In the novel, according to Rorty, “[Orwell] sketched an alternative scenario, one which led in the wrong direction. He convinced us that there was a perfectly good chance that the same developments which had made human equality technically possible … make endless slavery possible.”12 Jenni Calder skirts about the issue but keeps returning to it:

We should be fully aware of the tremendous impact Nineteen Eighty-Four made when it first came out, and of the fact that it has now entered the imagination of Europe and the United States, and perhaps beyond. …

In 1984 the book was used to trigger discussions of a great many issues that have immediacy today, and for some people in some parts of the world more relevance and more painful truth than when the novel was first published. These are issues that concern the freedom of expression, of political allegiance, of speech, of publication. Hand in hand with these issues goes the insidiousness of authoritarian power. …

It seems to me that Nineteen Eighty-Four is among those books that create their owns rules and set their own standards. … It is a novel that requires an approach that bears in mind the circumstances that created the book as well as the influence it has had over the years since its publication.13

What Peter Davison sought, basing his claim on the unique achievement of cataloguing and publishing almost every single scrap of extant paper connected with Orwell,14 was to fuse the “eternal” personality with the “contingent” author and his political vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell's immediate legacy was in the ongoing fight against “bad” regimes (Davison uses the example of China):

Were we able to hope that such regimes had no place in the modern world, and that they would never arise in Britain, the ‘necessity’ for Nineteen Eighty-Four would disappear and the novel itself could become a footnote, a mere ‘problem in intellectual history.’ Until that happy and unlikely state occurs, it will remain an essential warning.15

The rationale was becoming worn, however. Part of the problem is that revelations about and further examination of “Orwell” undercut the claim of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a valiant defense against the evils of the State. The release of the British Government's records, in 1996 and 1998, confirming that Orwell had served as informant for intelligence services and that his work had been exploited, overtly and covertly, by U.S. and British authorities, led to a broader consideration of the author's politics from the 1930s until his death. As one critic claimed in the New Statesman (ironically, a bete noire for Orwell during his lifetime), “George Orwell was not a socialist. Let's reiterate that for those advocates who hail Orwell as a good socialist but, in Orwellian doublethink, do so without examination of any of the political or economic tenets of socialism.”16

More broadly, it was becoming difficult to stretch newer enemies to fit the “totalitarian” image of Cold War foes. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote about “Orwell in Our Time” in May 2001:

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four ended in 1989. Orwellian regimes persisted in a few remote countries, such as North Korea, and communism survived in an attenuated form in China. But the three dragons against which Orwell fought his good fight—European and especially British imperialism; fascism, whether Italian, German or Spanish; and communism, not to be confused with the democratic socialism in which Orwell himself believed—were all either dead or mortally weakened. Forty years after his own painful and early death, Orwell had won.17

If Orwell had “won,” however, where was the need for the novel, especially when its literary qualities had always been secondary to its political use? In a world where “Big Brother” and “Room 101” had become light entertainment programs, Garton Ash struggled for an answer. Notably, he did not find it in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Fortunately, there is a more compelling reason why we should read Orwell in the 21st century. This is that he remains an exemplar of political writing. Both meanings of “exemplar” are required. He is a model of how to do it well, but he is also an example—a deliberate, self-conscious and self-critical instance—of how difficult it is.

If I had to name a single quality that makes Orwell still essential reading in the 21st century, it would be his insight into the use and abuse of language. If you have time to read only one essay, read “Politics and the English Language.” This brilliantly sums up the central Orwellian argument that the corruption of language is an essential part of oppressive or exploitative politics. “The defence of the indefensible” is sustained by a battery of euphemisms, verbal false limbs, prefabricated phrases, and all the other paraphernalia of deceit that he pinpoints and parodies.18

To the extent that Nineteen Eighty-Four could be directed “inward” as well as “outward” (Garton Ash cites the Newspeak of U.S. and British propaganda in the Kosovo conflict of 1999 as an example), there might be a renewed strength in Orwell's vision. Unfortunately, the tendency is still to co-opt Orwell as a valiant proponent of a “West” which has turned its back on “democratic socialism,” the socialism that Orwell supposedly espoused but arguably sabotaged.19 Significantly, Garton Ash never considers this argument; indeed, his own revision of history, on Orwell's transmission of names to British intelligence just before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, is telling:

[First,] there were Soviet agents and sympathisers about, and they were influential. …

Second, Orwell did not give this notebook to the British secret service. He gave a list of 35 names drawn from it to the Information Research Department, a semi-secret branch of the Foreign Office which specialised in getting writers on the democratic left to counter the then highly organised Soviet communist propaganda offensive.20

The first assertion is questionable at best, the second misleading and arguably false.

Rightly or wrongly, Nineteen Eighty-Four was framed most effectively by Cold War politics as a text directed against the external “enemy.” While most cultural references to the novel in 2001 refer to the issue of domestic surveillance, they do not carry the weight of the criticism of the last 50 years. There is no organized movement, comparable to the anti-Communist literary critics of the 1950s, curbing the expansion of closed-circuit television.

Today the U.S. and the “West” face a new enemy which is not the organized State/Party of the Soviet system but, frustratingly, an enemy called “terrorism” which does not have an orthodox structure or easily-defined ideology. In this new international environment, Nineteen Eighty-Four's place is uncertain.


  1. Quoted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), pp. 565-6.

  2. David Hencke and Rob Evans, “How Big Brothers Used Orwell to Fight the Cold War,” The Guardian, June 30, www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,338230,00.html.

  3. John Atkins, George Orwell (London: Calder and Boyars, 1954), p. 1.

  4. Hencke and Evans, “How Big Brothers Used Orwell to Fight the Cold War.”

  5. Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Listener, 12 December 1968, pp. 79-8.

  6. Quoted in Malcolm Evans, “Text, Theory, Criticism: Twenty Things You Never Knew About George Orwell,” in Christopher Norris (ed.), Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), pp. 15-6.

  7. Bernard Crick, “Introduction,” in Robert Mulvihill, Reflections on America, 1984 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

  8. Crispin Aubrey, “The Making of 1984,” in Crispin Aubrey and Paul Chilton (eds.), Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984 (London: Comedia, 1983), p. 13.

  9. Norris in Norris (ed.), p. 9.

  10. Jenni Calder, Animal Farm & Nineteen Eighty-Four (Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, 1987), p. 83.

  11. Richard Rorty, “The Last Intellectual In Europe: Orwell on Cruelty,” Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 173.

  12. Ibid., p. 175.

  13. Calder, pp. 83 and 86-8.

  14. Davison's literary criticism of Orwell is thin at best and is secondary to his recording of the literary “history” of Orwell's works.

  15. Peter Davison, George Orwell: A Literary Life (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 143-5.

  16. Scott Lucas, “The Socialist Fallacy,” New Statesman, 29 May 2000, pp. 47-8.

  17. Timothy Garton Ash, “Orwell for Our Time,” The Guardian, 5 May 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4181142,00.html.

  18. Ibid.

  19. See the reply to Garton Ash by Michael McEvoy, “After Orwell,” The Guardian, 8 May 2001.

  20. Garton Ash, “Orwell for Our Time.”


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Commenting on the first film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reviewer for The Times noted incisively, “From the point of view of the conventional film-maker, the two least important factors in George Orwell's 1984 are the most attractive. They are the love affair between Winston Smith and Julia and the physical torments suffered by Winston in the cellars of the Ministry of Love, while the best things in the novel—indeed perhaps the best pieces of satirical writing Orwell ever accomplished—[the] Goldstein treatise and the appendix called “The Principles of Newspeak,” are obviously unfilmable.”1

While one might question the reviewer's judgement of the “best things in the novel,” his assessment of the difficulties of converting Orwell's literature into film has proven to be applicable not only in 1956 but in the subsequent 45 years. There is always the temptation to convert Nineteen Eighty-Four's relationships into stock accounts of romance, evil, and tragedy, set in the specific dystopia of the novel. The result is that any adaptation claiming to remain “true” risks trapping itself between a vague attempt to capture the nuances of Orwell's writing and the more accessible stereotypes of Hollywood film. The most successful adaptations have been those which have not aspired to a large-scale reproduction of the world of Oceania but have sought their own distinctive interpretations of the near-future.

Indeed the first adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four drew strength from its limited ambitions. Broadcast live on the British Broadcasting Corporation in December 1954, the work had the advantage that Orwell's treatment of sexuality and torture were not common fare for the new medium. Simply by presenting a relationship between Winston and Julia which was far from a storybook romance and by bringing O'Brien's evil into the living room, the production broke new ground. One marker of its impact was that the drama attracted the largest TV audience since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Another was that Members of Parliament questioned whether such a programme was suitable for general viewing and called upon the BBC to cancel its scheduled repeat.

The adaptation benefited from a strong cast, including Peter Cushing and the young Donald Pleasance, and the BBC's expertise in production of live drama. Still, it illustrated both the strengths and limitations of an audio-visual presentation of the novel. The Times' reviewer commented that, “concentrating on the action, [the production] reduced the ideological explanation so drastically that it robbed the story of at least half its power,” but “the vividness with which many parts of it came through would, perhaps have pleased the author.” The reviewer noted in particular the “wonderfully riotous orgy of vindictiveness” of the Two Minute Hate.2 In a poll by the British Film Institute in 2000, Nineteen Eighty-Four was 73rd on the list of the top 100 British television programmes of all time.3 Despite this acclaim, it has only been re-shown once, in 1977.

Perhaps most significant, however, was the final word of The Times' editorial writers on the controversy over the airing of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Despite their use hundreds of times in newspapers, in broadcasts, and in other ways, such phrases as ‘totalitarianism’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘dangerous thoughts’, and the Communist practice of making words stand on their head have for millions of people suddenly taken on a new meaning.”4 Similarly, the first major cinematic production of an Orwell work owed as much to politics as it did to entertainment. With significant assistance from the CIA and Britain's MI6, Animal Farm had made it onto the big screen in 1954. The animated film had received good reviews and enjoyed modest success.

The intelligence services—who were already pressing for a treatment of Nineteen Eighty-Four—and their contacts in the film industry were encouraged, and Columbia Pictures soon began production through the mysterious N. Peter Rathvon, whose only other credit is Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957). The youthful director was Michael Anderson, who established himself with The Dam Busters (1954), based on a daring British operation in World War II, and was also making Around the World in Eighty Days with David Niven. The screenplay was developed by two little-known writers, Ralph Gilbert Bettison and William Templeton, but the film was boosted by a prominent American and British cast including Edward O'Brien, Michael Redgrave (named in Orwell's notebook of “suspect” left-wingers), and Donald Pleasance, who had played Syme in the BBC production.

Critical reaction was mixed. The Times was willing to forgive the Hollywood treatment: “A certain degree of prettifying and distorting can be forgiven so long as the film preserves intact the essence of Orwell's warning and grasps the importance of what he has to say.”5 The film eventually suffered, however, from the changes. O'Brien was renamed O'Connor (to avoid confusion with the “real” Edmund O'Brien), and the British version ends with Winston and Julia overcoming their conditioning and defying the State/Party as they are gunned down, “an ending that cuts clean across Orwell's savage purpose.”6

Most serious was the lack of drama in the final production, despite the bizarre U.S. publicity with the taglines “Will Ecstasy Be a Crime … In the Terrifying World of the Future? Amazing wonders of tomorrow! Nothing like it ever filmed!”7 Anderson's direction was “honest” but lacked “inspiration” while O'Brien's Winston was “prosaic” and “bewildered” with “his actions and behaviour … revealing enough to ensure that he would be picked up by the Thought Police in the first reel, and Jan Sterling had “not much chance with Julia.” The reviewer for The Times tried to be charitable but could not hide disappointment:

“This version of 1984 is not without merits to balance the weaknesses, if indeed it is fair to call a failure to render into cinematic terms the principles of double-think and Newspeak by so condemning a word.”8

The film has largely disappeared from public view, allegedly because the Orwell estate is so unhappy with it that they have refused further release, and it is not available on videotape. For those who can recall it or have been persistent enough to find a copy, some have been kind to it; others have asserted that it is best forgotten.

In the next 30 years, the only renewed attempt to put Nineteen Eighty-Four on screen was a 1965 BBC production. It was part of a “Theatre 625” season in which Coming Up for Air was also shown; the director, Christopher Morahan, continued to work in television and had his biggest success in 1984 with the miniseries Jewel in the Crown. Little else is known about the production.

Unsurprisingly, it would be the attention to Orwell as 1984 approached that would prompt new film versions of the novel. The “truer” and larger-scale release was 1984, directed by the little-known Michael Radford (who also co-wrote the screenplay) and starring Richard Burton and John Hurt. The film was anticipated because of the on-screen confrontation between Burton, in his last role, and Hurt; even this, however, was an anticlimax in a muddled movie which can neither approach Orwell's complexity nor update his vision.

The film falters immediately by trying to force the narrative back into the imagery of the 1940s, with black-and-white newsreels, goose-stepping soldiers, and a rubble-strewn city. Such a portrayal might have resonated with audiences in the 1950s but, even in Reagan's America or Thatcher's Britain, the effect a generation later is of nostalgic caricature. The movie is lifted only by distinctive touches which extend Orwell's depiction, such as the mass salute to Big Brother (arms extended up and out and crossed in an X) and a scientist explaining progress towards elimination of the orgasm, a disruptive force which breeds thoughtcrime.

The film gives up much of the impact of the novel by compressing or altering, sometimes inexplicably, the narrative. Winston's recovery of memory is reduced to stock shots of the Golden Country, and a fleeting, confusing glimpse of his dead mother and rats before one scene, late in the movie, bluntly lays out his betrayal of his mother and sister. Suzanna Hamilton gives Julia depth, despite the film's efforts to recreate the two-dimensional vision of lust offered by Orwell, but she is undermined when the screenplay writes her out of the meeting where O'Brien initiates Winston into the Brotherhood. Julia is apolitical through absence, and the force of the scene in the book, in which Winston and Julia agree to illegal, immoral, and gruesome acts for the sake of rebellion, is lost.

The torture scene has been drained of power even before it occurs. Hurt's Winston is confused and twitching, showing none of the hope or energy present in Orwell's original apart from the token and ineffectual admiration of the “prole” washerwoman. Burton, tired and ill, was only cast eight weeks into production. “Cut off from the rest of the film,”9 he gives O'Brien none of the physical presence that attracts Winston; the scenes of affection where O'Brien shows Winston the Golden Country are embarrassing.

An incident surrounding the film's release best illustrates its failure. It was originally scored by the young composer Dominic Muldowney. After test screenings, however, the producers overruled Radford and insisted on a soundtrack by The Eurythmics. (Far from coincidentally, the film was distributed by Virgin, which had started with the distribution of pop music.) The movie was never strong enough to overcome the subsequent controversy.

If 1984 was a disappointment, Terry Gilliam's Brazil was a wonderful surprise, with the swirling, at times, surreal cinematography, and Gilliam's innovative direction. The screenplay is by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, well-known as a playwright as well as a screenwriter, and Charles McKeown. 1984 is caught between re-presentation and interpretation of the novel; Brazil, although clearly inspired by the novel (Gilliam considered the title 1984 for the film), is free of such restrictions.

The cinematography, set in the present rather than Orwell's past, presents the perils of the machine society not through drab black, white, and grey tones but through a colorful tangle of wiring, tubes, pipes, cubicles, and malfunctioning appliances; through the imposing, sky-high desks of the bureaucrats; and through the inanities of women pursuing endless facelifts and talking about them at endless lunches. Gilliam, best known as a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, highlights evil not by magnifying but by juxtaposing it against the commonplace in a film which is set in “8:49 p.m., somewhere in the 20th century.” The torturer of the story, Jack Lint (played by Michael Palin, another member of the Flying Circus), is a trademark Python creation, chatting about the weather and his children before turning to his tools of cruelty. His “Winston,” Sam Lowry, (Jonathan Pryce), is befuddled and frustrated by the mediocre farce that is his job, but is redeemed by his love for Jill Layton (Kim Greist). Jill is more than a Julia, driving a truck, rebuffing Sam's clumsy advances, and leading the efforts of the “resistance.” Gilliam even offers an extra in Archibald “Harry” Tuttle, the illegal freelance “heating engineer” played to maximum comic effect by Robert De Niro.

Unlike 1984, which simplifies the novel to detrimental effect, Brazil is an extremely complex film, “a brilliant, dizzying fantasy,”10 to the point where it cannot be appreciated in a single viewing. In a hyper-modernist style, it features overlaps of conversations, background noise, images, and other visual cues, and its narrative moves between “reality,” fantasy, and dream sequences. Indeed, the film is so intricate and the comedy so “black” that Gilliam had to fight the executives of Universal Studios for months before his version of Brazil was released in the United States.

Brazil finds the ending that Orwell's pessimism never allows. Sam's quest inevitably fails but he finds happiness by going insane. Where Winston is crushed by the imposed rationale of an unreasonable system, Sam escapes his torture by dreaming of escape into a brilliant blue sky. (In the version edited on command from Universal executives, the film has a “Golden Country” ending in which Sam and Jill escape into pastoral bliss.)

Even the release of the film offered a tale of power and subversion. According to Gilliam, the studio's refusal to release his version was finally overcome when …

… the L.A. [Los Angeles] critics became very interested in the film and … set up a whole series of clandestine screenings of this film around Hollywood in people's homes. It came time to vote at the end of the year for their films and they realized in their bylaws it didn't say that a film had to be released to be able to be voted upon. And so they all voted upon whether Brazil could be voted upon and they agreed it could be and then it went out and it won Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Screenplay. [The awards were] announced the very night of the premiere of Out Of Africa in New York which was Universal's big film that year.11


Surprisingly, given the scope for exploration of psychological and political themes, there has never been a significant theatrical production of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In March 2001, however, the Northern Stage Ensemble premiered a version to tour around Britain. Moving beyond the Cold War environment of the novel, the Ensemble focused on today's society of surveillance in which “government officials, line managers and marketeers could know you better than you know yourself.”12

The production combined stage action with music and large-screen projection of film from Newcastle, England, and from Moscow with its “Stalinist architecture, the 1960s Soviet style living quarters, the people, the clothing, the grandeur and the poverty.” Reviews were effusive. Alfred Hickling of The Guardian praised “techno-drama for the digital age, which can make old-fashioned analogue theatre-going seem very tame by comparison,” to produce “a staggering, if slightly stomach-turning, experience.” At the same time, Neil Cooper of The Times, in words that favorably compared the Ensemble production with film adaptations, noted that the “multimedia, computer-enhanced theatrical creation … stays true to the book's bleak sense of austerity” with Winston and Julia in “a closed-off, one-dimensional and terminally self-conscious non-relationship” and O'Brien as “a brutally distant cipher.”13


  1. The Times, March 1, 1956, http://www.geocities.com/pleasence/1984/1984-1.html.

  2. “‘Nineteen Eighty Four’: Orwell's Novel on Television,” The Times, December 13, 1954, p. 11.

  3. Matt Wells, “Fawlty Towers Tops List of TV Golden Oldies,” The Guardian, September 6, 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4059978,00.html.

  4. “Nineteen Eighty-Four and All That,” The Times, December 16, 1954, p. 9.

  5. The Times, March 1, 1956.

  6. Ibid.

  7. See http://www.geocities.com/pleasence/1984/1984-1.html and http://us.imdb.com/.

  8. The Times, March 1, 1956.

  9. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for 1984 (1985), reprinted in http://www.csie.ntu.edu.tw/~ntucs82/PEOPLE/b2506017/sf/29.html.

  10. Paul Howlett, “Watch This,” The Guardian, April 14, 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3985963,00.html.

  11. Terry Gilliam on The South Bank Show, ITV (Britain), June 29, 2000.

  12. Chris Collet publicity statement, “RIP—Civil Liberties,” December 29, 2000, www.northernstage.com/listfeatures.asp?forkeytrans=5.

  13. Alfred Hickling, The Guardian, March 23, 2000, and Neil Cooper, The Sunday Times, March 18, 2000, reprinted at www.northernstage.com/1984/pressrev.asp.

Nineteen Eighty-Four As Studied

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

In a sense, Nineteen Eighty-Four is sui generis. This is not because Orwell's writing style is unique, whatever the claim made for his clarity of language, nor is it because he was alone in his projection of dystopia.

Instead, Nineteen Eighty-Four was set apart by those who reviewed and later taught it. It was far from the first novel to warn against the perils of the machine society, but it was the first after 1945 which, irrespective of Orwell's later qualifications, directed its warning against the perils of a contemporary enemy. In Britain and the United States, science fiction of the 1950s would use other threats to represent the Communist menace, but this was not the same...

(The entire section is 4155 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Additional coverage of Orwell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; British Writers, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 68; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 132, 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 98, 195, 255; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists;...

(The entire section is 143 words.)