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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 4371 words.)

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school. In the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” submitted for publication as he was writing the first draft ofNineteen 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 to it.

The notes indicate that Orwell, living amidst and influenced by the events of World War II, had a powerful conception of the environment and the political, social, and psychological themes of the novel. Animal Farm, which was being drafted as Orwell wrote the notes, was an allegory of the past which was softened by its presentation as a “fairy tale” of animals; “The Last Man in Europe” was projected as a starker tale of the near-future which could occur. In terms of plot and character, however, the notes are little more than fragments. It remained to be seen whether the protagonist would be a complex “Winston,” whether Y and X would become significant presences, and whether the “proles” would be little more than background extras.


With one exception, Orwell never kept his drafts. Only a few notes for Burmese Days, some paragraphs of Keep the Aspidistra Flying kept over questions of libel, and the typescripts used by the printers for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four survive.

The preliminary drafts of Nineteen Eighty-Four are the partial exception. There are sections from three different drafts between 1946 and 1948 as well as one page from a 1947 typescript. While just under half of the published text is in these drafts, the portions do range from the beginning to the final scene of the novel.

The drafts confirm a continuity in Orwell's broad conception of Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1943. The three parts of the final version maintained the structure of a lonely individual fighting, and ultimately failing, against the power of a totalitarian system. Orwell's “political” vision was in place even in the first draft. Passages such as the torture scene, Goldstein's manifesto (part of the first 50 pages that Orwell wrote, even though it occurs late in the novel), and the description of Newspeak needed little development in subsequent revisions.

There is an intriguing, if ultimately minor, change in the date of the novel: Orwell's first draft set the narrative in 1980 and then 1982 before settling on 1984. The change indicates that, contrary to most opinion, the title of the novel was not the product of rewriting the date of its final revision. It may instead stem from Orwell's attention to Winston's age. Given that he is 39, the author may have shifted the starting point of Winston's history from the middle of World War II (1941) to its end (1945).

Orwell was not as comfortable throughout the drafting with his depiction of the relationship between characters, however. His changes of these “personal” passages reveal much about his difficulties in dealing with class and gender. They also highlight a feature of the novel ignored by many readings, the psychological affinity between Winston and O'Brien.

Few scenes were deleted in the final revisions, but one excision raises interesting questions about the author's treatment of the “proles.” In the first draft of 1947, there is a second example in Winston's diary of a newsreel image, following that of the mother and son being strafed in the Mediterranean:

Typical prole reaction—not to care about the thing itself, only about its being shown in front of children. Cf. last year when they were showing Romeo and Juliet and suddenly it was flashed on the screen that a good nigger lynching was happening somewhere in America and would be televised. One of the niggers was a pregnant woman and when they hoisted her up she gave birth to the baby. The crowd played football with it. Again an old prole woman started making a fuss because she said that till then her little granddaughter aged nine hadn't known where babies came from.9

Peter Davison, who first wrote about the drafts, notes that the passage may have been deleted because Orwell was “overwriting,” and it is possible that the author ultimately considered the paragraph too graphic, even for the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Davison then speculates, however, on a “political” reason for the deletion: the cut was made to soften Winston's observations on the proles' attitudes to oppressed minorities such as Jews and African Americans since Winston's hopes finally rest with the proles.

Davison, always charitable to Winston and Orwell, misses the more significant conclusion. The drafting of the second example reinforces, rather than limits, the contradictory, naive, and self-defeating attitude of both protagonist and author towards the proles. Any “essential” goodness in the lower classes is a vague sentiment, overwhelmed by the stupefaction by the propaganda of the State/Party. Hope, in the end, is fleeting.

The most substantial revisions in the later drafts concern Winston and Julia's relationship. Some of the changes in structure and dialogue are undoubtedly for more concise, clearer expression. A notable example is the incident in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop when Winston first sees a rat. Julia's question, “Do they give you the creeps?” (FAC [George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript] 77), is changed to “Do they make you feel sick?.” (829) With its precision and lack of slang, the revised question better fits her pattern of speech with Winston.

Other clauses are deleted and phrases shortened to give pace to the narrative. The linkage of Winston's fear of rats to his nightmare of darkness and his confrontation with terror is sharpened when Orwell moves from the literal to the figurative. In the first revision of the 1947 draft, the author describes Winston's thoughts:

The curious thing was that he had never until this moment been conscious of any special dread of rats. They were disgusting creatures, but they seldom entered into his thoughts. The shock of suddenly learning that there was a rat close by had seemed to fling him up against the wall of blackness that sometimes occurred in his dreams.

(FAC 77)

The published text is:

For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness.


The changes, however, have an impact on characterisation, notably in Orwell's presentation of Julia. In the draft, her devotion to Winston is excessively written with modifiers such as “comfortingly” (FAC 77). She thinks of their relationship as marriage, taking over the fragment of the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” as “our private song” and “password” (FAC 81) and converting their lovers' hideaway into a home:

“Stay where you are, dearest,” she said. “I want to bring you your coffee in bed. The wife bringing the husband his breakfast in bed! I do really feel as if I was your wife in here. I wonder if we'll ever fix it so that we can have a whole night together. What joy to have breakfast in a room like this, all to ourselves, with good coffee & white bread & real butter, & no bloody telescreen going & no fuss about hurrying off to work! Oh well, I suppose it'll never happen!”

She brought him his cup of coffee. It was delicious, & almost more delicious than the taste was the silky texture given to it by the sugar, a thing he had forgotten after years of saccharine. With one hand in the pocket of her overalls, & a piece of bread & jam in the other, Julia wandered about the room, glancing indifferently at the books in the book-case, pointing out the best way of repairing the gateleg table, plumping herself down in the ragged armchair to see if it was comfortable, & examining the twelve-hour clock with a sort of tolerant amusement. She had never seen one before. In her practical way she at once pointed out that such clocks were dangerous. You might, she said, oversleep yourself & think that it was only twenty hours when it was really eight the next morning.

(FAC 79)

In the final text, there is no indication of Julia's motivation, as mother or wife. In contrast to Winston, who is working through his senses, she is merely an observer of the room:

Julia got out of bed, pulled on her overalls and made the coffee. … With one hand in her pocket and a piece of bread and jam in the other, Julia wandered about the room, glancing indifferently at the book-case, pointing out the best way of repairing the gate-leg table, plumping herself down in the ragged armchair to see if it was comfortable, and examining the absurd twelve-hour clock with a sort of tolerant amusement. She brought the glass paperweight over to the bed to have a look at it in a better light. He took it out of her hand, fascinated, as always, by the soft, rain-watery appearance of the glass.


The effect of the change is to strip Julia of emotion and thought beyond her immediate reactions. Even her sensuality is reduced to possession of objects rather than an appreciation of them.

In a later passage, the “rebel from the waist downwards” scene, Orwell detaches Julia from politics, history, and memory. In the draft, Orwell gives Julia political agency: “Winston soon realised that Julia's idea of rebellion against the Party was quite different from his own” (FAC 152). The line is omitted from the published text, which adds the statement that “such a thing as an independent political movement was outside her imagination.” While the reader is then informed, “In some ways she was far more acute than Winston and far less susceptible to Party propaganda,” these instances are limited to her immediate experience which “in some way touched upon her own life” (834).

In the draft, Orwell ends the scene with the “waist downwards” line and continues, without a chapter break, to the story of Winston's conspiratorial encounter with O'Brien in the Ministry of Truth. In the final text, he drives home the portrayal of Julia with an additional paragraph, part of which was moved from earlier in the scene, part of which was written in the final revision:

In the ramifications of Party doctrine she had not the faintest interest. Whenever he began to talk of the principles of Ingsoc, doublethink, the mutability of the past and the denial of objective reality, and to use Newspeak words, she became bored and confused and said that she had never paid any attention to that kind of thing. One knew that it was all rubbish, so why let oneself be worried by it? She knew when to cheer and when to boo, and that was all one needed. If he persisted in talking of such subjects, she had a disconcerting habit of falling asleep. She was one of those people who can go to sleep at any hour and in any position. Talking to her, he realised how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.


This treatment recurs up to Winston and Julia's capture. In the draft, there is an exchange in which Julia questions Winston about meeting O'Brien but then decides to accompany him, whatever the cost. This evidence of her motivation and continued devotion to “their” life and “their” home, is excised in the final text: the novel simply announces, “They had done it! They had done it at last!” (843)

In the published novel, the meeting with O'Brien ends abruptly. In the draft, there is a brief postscript when Julia catches up with Winston and embraces him tightly. She whispers, “You see, I've broken my order [about never acknowledging each other in public].” Her display is vocal, “And now, good-night, my love, good-night!,” and physical, as she kisses Winston's cheek “almost violently a number of times.” Winston thinks that her lips are cold “and in the darkness it seemed to him that her face was pale. … The embrace she had given him was intended as some kind of good-bye” (FAC 175). While it could be argued that the passage was deleted as excessive or as an unnecessary foreshadowing of Winston and Julia's fate, its removal is consistent with the reduction of Julia's attraction to Winston to her sexual rebellion. (Unfortunately, the pages of Winston and Julia's last tryst, interrupted by the Thought Police, and of their brief meeting after their torture, “conversion,” and betrayal did not survive, preventing a further test of this hypothesis.)

There are also changes in the portrayal of Winston and O'Brien, but the effect is to reinforce rather than alter the characterization of O'Brien and the psychological relationship between the two men. Winston's fascination with his future tormentor/instructor is already established in the 1947 draft, but it is only in later revisions that Orwell works through the “link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partnership.” What is most striking is that the glorification of O'Brien by Winston is a constant feature of the drafts:

The set of his chest & shoulders was magnificent, but most magnificent of all was the lack of hurry or anxiety in his manner. His blunt, pugnacious face lost its humorous expression. There was even a tinge of irony in his voice. One felt him a man who understood everything, could do anything, would face anything.

(FAC 161)

In the final revision, Orwell tightens the section but he also adds an example which binds together the attractiveness and the menace of O'Brien:

In spite of the bulkiness of his body there was a remarkable grace in his movements. It came out even in the gesture with which he thrust a hand into his pocket, or manipulated a cigarette. More even than of strength, he gave an impression of confidence and of an understanding tinged by irony. However much in earnest he might be, he had nothing of the single-mindedness of the fanatic. When he spoke of murder, suicide, venereal disease, amputated limbs and altered faces, it was with a faint air of persiflage. “This is unavoidable,” his voice seemed to say; “this is what we have got to do unflinchingly. But this is not what we shall be doing when life is worth living again.”


In another passage, deleted from the final text, the bond between Winston and O'Brien is essential: “[O'Brien's] powerful grasp crushed the bones of Winston's palm, but also it seemed to send new warmth & confidence through him, almost as though blood had been flowing from one body to the other” (FAC 173). This reinforces O'Brien's own admission, during the torture of Winston, of a connection: “Do you remember writing in your diary that it did not matter whether I was a friend or an enemy, since I was at least a person who understood you and could be talked to? You were right. I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.” (892)


  1. George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys” in The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), p. 366

  2. George Orwell to Vernon Richards, 6 August 1946, CEJL, Volume 4, p. 199

  3. George Orwell to Humphrey Slater, September 1946, quoted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (New York: Penguin, 1982), p. 517

  4. George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” Polemic, January 1946, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, pp. 59-72; George Orwell, “Toward European Unity,” Partisan Review, July-August 1947, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, pp. 370-5

  5. George Orwell to Fredric Warburg, February 1948, in CEJL, Volume 4, p. 404

  6. George Orwell to Julian Symons, February 1949, CEJL, Volume 4, p. 475

  7. George Orwell to Roger Senhouse, 26 December 1948, CEJL, Volume 4, p. 460

  8. The following summary is taken from the Appendix reprinted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), pp. 582-5.

  9. Peter Davison (ed.), George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript (Weston, MA: M&S Press, 1984), 29 and 31. Subsequent references to the facsimile in the text are identified by FAC with the page number referring to the Davison edition rather than the original page number on the facsimile.)

On Nineteen Eighty-Four

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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 time and environment in which it appeared.

Although the Cold War is supposedly over, to be replaced by new conflicts between the United States and threats such as “terrorism,” Nineteen Eighty-Four is likely to have a continuing impact. It can be used as a text to label and condemn new enemies around the world. It can be cited as a prediction of the threats of social change, such as the expansion of surveillance of public areas with devices like closed-circuit television. It can be held up as an example of how paranoia and hatred can take over an author and the society in which he writes. It can even be harnessed in the service of “light” entertainment, as in the global phenomenon of “reality” television in which a programme called Big Brother can put occupants of a house under observation day and night. It has become “a cultural hatrack.”1


In one sense, Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of Orwell's illustrious career. He had come to prominence in the 1930s with three well-received, if controversial, “documentaries”: Down and Out in Paris and London on his impoverished experiences in those two cities; The Road to Wigan Pier on economic and social conditions in the north of England; and Homage to Catalonia on his political and military experiences fighting for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He was an established critic, moving from book reviews to essay-length critique of authors such as Kipling, Dickens, and Henry Miller as well as studies of “popular” culture such as comic postcards and boys' magazines. During World War II, he produced and edited programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation and then joined Tribune, a newspaper supported by the British Labour Party, as the literary editor. He also began a weekly column, covering a broad range of political and cultural as well as literary topics, which would feature some of his most incisive writing and introduce ideas developed in longer and better-known essays such as “Notes on Nationalism,” “Politics and the English Language,” and “The Prevention of Literature.”

In another sense, however, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a breakthrough for Orwell. His initial aspiration had been to become a successful novelist, but his four novels of the 1930s, while receiving some critical acclaim, were disappointing both in sales and in the promotion of Orwell as a writer. In 1945 Orwell would finally make a significant impact with Animal Farm, but that work could be seen as a “one-off,” with its fairy-tale use of animals to satirize the Russian Revolution and the contemporary Soviet Union. Nineteen Eighty-Four would establish Orwell as “profoundly important”2; his death a year later would enshrine him as one of the most influential political novelists in the “West.” The combination of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Cold War was already turning the figure of Orwell from author to personality to “myth.”

If Orwell had not existed, it might have been necessary to invent him. But, of course, that is exactly what did happen.

(Robert McCormack “Orwell,” Tamarack Review (1971), 58, quoted in Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 10)


The reader is introduced to Winston Smith with one of the best-known lines in literary history: “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”3 Winston lives alone in grim, dank conditions in Victory Mansions (the first of Orwell's examples of an ironic depiction caused by propaganda's labels). Winston, depressed and decrepit, is under the constant observation of the State with the posters “of the black-moustachioed face [which] gazed down from every commanding corner” and the telescreen covering almost every refuge in his apartment.

The narrative extends the portrayal of the State/Party's menace and introduces its destruction of “reason,” as well as individual identity, through slogans such as “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” There is also the dark irony of the Party's bureaucracy with the Ministry of Truth specializing in propaganda, the Ministry of Love maintaining order through detainment and torture, the Ministry of Peace fighting wars, and the Ministry of Plenty falsely claiming economic prosperity.

The depiction of Winston in his apartment takes a turn when, sitting in an alcove beyond the vision of the telescreen, he writes on the “smooth creamy paper” of a book made “more than forty years earlier” (746). Winston is beginning a diary, despite the risk of death or forced labor.

Winston's first entry, started “in sheer panic” (747), is a recollection of a cinema newsreel graphically displaying the strafing of refugees, their ship sunk by bombing, in the Mediterranean. He soon concentrates upon that morning's Two Minute Hate where all the officials and staff of the Ministry of Truth, where Winston works “correcting” news accounts, gather to denounce “the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People” (749). In the audience are a dark-haired girl, who is “young and pretty” but provokes “a peculiar uneasiness,” and O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party to whom Winston is “deeply drawn” because of the impression that O'Brien's “political orthodoxy was not perfect” (748).

In the frenzy of the Hate, Winston switches from sympathy for the derided Goldstein to vehement hatred, and from loathing to adoration of the “invincible, fearless protector” Big Brother (751). Yet the State's control is not complete. Winston recognizes that hatred can be switched on and off voluntarily and, in one of these moments, he catches the eye of O'Brien and is convinced that the official shares his thoughts.

Winston re-focuses on his diary. He writes over and over, DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER. He is interrupted by a knock and fears it is the Thought Police.


Winston's interruption is only an annoying neighbor, Mr.s. Parsons. She and her family of stupid, slobbish husband working in the Ministry of Truth and two “vicious,” conniving children illustrate the degradation of domestic life by the State.

Winston returns to work. The rhetoric of the State—the playing of the anthem “Oceania, 'tis I thee,” the slogan of Ingsoc (a corruption of English Socialism), the ever-present image of Big Brother—is contrasted with the reality of the reduction in the chocolate ration, the flapping of torn posters, and the “grim” Ministry of Truth. Winston is struck by the futility of resisting through an “appeal to the future when not a trace of you, not even an anonymous word scribbled on apiece of paper, could physically survive” (758).

Yet Winston has also thought of the look of O'Brien at that morning's Two Minute Hate. He resolves to carry on with the diary if only because “by staying sane … you carried on the human heritage” (758). In the controlled world of Oceania, he had already committed “thoughtcrime,” punishable by death; however, “now that he had recognised himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible”(759).


Winston continues the reconstruction of his past with a dream of his mother and his baby sister, sitting in an underground place which is descending. While he cannot remember events, he knows “that in some way the lives of his mother and his sister [have] been sacrificed to his own.” This tragic reflection points to the emergence of humanity despite the State/Party's tyranny, for “tragedy … belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason” (760).

This leads to a more pleasant connection to the past as Winston dreams of the Golden Country. Significantly the girl with the dark hair is present, Winston's earlier disdain for her replaced by admiration for the grace and carelessness with which she throws off her clothes and seems “to annihilate a whole culture” of repression (760). Winston wakes with the word “Shakespeare” on his lips.

Winston's painful morning exercises before the telescreen are interspersed with his struggle to pull out more memories from his childhood, such as the “fact” that “Airstrip One … had not been so called in those days: it had been called England or Britain, though London, he felt fairly certain, had always been called London” (761). He thinks of sitting through an air raid in a packed shelter in a subway station: “Since about that time war had been totally continuous, though strictly speaking it had always been the same war” (762).

Orwell uses Winston's recollection to sketch division of the world into three blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Oceania in 1984 is fighting Eurasia. There is, however, no “history.” Although Winston recalls that Oceania was allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia only four years earlier, “the Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia” (762). Winston can only retain his “knowledge” if he practices “doublethink.”He must “be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies” (763).

Eventually, however, even doublethink gives way to the erasure of memory. Winston cannot remember the origins of Big Brother, the Party, or the philosophy “Ingsoc.” “Just once in his whole life he had held in his hands unmistakable documentary proof of the falsification of a historical fact …” (763). And there Winston's recollection is disrupted by the exercise instructress on the telescreen.


Orwell provides a lengthy description of Winston, at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history by carrying out Ministry directives to alter newspaper articles. Despite the qualms expressed, “Winston's greatest pleasure in life was in his work”; he thinks of it not in moral or political terms but as the challenge of solving “a mathematical problem” (768).

Winston is ordered to rewrite a speech by Big Brother as the subject of Big Brother's praise had now been disgraced. He decides to replace the speech with a commemoration of Comrade Ogilvy. “It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence” (770).


In the Ministry canteen, Winston is joined by Syme, one of the experts compiling the new edition of the Newspeak Dictionary. Syme, after exulting over the public hanging of prisoners, explains the wonder of Newspeak: “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it” (773).

Winston overhears an official at another table rambling without pause about the elimination of “Goldsteinism.” Winston thinks that the chatter is “not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.” At the same time, Syme explains that duckspeak, in Newspeak, has two contradictory meanings: “Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise” (775).

Winston and Syme are joined by Parsons, Winston's neighbor at Victory Mansions. Parsons gleefully recounts how his seven-year old daughter has tracked and turned in an enemy agent, who will likely be executed. The conversation is interrupted by a telescreen announcement “that the standard of life has risen by no less than 20 per cent over the past year” (777). Winston compares the declaration of prosperity with the grime and sour smell, poor food, and ugly diners of the canteen. He is distracted when he notices that the girl with the dark hair is casting a sidelong but intense glance at him. He ponders if she might be a member of the Thought Police or an amateur spy preparing to turn him in to be vaporized.


Winston, racked with nervous tension, is writing in his diary of an encounter with a two dollar prostitute. He thinks also of his wife, Katharine, from whom he has been separated for almost eleven years after a short marriage. He links the Party's aim “to remove all pleasure from the sexual act” (782) to Katharine's lack of desire; she endures sex to fulfill the Party's command to produce children.

Winston concludes his diary entry about the “young” prostitute, whom he discovered was at least fifty years old: “But I went ahead and did it just the same.” Writing the entry fails to purge his tension, for he still has “the urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice” (783).


Winston writes “If there is hope, it lies in the proles” (783) who make up 85 per cent of the population. In a parody of Party (and Marxist) theory, Winston continues, “Until they become conscious, they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled, they cannot become conscious” (784). The Party, which claimed to have liberated the proles, had continued to suppress them. They could easily be controlled because “heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and, above all, gambling, filled the horizon of their minds” (785). They live in a separate world of “primitive patriotism,” criminal behavior, and promiscuity.

Winston reads a children's textbook. He transcribes a passage which is a caricature of capitalist London before the revolution. Once more he compares the rhetoric with the grimness of modern life and thinks, “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (786).

Only once, Winston recalls, he held the “truth” of the past event. He possessed it in a stray newspaper paragraph of three high-level officials, who were later denounced and executed, at a Party function in New York on midsummer's day. At their trial, the officials “confessed” that, on that very day, they were on Eurasian soil passing military secrets. Winston had held the photograph for ten minutes, terrified all the while; he then put it into a disposal tube for incineration.

Winston despairs whether any “truth” can be known but he then thinks of O'Brien and writes, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two and two makes four” (790).


Rashly, Winston walks into the slums of the proles. A rocket bomb crashes into the street. Winston, walking amidst the rubble, finds a severed hand and kicks it into the gutter.

Winston enters the stench of a drinking-shop—in prole-speak, a “pub.”Inside, two men are violently arguing about the lottery, arranged by the State to give the masses false hope. Winston repeats, “If there was hope, it lay in the proles” (793).

Winston follows an elderly man, “80 at the least,” into another pub on the hope of finding out about life before the revolution. His quest ends in disappointment. The addled prole can only bring up caricatures of “capitalists” in top hats and snobbish “gents”: “the old man's memory was nothing but a rubbish heap of details” (797).

Winston finds himself by the junk shop where he bought his diary. He enters cautiously and discovers an antique hemisphere of glass, in which a rose coral is embedded. Winston quickly buys the trinket, as “anything old, and for that matter, anything beautiful was always vaguely suspect” (799). Shown an upstairs room with a few sticks of furniture, Winston entertains the “wild, impossible notion” that he could rent the room and be “utterly alone, utterly secure” (799-800). He notices a steel engraving of a building, now a ruin outside the Palace of Justice, and learns that it is St. Clement Dane Church. The old proprietor of the shop recalls the first lines of a children's rhyme: “Orange and Lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's / You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's” (801).

Winston is returning home, humming and thinking excitedly of returning to the shop, when he passes the dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department. He panics that she has been spying on him and waits for arrest in his apartment: “It was at night that they come for you, always at night” (803). He opens his diary and writes, “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”


Four days later, Winston encounters the dark-haired girl in the Ministry of Truth when, with her arm in a sling, she stumbles and falls. As Winston helps her to her feet, she slips a note into his hand. In his work cubicle, Winston works up the courage, after many minutes, to read the note. It says, “I love you.”

It is more than a week before Winston can arrange another encounter with the girl. In the canteen, they arrange a meeting amongst the crowd in Victoria Square and promise to meet on a Sunday afternoon in the countryside away from London. Before they leave the Square, as a convoy of trucks carrying Mongolian prisoners passes by, they clasp hands.


Winston and the girl, whose name is Julia, meet in the “The Golden Country” of Winston's dreams. They finally enjoy a conversation, share a morsel of chocolate, and make love. Julia tells Winston that she has done this “hundreds of times—well, scores of times anyway,” and he responds, “The more men you've had the more I love you. I hate purity. I hate goodness!” (817) Winston thinks, after their lovemaking, “It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (818).


During the next month, Winston and Julia rendezvous on several occasions but only make love once, in the belfry of a ruined church. Winston learns about Julia's past and her present job working in Pornosec, producing cheap pornography for the proles. Winston tells Julia of the “distasteful memory” of his frigid wife Katharine. They continue to discuss sex, for “with Julia everything came back to her sexuality.” To her, “books were just a commodity that had been produced like jam or bootlaces,” but on the subject of sex, “she was capable of great acuteness” (820-21).


Winston waits for Julia in the little room above the antique shop. He notices, outside the window, “a monstrous woman” handing out washing. She is singing a tune, composed “for the benefit of the proles” by the Music Department, “so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound” (825).

Julia arrives with luxuries like sugar, bread, jam, milk, coffee, and tea, and surprises Winston by putting on makeup and perfume. After lovemaking (in a double bed!), Winston's reverie is interrupted when Julia sees a rat. His panic is settled as Julia asks him about the glass hemisphere and adds a line to the nursery rhyme: “You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin's. / When will you pay me?, say the bells of Old Bailey.” Winston concludes, “The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia's life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal” (830).


Winston's work colleague Syme, the compiler of the Newspeak Dictionary, has vanished. Preparations for Hate Week are proceeding urgently, with a new “savage, barking rhythm” (831) for the proles and a new poster of a monstrous Eurasian soldier. Winston and Julia continue to meet in the room above the antique shop. They discuss daydreams and never-to-be-fulfilled thoughts of joint suicide, and they talk of rebellion against the Party with no idea how to begin. Winston notes Julia's ignorance of and disdain for political activity. He tells her, “You're only a rebel from the waist downwards” (836).


O'Brien stops Winston in the corridor and invites him to his home on the pretext of designing the forthcoming edition of the Newspeak Dictionary. Winston foresees that his acceptance, “the working-out of a process that had started years ago,” will lead him to the Ministry of Love. He had the sensation of stepping into the dampness of a grave, and it was not much better because he had always known that the grave was there and waiting for him” (838).


Winston, with Julia, wakes from a dream in which he remembers the last glimpse of his mother. He recalls snatching the last of a ration of chocolate from his mother and sickly sister. Now valuing relationships other than false loyalty to the party, he tells Julia, “The proles are human beings. We are human.” He continues that he and Julia will inevitably be captured by the Party, but “the one that matters is that we shouldn't betray one another” (842). He consoles himself that the Party “could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable” (843).


Winston and Julia had come to O'Brien's house. O'Brien serves wine (the first Winston has ever seen) and toasts, “Our leader … Emmanuel Goldstein” (845). He tells Winston and Julia of the conspiracy for rebellion, the Brotherhood, and questions them about how far they would go in the service. They assure O'Brien they will lie, murder, commit suicide, even maim children, anything except separate from one another. O'Brien speaks at length of the Brotherhood then they toast, at Winston's suggestion, “to the past” (848). O'Brien arranges to send Winston a copy of the book-length manifesto of Emmanuel Goldstein, then completes the nursery rhyme: “When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey / When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” (850).


Winston is exhausted from work during Hate Week. Because Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia and the enemy is now Eastasia, most political literature of the last five years must be rewritten: “It was now impossible for any human being to prove by documentary evidence that the war with Eurasia had ever happened” (853).

Meanwhile, an agent has left Goldstein's book with Winston. He takes it to the room above the shop and goes through it in one sitting as Julia sleeps. “After reading it, he knew better than before that he was not mad” (866).

Winston awakes to hear the prole washerwoman singing. He now finds her, with her “thickarms” and “powerful mare-like buttocks,” beautiful despite Julia's protest that “she's a metre across the hips, easily” (867-68). Winston exults, “If there was hope, it lay in the proles. … You were the dead; theirs was the future” (868).

Winston and Julia murmur, “We are the dead” (869). A voice booms, “You are the dead” as the Thought Police capture them. One of the officers smashes the glass paperweight on the hearthstone. Mr. Charrington, the shopowner, enters the room and commands the officers: “It occurred to Winston that for the first time in his life he was looking, with knowledge, at a member of the Thought Police” (871).


Winston is in a cell, presumably in the Ministry of Love. He describes the scene, including the mania of an old woman and an encounter with a poet who has been imprisoned for allowing the word “God” to remain at the end of a line. Parsons, the dutiful Minister of Truth worker, walks into the cell, arrested for “thoughtcrime.” He had muttered, “Down with Big Brother,” in his sleep and been denounced by his daughter.

Prisoners come and go. One with a “tormented, skull-like face” (878) is offered a piece of bread by a chinless man. The chinless man is beaten for the gesture; the skull-faced man is taken, screaming and howling, to “Room 101.”

Later O'Brien enters the cell. “They've got you, too,” Winston cries. O'Brien replies, “They got me a long time ago,” (880) as a guard slams his truncheon against Winston's elbow.


Winston awakes on a camp bed, O'Brien beside him. Winston recalls initial beatings by “five or six men in black uniforms” (881) and then their replacement with interrogations by Party intellectuals. Winston “confesses” to assassination, embezzlement, espionage, sabotage, sexual perversion, and personal contact with Emmanuel Goldstein. He hallucinates about being taken to Room 101.

O'Brien begins his questioning of Winston, reinforcing it with electric shocks. With the goal of purging Winston of his memories, he tries to force Winston to accept that “2 + 2 = 5.”

O'Brien halts the torture and explains that Winston “will be annihilated in the past as well as in the future.” The party is different from past tyrannies, however, because “we bring [the heretic] over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him” (890).

O'Brien resumes the shocks and interrogation. For a moment, Winston believes “2 + 2 = 5.” He asks, “What is in Room 101?” O'Brien replies, “You know what is in Room 101, Winston. Everyone knows what's in Room 101” (893).


O'Brien explains to Winston that he is now into the second stage of his reintegration, “understanding.” He states that “the Party seeks power entirely for its own sake” (895). This power is asserted “in inflicting pain and humiliation … in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of our own choosing” (897). He continues, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever” (898).

Winston protests that a civilization based on fear, hatred, and cruelty will not endure. He even claims to be superior to the Party. O'Brien, sneering, “You are the last man. You are the guardian of the human spirit” (900), insists that Winston look at himself in the mirror. Winston sees “a bowed, grey-coloured skeleton-like thing.”His only consolation is “I have not betrayed Julia.”


Winston is in his cell, weeks or months later. He is now receiving medical care, being fed properly, and even given luxuries like cigarettes. “He had capitulated, that was agreed” (903). He writes on a slate, “Freedom is slavery. Two and Two make five. God is Power” (904). Only once he falls into a reverie about the Golden Country and bursts out in a cry for Julia. Winston ponders that, “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself” (905). His suppressed hatred for the Party might suddenly emerge before “they” can shoot him: “To die hating them, that was freedom” (906).

O'Brien enters the cell, claiming that Winston has had thoughts of deceiving him. Winston admits he hates Big Brother. O'Brien says it is time for Winston “to take the last step”: “It is not enough to obey [Big Brother]. You must love him” (907). He orders Winston to Room 101.


Winston is in a cell far underground. O'Brien enters with a wire cage, commenting, “The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual” (908). He steps aside and Winston sees that the cage, attached to a mask of wire mesh, is filled with rats. After O'Brien tells Winston at length of the impending attack of the rats, moving the cage closer to Winston's face, Winston shouts, “Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia” (910).


Winston is drinking gin in his local café, The Chestnut Tree. He listens to the news of the Eurasian advance on Oceania on the continent of Africa. He traces with his finger in the dust on the table: “2 + 2 = 5.”

Winston has spoken briefly with Julia. No attachment remains. Each relates the betrayal of the other, Julia with a “quick look of dislike.” Winston “was overwhelmed with a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Café, which had never seemed so attractive at this moment” (913).

Winston dawdles over a chessboard when he suddenly remembers playing Snakes and Ladders with his mother, his tiny sister watching and laughing. He pushes away the “false memory” (915) as the telescreen announces a stunning victory over the Eurasian enemy.

Winston gazes up at the enormous portrait on the telescreen. He realizes, “He loved Big Brother” (916).


The appendix describes the operation of the official language of Oceania, “devised to meet the official needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism” (917). The language is divided into the A vocabulary, “the words needed for the business of everyday life” (918), the B vocabulary, “words … deliberately constructed for political purposes … intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them,” and the C vocabulary, “scientific and technical terms.”


Nineteen Eighty-Four is not an autobiographical novel, but it is an expression of George Orwell's political beliefs, developed during 25 years of engagement with such ideas as imperialism, socialism, “freedom,” and dictatorship and based on even earlier experiences. As Orwell admitted in the essay “Why I Write” in 1946, “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood.”4 Roger Fowler summarizes:

Everything that Orwell wants to say about totalitarianism is communicated through the sensations and thoughts of Winston Smith, without any authorial commentary. The basic conception of Winston is extremely effective for Orwell's purpose: he is an intelligent, observant man with some fight and strategy in him—by no means a passive victim of state oppression: he is very physical, his unadmirable body constantly registering feelings and pain; he is acutely self-conscious, always reflecting on his situation and the system in which he exists.5

Equally significant, Winston is the embodiment of Orwell's general attention to, even obsession with, aspects of life such as smell and decay and with the author's self-image. The introduction of the reader, in the opening pages, to the grimness of Winston and his lifestyle is not only a specific project of “dystopia” but also the continuation of Winston's self-projection as an individual struggling to survive against political, economic, and social oppression. Like the protagonists in Orwell's other novels, Winston is “wounded,” physically marked and moving hesitantly and unsuccessfully towards redemption.

Orwell was born Eric Blair in 1903, in India, but he was raised in the villages and suburbs of southern England. With the aid of scholarships, he attended “public” (fee-paying) schools, graduating from Eton College (high school) in 1921. Later Orwell would write a scathing essay about his first school, giving the impression that he was a rebel; in fact, his failure to go to university was the result of laziness rather than any opposition to the English class system.

Orwell's critique of his environment began with his service as a policeman in Burma between 1922 and 1927. The experience led to Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days (1934), and two essays, “A Hanging” and “Shooting the Elephant,” which described the conflicted position of an Imperial official beginning to question the myth of a benevolent Empire but unable to see an easy solution in the handover of power to the “natives.”

Orwell's most powerful writing about the politics and economics of the 1930s is in his nonfiction, notably his “documentaries,” rather than his novels. Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), his first book, was the record (albeit with notable artistic license) of Orwell's life as an impoverished writer, forced to wash dishes in France and to tramp in London to survive.

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) would establish Orwell in the public mind as the passionate observer of “working-class” life. Commissioned by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz and eventually distributed to a mass audience by the Left Book Club as a study of economic and social conditions in the north of England, the work was powerful in its disgust at the filth in some households, its sentimentality about the dignified parlor life in others, and its celebration of the physical nobility of workingmen such as miners. Even more significant was its revelation of Orwell's attitude towards the “Left.” Far from being an adherent of mainstream Socialism, whether represented by Britain's Labour Party or other groups even more “radical” in their calls for significant political, economic, and social change, Orwell was scathing about the activists. Those from the working class were “warm-hearted” but “unthinking” while those from the middle class were “intellectual, book-trained” Socialists with “soggy half-baked insincerity,” complemented by a “prevalence of cranks” including “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”6 The attack was so vehement, so emotional, and so lacking in concrete analysis that Gollancz wrote in his introduction to the book, “Mr. Orwell does not once define what he means by Socialism; nor does he explain how the oppressors oppress, nor even what he understands by ‘liberty’ and ‘justice.’”7

Orwell's political as well as artistic trajectory continued with Homage to Catalonia (1938). The author had gone to Spain in December 1936 to observe the civil war between the “Republican” government and a “Nationalist” insurgency led by General Francisco Franco. He joined a militia connected with POUM, an “independent” Marxist party, and served on the front line for four months before he was shot in the neck by a sniper. While on leave in Barcelona, he witnessed a violent division between Government forces and other parties on the Left. He took up guard duty on the roof of POUM's headquarters; eventually he and his wife would flee Spain before they could be detained.

Orwell blamed the Communists, as the power behind the Spanish Government, for the infighting on the Left and its adverse effect on the war effort. When his analysis was rejected by the New Statesman, the prominent British periodical which had commissioned an article, he turned his fire on the Left in Britain: “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.”8

An Orwell far more complex than the simple picture of a concerned socialist had emerged even before World War II. By 1938 he had become a pacifist, warning against the “monstrous harlequinade”9 drawing Britain into war with Germany. As soon as the conflict began, however, Orwell was writing that he was “patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it.”10

From 1941 to 1943, Orwell worked for the Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, producing and writing programs for the Indian subcontinent; however, it was in his subsequent post as Literary Editor of Tribune that he furthered his commentary. In a weekly column for the newspaper, affiliated with the Labour Party, he discussed topics from the bad behavior of American soldiers to aspects of anti-Semitism to the perversions of the English language.

Orwell had already established a reputation for literary and cultural criticism, culminating in the collection Inside the Whale (1940). Now he was reaching a larger audience on a regular basis, establishing himself as a defender of Freedom and Englishness. After the war, he would reinforce this image with essays such as “In Defence of English Cooking” and “A Nice Cup of Tea” as well as “Politics v. Literature” and “Writers and Leviathan.”

For all this output, it was a “fairy story” that transformed Orwell, would-be novelist, critic, and essayist, into a writer of renown. One day in the late 1930s, he “saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn.” Several years later, the incident led to the allegory of Animal Farm (1945), Orwell's campaign against the excesses of the Left, specifically the “betrayal” of the Russian Revolution. The tale of the farmyard animals, betrayed by the tyrannical pigs who rule them, would be an easy way for many readers to understand the Communist menace that had arisen even as Germany was being vanquished.

Because the Soviet Union was still allied with Britain and the United States when Animal Farm was drafted, Orwell had problems finding a publisher. An official from the Ministry of Information persuaded Jonathan Cape not to proceed, and T. S. Eliot also turned down the draft before Fredric Warburg took on the project. Because of the success of Animal Farm and the growing animosity in Britain and the United States against the Soviet Union, Orwell would have no such problems with his next book, initially titled The Last Man in Europe, as Warburg eagerly published the British edition and Harcourt Brace distributed the book in the United States.

This stupid war is coming off in abt 10-20 years, & this country will be blown off the map whatever happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb.

(George Orwell, Letter to T. R. Fyvel, 31 December 1947, in CEJL [The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell], Vol. 4: 86)

Orwell, afflicted since the 1930s by lung problems, was very ill during the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was hospitalized for seven months after the completion of the first draft, and he was admitted to a sanatorium in January 1949, weeks after he completed the final typescript. He had not intended the novel as his last work, planning another short novel and essays on Joseph Conrad and the Victorian author George Gissing. On 21 January 1950, however, he suffered a hemorrhage and died. He was 46 years old.



There are three main characters in the novel: Winston Smith, his lover Julia, and O'Brien, an official in the Inner Party. Of the three, only Winston, arguably an extension of Orwell, is well-defined. Julia serves more as a foil for Winston's personal and political hopes and fears, while O'Brien is the embodiment of Winston's complex attraction to and rebellion against the oppressive and tyrannical State.

Winston Smith: Orwell introduces Winston as a physical and mental extension of his lifeless and decrepit environment. Initially he is empty of thought except for his reaction to the surveillance of the State/Party. He struggles for a memory of London before the present “but it was no use, he could not remember” (744).

With the dangerous act of writing his diary, Winston not only develops his current thoughts but also begins to “recover” his memory. He starts a transformation from a cowering, anonymous cipher, devoted to his tedious work for the State, to a man who dares to hope.

The change is a hesitant one. Winston is dismayed by his failure to recall a “true” history of Oceania and troubled by his evolving recollections of his family. He questions the process of recovery, wondering if he is a lunatic, and his resolve often collapses with the sudden onset of fear.

It is Winston's relationship with Julia that furthers his development. In contrast to his loveless marriage to an unfeeling wife, his passion and lust for Julia fuels his resistance to the State/Party. Winston dares to rent a room in the suspect area of the “proles” and shares with Julia the forbidden luxuries of Oceania.

Winston has not become an optimistic man. He senses that he and Julia are “intentionally stepping nearer to their graves” and thinks “of the cellars of the Ministry of Love” (826). His phobias, such as a fear of rats, endure, and the recovery of childhood memory ends not with pleasure but with horrific realization. Yet he furthers his resistance by taking up the invitation of O'Brien to plan rebellion.

Winston's transformation is undone by his detention and torture in the Ministry of Love. He gives up his memory and once more accepts the dictates and “truths” of the State/Party. He has given up resistance for contentment.

Winston's triumph, if there is one, is in the process rather than the outcome of his story. His courage is not a heroic courage but the elemental courage of a “common man” who, if only for a time, dares to defy authority, challenge propaganda, and seek the truth of the past and the present. He is the incarnation both of what Orwell desires and what he fears for himself.

Julia: In contrast to Winston, Julia is sketchily, almost crudely, drawn. In the initial chapters, the lack of definition serves a purpose, elevating Winston's fears and the reader's uncertainty about her intentions, but later it is not as much a device as it is Orwell's lack of will or ability to make her more than a sexual foil for Winston's thoughts. Julia becomes more than a specter at the start of Part 2 when, through a note, she proclaims her love for Winston. Even then she remains only “the girl” until she offers her body to Winston, who then learns her name.

Julia's hatred for the State/Party, hidden behind her public recitation of Party slogans, is apparent. This is secondary, however, to her enthusiasm for the possession of items. On their first outing, she offers Winston a slab of chocolate; subsequently, she procures coffee, tea, jam, milk, and cosmetics.

From the moment, in her first encounter with Winston, when she rips off her Junior Anti-Sex League sash, Julia is defined through her sexuality. She is articulate when discussing the Party members with whom she has slept, her work producing low-grade pornographic novels, and the reasons for the State/Party's official suppression of sexual activity. Beyond this and the planning of her meetings with Winston, Julia offers little comment. She has scant knowledge of and interest in politics: “Who cares? It's always one bloody war after another” (835). Even Winston's jibe, “You're only a rebel from the waist downwards,” fails to make an impression: “She thought this brilliantly witty and flung her arms round him in delight” (836).

Julia is not a heroine. Although she will finally suffer the detention and torture of the Ministry of Love, Winston has already concluded that her rebellion will never be meaningful: “Talking to her, he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it” (836). Julia does agree to join the Brotherhood, but the level of her commitment is established when she falls asleep as Winston reads the book of the Party enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein.

So Julia disappears in the third and final part of Nineteen Eighty-Four. She is merely the ultimate object to test Winston's betrayal of his political commitment and personal loyalty. When she reappears in a brief passage, it is to confirm that she too has betrayed Winston and that any reunion is impossible.

O'Brien: If Julia is the sexual foil for Winston's personal and political transition, O'Brien is the intellectual foil who breaks that will. He has far more depth than Julia, however, for he embodies both the ambitions and the methods of the totalitarian State/Party. For that reason, the key relationship in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not between Winston and Julia but between Winston and O'Brien, who serves as his guide and mentor as well as his torturer.

The initial representation of O'Brien is curious. Winston's attraction to the Party official is instant yet we have little sense of O'Brien physically, emotionally, or intellectually. There is only the official's “urbane manner and his prizefighter's physique” (748) to explain Winston's instinctive belief that O'Brien might work against the Party. Winston's devotion to O'Brien is so complete that it can be argued that Winston is motivated by personal attraction rather than political awakening—it is O'Brien “for whom, or to whom, the diary was written” (790)—yet the object of Winston's affection is still vague until the final chapters of Part 2, when he summons Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood.

From this point, O'Brien moves to the center of the narrative, not as much through external description of his physical characteristics as through long passages of his words. He is not merely a conduit for the philosophy of the Party; his passion for that philosophy gives him intellectual and emotional (even as he is denying any place for human emotion) depth. O'Brien is forceful, cunning, and unyielding but he also maintains a connection with his subjects. Thus, even as Winston is being tortured, he is being “healed.” One striking passage, after O'Brien shocked Winston to the point of unconsciousness and then soothed him with an injection, describes the complexity of Winston's relationship with O'Brien:

At sight of the heavy, lined face, so ugly and so intelligent, [Winston's] heart seemed to turn over. If he could have moved he would have stretched out a hand and laid it on O'Brien's arm. He had never loved him so deeply as at this moment, and not merely because he had stopped the pain.


It is this depiction of O'Brien as more than a sadist or a Party automaton that gives the final torture scene, in which O'Brien taunts Winston with the ratcage, its power. O'Brien is stripped of all emotion or affinity with Winston, simply exerting and explaining the exertion of power “as didactically as ever” (909).


There are a few minor character that amplify the environment of Orwell's State. While some such as Mr. Charrington embody the treachery and surveillance that accompany totalitarianism, others give a touch of humor through caricatured portrayals, reminiscent of the English comic postcards about which Orwell wrote.11

Parsons: Winston's fellow employee at the Ministry of Truth and his neighbor at Victory Mansions, Parsons is a figure of fun, “a fattish but active man of paralysing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms” (755). With his reek of sweat, his dimpled knees, pudgy forearms, and flabby waist, he is reminiscent of the vulgar, loud Englishman on a day vacation at the beach. It is this type of man, Orwell indicates, whose drudgery and unquestioning loyalty prop up the State/Party.

The portrayal is extended through Parsons' even more despicable family. Their flat is filthy, smelly, and fouled with waste. (The reader may recall the tripe-shop in The Road to Wigan Pier.) Mr.s. Parsons is dreary, whining, impotent, and prematurely aged. Parsons' two children are sneaking, mean informants for the State/Party.

Syme: Another co-worker at the Ministry of Truth, Syme is the amoral man of learning who props up the system. He affects a petty superiority because of his development of the Newspeak which supports the State/Party. His intellect is projected through his expertise with language yet he proclaims in ecstasy, “It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

Like Parsons, Syme will eventually be eliminated by the State/Party.

Katharine: Winston's wife, from whom he is separated, appears in the novel only through Winston's reminiscences. Her sole function is to embody frigidity, sought by a State/Party seeking to drain life of pleasure, and the perversion of sexual enjoyment into “our duty to the Party” (782) to make a baby. She is deliberately contrasted with Julia's sexual persona.

Mr. Charrington: The owner of the antique shop, Mr. Charrington disguises himself as the innocent intellectual with love for the history that Winston seeks. The nature of Winston and Julia's arrest as the product of an all-powerful and treacherous State is heightened by the revelation that they have been turned in by Mr. Charrington, an official of the Thought Police.

The “proles”: In the general representation of the proles, who supposedly provide hope for the future, there are more specific representations that reveal more about Winston's (and, arguably, Orwell's) complex and contradictory attitude towards the lower classes.

The Old Man: On his tour of the prole area, Winston follows the old man into a pub in the hope of learning the truth about Oceania's past. Far from providing clarity, however, the old man rattles a crazed, drink-ridden caricature of the past. One might suggest that he represents the ultimate futility of Winston's hopes.

The Washerwoman: In contrast to the old man, the large woman who sings while hanging out washing offers nostalgia and the essential “goodness” of the working class. Observed by Winston and then by Julia (who is repelled by the sight), the woman converts the State-produced songs back into tolerable music. The first time Winston sees her, she is monstrous but he later finds beauty in her mature body, expanded and roughened by childbearing and work. This emerging attractiveness of the working class is contrasted with Julia's natural beauty just before Winston and Julia are arrested.

Emmanuel Goldstein: The supposed leader of the opposition to the Party, Goldstein is not a “living” character, but he is still a powerful presence. Most authors believe he is modeled on Leon Trotsky but some make the case that Orwell was thinking of Andrës Nin, the murdered leader of the Spanish Marxist party POUM. First he is the symbol of evil that is the target of Hate Week. Later he is the author of the book-length manifesto, read by Winston, that is the doctrine of the Brotherhood. After the interrogation by O'Brien, however, Winston cannot be sure if Goldstein ever existed or if he is just an “enemy” created to hold an angry populace together in support of the State/Party.


Much of the impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four comes from the presentation of its themes. The primary theme for many readers is the power of the State and Party and the consequent degradation of the individual.

What kind of State rules over us must depend partly on the prevailing intellectual atmosphere: meaning, in this context, partly on the attitude of writers and artists themselves, and on their willingness or otherwise to keep the spirit of liberalism alive.

(George Orwell “Writers and Leviathan,” New Leader, 19 June 1948; reprinted in CEJL, Vol. 4: 407)

Yet this is intertwined with Orwell's consideration and presentation of the machine society, of the relationship between personal freedom and sexual expression, of the nature of the working class, of individual and group psychology, and of propaganda, the State and Party, and the individual.

The primary theme of the individual versus State/Party power can be considered as specific allegory and as general depiction. Specifically the novel was published in 1949, only a few years distant from the menace of Nazi Germany, and at the beginning of a Cold War when many in the non-Communist West considered the Soviet Union the epitome of a “totalitarian” system. Yet there was much debate, at the time and subsequently, over whether Orwell was issuing a general statement that the conditions for totalitarianism were present in all countries and whether he might be criticizing not only Communist but also Socialist systems. Today, years after the Cold War, warnings of “Orwellian” changes most often occur in “free” societies over issues such as the installation of closed-circuit television in public spaces, compulsory identity cards, “reality” television, surveillance via the Internet, and personal records held (often without acknowledgement) by the State.

Indeed Orwell's concern about a “machine” society can be seen as most applicable to non-Communist systems, given their rapid technological development. The telescreen, ever-present monitoring cameras and microphones, electroshock “therapy,” and high-rise apartment blocks are global features. Orwell also clearly identifies, through his division of the world into three blocs, that Oceania (Britain, the United States, and the “West”) is just as “totalitarian” as Eurasia (the Soviet Union), and Eastasia (China/Japan).

It can be argued that Orwell anticipated the appearance of classic studies such as Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). It is far too simplistic, however, to reduce Nineteen Eighty-Four to the dichotomy of “free” person against an all-powerful regime. Orwell's text is concerned with many struggles, including that of the individual with him/herself. By the late 1940s, psychology had evolved from a new academic discipline, originating in Central Europe on the eve of the 20th century, into a “popular” concern in the United States and Western Europe. The work of Sigmund Freud was being used (and mis-used) to examine and explain contemporary social phenomenon in books such as Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers, with its allegations of the dangers of “momism.”12

In Winston, Orwell not only presents a psyche which is in turmoil but also studies how the recovery of memory both liberates and traumatizes the individual. This is represented by the emerging recollection of Winston's betrayal, as a boy, of his mother and sister as he seizes their chocolate rations and leaves them to starve. It is demonstrated in the “present” by Winston's continuing reflection that his political enlightenment is leading him towards the grave.

The psychological is most dramatically, if crudely, sketched in the torture of Winston in the Ministry of Love. O'Brien makes explicit what is present from the first pages of the book: the State/Party must manipulate and then destroy “real” memory and replace it with the State/Party's version. Yet Winston himself is not destroyed in Room 101; indeed, it may be argued that Winston ends the novel as a happier man without the burden of memory and opinion: “He had won the battle over himself” (916).

O'Brien is perceived in this psychological battle as more than the embodiment of “evil.” Winston's attraction to his torturer endures in a process in which O'Brien claims, “I shall save you. I shall make you perfect” (883). Winston may think, at different points, of O'Brien's “hideous” ugliness, his lunacy, and his tyranny but he also considers him a protector: “O'Brien was a person who could be talked to. … The particular reverence for O'Brien, which nothing seemed able to destroy, flooded Winston's heart again” (888).

Orwell's theme of the individual versus the State/Party is accompanied by his depiction of the conflict between individuals. There is clearly tension between Winston and Parsons, the dim-witted but enthusiastic supporter of the Party, and Syme, the intellectual who eagerly destroys knowledge. Most interesting, however, is Orwell's description of the conflict between men and women, notably Winston's relationships with his mother, his wife Katharine, and his lover Julia. Winston's mother is the revered maternal figure,13 beyond politics, who is betrayed and killed by the Party and by Winston's childish greed. Katharine, in contrast, is a creature of the State/Party, her “natural” sexuality and emotions eliminated or corrupted by the concept of duty. In contrast to Winston's struggle to develop, she is cold, unthinking, unyielding.

Despite “love,” Winston's (and Orwell's) portrayal of Julia is less than flattering. She is defined through her expression of sexual desire, setting her apart from the sainted Mother and the asexual Katharine, but she has little intellectual or political depth beyond this. It may be argued that only lust distinguishes her from Katharine or even the drudge Mr.s. Parsons.

If Orwell's depiction of the struggle between men and women, on further examination, leads to issues far more complex than the narrative of the novel, his consideration of the struggle between classes is far more limited than the dramatic announcement of Winston that hope “lies in the proles.” Orwell had written about the conditions of the working class and the possibilities of “socialism” since his 1932 documentary Down and Out in Paris and London; however, his purported claim to offer a socialist alternative beyond the manipulations, lies, and Marxist doctrine of “orthodox” left-wing movements had worn thin long before Nineteen Eighty-Four.

To an extent, the limited consideration of class is explained by Orwell's attention to a totalitarian system which transcends economics. Still the author damages his claim of being a good democratic socialist by his caricature of his proles and his egregious references to organized Socialism. The essential “goodness” of the mass of the poor and uneducated, 85 percent of the population in Orwell's Oceania, is dissipated by their portrayal as ill-mannered, grasping rabble squabbling over the Lottery and beer and their representation as empty-headed manics or singing brood mares. Winston's hope is in the myth of the “elevated” poor rather than an understanding of politics, economics, or culture; as Orwell reveals, “When you put [hope in the proles] in words it seemed reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith” (793). Meanwhile Orwell provides “Ingsoc” as the declared philosophy of the State, a charged allusion in 1949 when the Labour Party, with its declared objective of socialism and the welfare state, is governing Britain.

Amidst these considerations, even the primary theme of Winston's battle with the State/Party is problematic. Is it because of an essential human desire to escape the shackles of being controlled (if so, why is it Winston rather than a Parsons or Syme who is prompted to rebel)? Or is it the prompting of an aesthetic potential: “[His action] had been suggested by the book that he had just taken out of the drawer. It was a peculiarly beautiful book” (746). Orwell, as Winston, offers only the clichéd conclusion that he writes “for the future, for the unborn” (746).

Even the direct political rebellion of “Down with Big Brother” lacks clear motivation, with Winston “writing as though by automatic action” (753) and recalling the episode of the Two Minute Hate. Is rebellion the natural quest for freedom or the psychology of Winston's attraction to O'Brien? Could it be that Winston fails not because of the power and evil of the totalitarian State/Party, the common interpretation in a Cold War when the Soviet Union was upheld by many in the West as the menace to humanity, but because the irrationality of fear and the whims of the psyche overwhelm reason and knowledge?


The unifying image in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Big Brother, the “leader” of Oceania. In the second paragraph of the novel, Winston passes a poster in the hallway of his apartment building: “It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features” (743). It is on the omnipresent telescreen, from Winston's apartment to the hall in the Ministry of Love where employees gather for the Two Minute Hate. It is in the speeches that Winston rewrites for the “correct” history. It is the central motif of Winston's transition from loyal servant of the State/Party to incipient rebel to contented failure.

The obvious physical and political model for Big Brother is Josef Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 to 1953, but it becomes clear in Nineteen Eighty-Four that Big Brother is not a person. When Winston asks, “Does Big Brother exist?” O'Brien answers, “Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party” (893). The relationship is not between the individual and a dictator such as Adolf Hitler but between the individual and a system.

Winston's quest for memory, for his history, for love, and for inner peace is represented by the image of the Golden Country, used by Orwell in the 1939 novel Coming Up for Air, with the search of the protagonist George Bowling for the lost village of his childhood.

Before the war, and especially before the Boer War, it was summer all the year round.

(George Orwell Coming Up for Air, in The Complete Novels (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000): 450)

The quest is also symbolized by the antique hemisphere, with its piece of coral, that Winston purchases in Mr. Charrington's shop. Not so subtly, the hemisphere is smashed and the coral's mystique broken (“how small, thought Winston, how small it always was!”) when Winston and Julia are arrested.

Winston's fears are represented by a variety of images. This is explicit in the rats observed in Winston and Julia's sanctuary and in Room 101, which is itself a symbol of a person's greatest fear). More subtly and possibly more powerfully, it is in the vision of the “abyss” that accompanies Winston's recovery of the past. Orwell had used the motif in the 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying to represent the despair of the leading character Gordon Comstock and the environment of London. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he employs it to capture the horror of Winston's recollection of the betrayal of his mother and sister: “They were down in some subterranean place—the bottom of a well, for instance, or a very deep grave—but it was a place which, already far below him, was itself moving downwards” (759).


Nineteen Eighty-Four is especially powerful in its reworking of the device of metaphor, the implied comparison of two similar things. By directly equating two concepts which the reader “normally” believes to be in opposition, Orwell demonstrates how the Party's slogans and teachings corrupt language to control the population.

In the opening pages, the reader is informed of Oceania's four Ministries, whose very names carry out the contradiction of language. On the Ministry of Truth are inscribed the slogans, “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” These words are repeated several times in the initial chapters and reappear in Winston's interrogation and torture by O'Brien, along with other metaphors such as “God is Power” and “false” statements which become true such as “2+2 = 5.” Some metaphors are compressed in the language of Newspeak such as “Duckspeak.”

Orwell had long been interested in attempts to make a simpler English vocabulary, writing in a 1940 essay, “New Words,” about “a vocabulary, perhaps amounting to several thousand words, which would deal with parts of our experience now practically unamenable to language.”By 1946 any optimism had dissipated or, more precisely, he had developed “the sense … that while other people's language distorts reality, his offered unmediated access to it.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he developed Newspeak, complete with an appendix on its principles. The neologisms establish Orwell's message that political motivations create new words, and those words in turn shape political culture. Orwell devotes most of two chapters to an introduction of Newspeak and propaganda, first through the Ministry of Truth's instructions to Winston to rewrite newspaper articles and then through Syme's explanation of the principles and operation of Newspeak.

For example, the variety of expressions for the qualities “good” and “bad” are reduced to the one base word “good” with opposition expressed as “ungood” and amplification expressed as “plusgood” or the stronger “doubleplusgood.” Orwell had indicated in the “New Words” essay that such simplification was not bad in itself, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four he uses Syme's enthusiastic support of Newspeak to convey the danger of simplification for political purposes, in particular to quash dissent: “Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” (Interestingly, Orwell's use and examination of neologisms are limited to these two chapters and the Appendix. Narrative and dialogue reverts to “standard” English as Orwell's attention moves from the use of language to other methods of control.)

Orwell heightens the effect of his narrative by juxtaposing the familiar and the unusual. The name of his protagonist is indicative: “Winston,” with the distinctive reference to Churchill, and “Smith,” the most common of English names. The grimness of modern life is illustrated by shortages of common items such as razor blades and the poor quality of food; in such a world, chocolate, coffee, and wine become exotic items.


  1. Louis Kampf, “Nineteen Eighty-Four: Why Read It?” in 1984: Vision and Reality (Columbus OH: Ohio State University, 1985), p. 141.

  2. Jeffrey Meyers, “Introduction,” in Jeffrey Meyers (ed.). George Orwell: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 27.

  3. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in The Complete Novels (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000), p. 743. All page references in the text refer to this edition.

  4. George Orwell, “Why I Write,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell (hereafter cited as CEJL), Volume 1 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), pp. 1-10.

  5. Roger Fowler, The Language of George Orwell (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 186.

  6. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Viking Penguin,1962), pp. 139, 152, and 159.

  7. Victor Gollancz, “Introduction” to The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937).

  8. “Eric” to Jack Common, 12 October 1938, in CEJL, Volume 1, p. 357.

  9. “Not Counting Niggers,” Adelphi, July 1939, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 1, p. 395.

  10. “My Country Right or Left,” Folios of New Writing, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 1, p. 539.

  11. George Orwell, “The Art of Donald McGill,” Horizon, September 1941, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 2, pp. 155-65.

  12. Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers (New York: Pocket Books, 1942).

  13. Winston's father is considered and put to rest in one sentence: “His father he remembered more vaguely as dark and thin, dressed always in neat dark clothes (Winston remembered especially the very thin soles of his father's shoes and wearing spectacles” (759).


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8245

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 point, they are the text, as in his reproduction of Goldstein's analysis of politics, society, and the Party or his presentation of the Appendix on Newspeak. In other passages, the political statement suddenly appears in Winston's personal narrative. For example, in the description of his encounter with a prostitute and thoughts of his wife Katharine, Winston thinks, “The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act” (781). While the particular nature of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the narrative of the Party taking over all aspects of the “personal” may explain this overt presentation of ideas, the outcome is conflation between Winston's “thoughts” and the expression of Orwell's political observations and philosophy.

One must always be careful about equating the ideas of a character with those of an author. The process of creation is not necessarily one of the author putting his/her identity on paper. In this case, however, Winston is a vehicle for restating, through a fictional format, Orwell's nonfictional conclusions about the individual, writing, and the State, and heightening the impact of those conclusions by portraying the State in an extreme, totalitarian form. Inevitably, Nineteen Eighty-Four is often read not as the story of “the last man in Europe” but as Orwell's general warning of the political dangers of the technologically-advanced society or a specific warning of the menace of Soviet Communism (or even misguided Socialism). Inevitably, Nineteen Eighty-Four's other dimensions, such as the generally negative portrayal of women, have been seen by some as an extension of Orwell's often troubled personal relationships.


We shall get nowhere unless we start by recognising that political behaviour is largely non-rational, that the world is suffering from some kind of mental disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured. The significant point is that nearly all the calamities that happen to use are quite unnecessary.

(George Orwell, “As I Please,” Tribune, 30 November 1946)

In Orwell's Oceania, the State and the Party are synonymous, as all opposition has been removed and put beyond acceptability as the “enemy.” The opening chapter not only uses Winston's experience to describe this State/Party but to establish his attempt to escape its power and perpetual surveillance, as he begins writing his diary out of sight of the watching telescreen. The first two-thirds of the novel is a juxtaposition and even intersection of Winston with this State/Party system: in his discussions with neighbors and co-workers who have become extensions of State/Party ideology or practice; in his work at the Ministry of Truth; in his participation in Hate Week; and in his attempt to escape the State/Party through his writing, his ventures into the prole section, and his relationship with Julia.

The “turning point” of the book is not the end of Part 2, Winston and Julia's arrest by the Thought Police, but Winston's transition from the quest to “escape” to his decision to rebel against the State/Party. Winston's relationship to the State/Party is embodied in his relationship with O'Brien, whom Winston mistakenly believes is leading the resistance movement but is actually dedicated to the power of the Party and system. In the encounter between O'Brien and Winston in the last part of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the personal has become the political.

The novel would be inconceivable without Winston, a recalcitrant protagonist who, through his exiguous resistance, shows up the tyranny of the State. However, for the tyranny to appear truly horrific, that recalcitrance must itself appear pathetic and shabby—ultimately, just derisory.

(Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 116)

What is left is the triumph of the Party and the exercise of power. This exercise is not for any end such as economic profit or territorial gain. Instead, as Orwell wrote in a 1944 essay, “The cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes.”2

Power as be-all and end-all draws from and takes Orwell beyond his previous work. The imagery of the Two Minute Hate and the Ministry of Love is descended from Coming Up for Air:

It isn't the war that matters, it's the after-war. The world we're going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It's all going to happen.3

In Coming Up for Air, however, there is still a broader political objective, the battle against Fascism ostensibly for the sake of Socialism. A decade later, even this objective has disappeared.


Orwell goes further in this depiction of the individual and State/Party by portraying resistance and conformity as an outgrowth of the struggle for memory. The State/Party is successful, Orwell indicates, because most people remember no way of life other than their acquiescent place in the system. Winston's recovery of memory is part of the motivation for, and process of, writing the diary. It is intertwined with his search for escape in the prole areas, in the countryside, and in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop with Julia.

If O'Brien can destroy memory, he can destroy Winston's resistance. Thus physical torture in the Ministry of Love is only part of the process of recreating Winston's mind and psyche. As O'Brien states bluntly, “We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will” (890). At the end of the novel, the victory of the Party is signified when Winston dismisses a recollection of a happy moment with his mother and sister:

He pushed the picture out of his mind. It was a false memory. He was troubled by false memories occasionally. They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were.



To succeed in its totalitarianism, the State/Party must also control the collective memory of “history,” ensuring that any truth is replaced by a version which fits current needs. As he begins writing his diary, Winston thinks of the perpetual warfare of Oceania with either Eurasia or Eastasia and notes, “To trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one.” He concludes, “The frightening thing was it might all be true. If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?” (762).

Winston participates in this annihilation of memory through his job at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting back issues of The Times. In one of the most striking passages in the book, Winston replaces Big Brother's praise of Comrade Withers, an Inner Party member who has fallen into disgrace, with a speech commemorating Comrade Ogilvy, a mythical figure who carries out great feats before dying in military action at the age of 23. (The episode is reminiscent of the tale of Comrade Stakhanov, a Soviet worker who was exalted by Joseph Stalin for his prodigious efforts in mining coal.) Winston thinks, “Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar” (770).

Later Winston recalls the time that, through an error, he held evidence of a “true” event which has been eliminated from history. Three purged leaders confess at show trials that, on a certain date, they were in enemy territory giving away military secrets; for a moment, Winston has a newspaper cutting from that same day showing the leaders at a Party function in Oceania. After agitating for a few minutes, he drops the cutting into the chute for the incinerator.

Winston writes in his diary, “I understand HOW. I do not understand WHY” (789). O'Brien again serves as his instructor: “Who controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (886).


There is little in Orwell's background and reading to indicate his familiarity with the psychological theories that were prominent in the 1940s—in particular, the Freudian psychology which was receiving popular as well as scholarly attention. Orwell, however, had expressed a practical interest in the individual's psychological reaction to the tactics of regimes such as the Nazis in Germany or to situations such as the anti-German and anti-collaborator fervor at the end of World War II.

Orwell's evolution as a “modernist” writer, with his attention to the interior thoughts of protagonists such as Gordon Comstock (Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and George Bowling (Coming Up for Air), is furthered from the first page of Nineteen Eighty-Four in his portrayal of Winston Smith. Whereas the struggles of Comstock and Bowling are with external forces such as urbanization and capitalism, Winston's battle is not only with the State and Party but also with himself. In simple Freudian terms, his id, the impulse to recover his past, confronts an ego which is trying to explain the present. Up to the time when Winston begins writing his diary, this has been resolved by the superego, the adherence to rules and practices which have made him a good citizen of Oceania.

Winston's impulse gradually presses him, through the diary, through his wanderings into unacceptable areas, through his relationship with Julia, to challenge this personal order. Yet this underlying tension never disappears: Will Winston be transformed or will order be restored?

This Freudian approach in Nineteen Eighty-Four interacts with a behavioral approach to psychology. Pavlovian theories on prompting a response through positive reinforcement were generally known in the 1940s, and there had been many stories of Nazi experiments to condition subjects through the threat and application of punishment. Orwell even drew upon childhood recollections of buying “one of those big rat-cage traps” and the memory from the Spanish Civil War of rats in the trenches. The protracted scene between O'Brien and Winston at the end of the novel plays out these ideas, culminating in Winston's renewed acceptance of the dictates and “truths” of O'Brien, the Party, and the State.

Orwell was never happy with his depiction of the process. He wrote Julian Symons, who criticized the torture passages after Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared, “You are of course right about the vulgarity of the ‘Room 101’ business. I was aware of this while writing it, but I didn't know another way of getting somewhere near the effect I wanted.”4


In the late 1940s, best-selling books used a “popular” version of Freudian psychology to portray a negative image of women who controlled men. There is no evidence that Orwell read any of these books, nor does he explicitly delineate a theory of gender relations. Yet Orwell's stark depictions of women are just as problematic as conceptions of the “viper” or the “marked woman.” Beatrix Campbell's assessment is incisive: “Orwell's eye never comes to rest on the culture of women, their concerns, their history, their movements. He only holds women to the filter of his own desire—or distaste.”5 Deirdre Beddoe adds, “Julia is as brainless as Elizabeth Lackersteen [Burmese Days] or Hilda Bowling [Coming Up for Air]. … [Orwell] is contemptuous of women's intellects; he reduces married women and spinsters to stereotypes and in the portrayal of both he draws on the conventions of seaside postcards.”6

Orwell's points are made through contrasts between two-dimensional images. Winston's mother is a saintly martyr, killed both by the repression of the State and by the greed of her son. Her essential goodness, expressed not through intellectual depth but through the simple picture of maternal care for her children, is echoed in Winston's evolving reaction to the washerwoman. The maternal image is evoked physically through her “strong arms, a warm heart, and a fertile belly” (867).

Julia's contrasting image, with her “shapeliness of … hips” (748), “supple waist” (868), and “body gleam[ing] white in the sun” (817), is emphasized by Winston's conclusion that “out of [Winston and Julia's] bodies no child would ever come” (868). Julia's body and sexuality is compared positively not only with the “very straight” frame and the face with “as nearly as possible nothing behind it” (782) of Katharine, Winston's wife, but also with the degraded prostitute whose cardboard mask finally yields to “a cavernous blackness” and the face of “quite an old woman, fifty years old at least” (783). In the end, however, she can never be complete because of the barriers to motherhood.

Denied this essential nature, Julia cannot find completion through her thoughts, whatever Winston's hope of passing “on the secret … mind to mind” (868). She is empty of ideas beyond rebellion through sexual activity and the obtaining of forbidden luxuries. Initially this is enough for Winston, for he seeks “not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (817). He might jibe at her lack of intellectual rebellion, but any frustration at her lack of political interest, represented by her falling asleep while Winston reads Goldstein's book, evaporates at the “sun on his face and the girl's smooth body touching his own” (866).

Orwell raises further issues with his uncritical, troubling projection of Winston's sexuality. Raymond Williams is charitable when he writes of Winston having “the lonely confusion of the adolescent—so guilty about lovemaking that corruption of the object is a necessary element of its pleasure.”7 Orwell offers the excuse of political rebellion for Winston's prurient interest (“The more men you've had, the more I love you”) in Julia's sexual history:

Scores of times she had done it: he wished it had been hundreds—thousands. Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew, perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity.


The matter does not stop there, however. Before Julia proves a willing partner, Winston has “wanted to rape [her] and then murder [her] afterwards” (814). He has fantasized:

He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax.


The justification lies not only in the pervasive concept of “hate” in Oceania but in a disturbing generalization about gender:

[Winston] disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.


There is no evidence that Winston ever abandons this view. Instead Julia “proves” herself by distancing herself from her gender: she exclaims how she lives “always in the stink of women! How I hate women!” (820)

The disturbing thought is that it is Orwell, as well as Winston, who continues to feel “the urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice” (783).


Much of Orwell's writing was ostensibly concerned with “class,” in particular the relationship between those who held privileged positions because of power, wealth, or aristocratic status, and those who were the poorest in society. In fact, Orwell's critique of class, detached from any systematic consideration of economics, politics, and ideas, is often superficial.8

The same pattern of analysis is evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book is at its sharpest when it describes Winston's position within the political system. He is not of the elite in the Inner Party, but his work in the Ministry of Truth is valuable enough that he does not sink into the mire of the proles. This position is marked by Winston's dress in the coveralls of the Party member, by his home and work in the protected inner sanctum of Oceania, and by his precise language, which is contrasted with the local dialects of the proles.

The book is awkward, however, in its description of Winston's encounter with proles. Apart from Winston's clichéd observation of the washerwoman, his incoherent conversation with the old man in the pub, and his dealing with Mr. Charrington (who, in the end, is not a prole but an agent of the Party), the description of the proles is more a frightening specter than the detailed observation of Orwell's documentaries.

The issue is not that the living conditions are crowded, filthy, and dangerous—the depiction in Nineteen Eighty-Four could be lifted directly from The Road to Wigan Pier—but that Winston's proles do not have the hope, ability, or aspiration to rise above these conditions. Beatrix Campbell, who links Orwell's treatment of gender to his portrayal of the proles, summarises, “He excludes the working class from history and fails to give them any place in the revolutionary cast, other than the supporting role, the proverbial extras.”9

The residents are inured to the bombs that fall among them, devoting any mental effort to the study of how to win the Lottery (which has been rigged by the Party to ensure the jackpot goes only to non-existent persons). Orwell may be making a point about memory through his parody of the old man whose manic recollection, in response to Winston's prompting of Party literature of “the most terrible oppression, injustice, poverty” (795), is limited to top hats and an encounter with a “gent” on Boat Race night. However, as Winston is left with no explanation of how the proles became and remained the proles, Orwell can never move beyond a caricature of class. Winston and Julia's sanctuary above Mr. Charrington's shop is not only a refuge from the Party but from the proles whom Winston professes to revere. (Significantly, this sanctuary is invaded by the filthy rats which are a feature of the prole environment.)

The proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four are the figurative counterpart of the animals in Animal Farm. They are compared to “a horse shaking off flies.”The reader is told: “So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern” (784).


Orwell, despite his famous denunciation of nationalism, was a “nationalist” writer. Indeed he went beyond nationalism for his allegiance was not to Britain but to a mythical “England” of “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes [mailboxes].” In 1940, he called out to readers:

[England] is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side of the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.10

Essays after the war considered the Englishness of cricket, the ideal pub, the perfect cup of tea, and toads in spring. Even the symbolic importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four's antique hemisphere with its coral was anticipated in a 1946 column on the wonder of junk shops.

England [was] perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals [were] ashamed of their own nationality.

(George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius [New York: Viking Penguin, 1982]: 63-4)

Orwell's nostalgic vision was shattered by the decadence and filth of the present, represented in his documentaries and novels of the 1930s. “England” disappeared politically to become part of Oceania's Airstrip One, and it disappeared physically in “these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions … the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willowherb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses” (744).

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston's London is bleak, grimy, and menacing. Modern “landmarks” loom menacingly over the populace, as in Orwell's conversion of Senate House, the main building of the University of London, into the Ministry of Truth. The prole areas are threatened by Oceania's own rockets. Even Winston's fragmented memories of the city are of a noisy, crowded subway station serving as a bomb shelter.

In contrast, Orwell's idyllic England is in the countryside. Just before drafting Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had written a series of short articles on English culture and locales. His favored images—the perfect pub, village cricket, a toad in the pond—were all set in the Golden Country that he commemorated in Coming Up for Air and would resurrect in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Golden Country is not just the remedy for Winston's psyche, it is the hope for recovery of the “lost” England. However, just as Winston's brief aspirations are crushed, the gentler, kinder, more beautiful England is forever departed. Orwell cannot go home again.


One must be careful never to equate a protagonist with an author. The parallels between Orwell's life and Winston's thoughts and actions in Nineteen Eighty-Four are striking enough, however, to consider Winston as a vehicle for Orwell's observations and fears, if not as a surrogate for Orwell, in 1948. Orwell's friend, Julian Symons, commented, “It is queer route that Mr. Orwell has taken from Burma to the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four, by way of Catalonia and Wigan Pier.11 To an extent, Orwell's protagonists had always served this purpose: John Flory (Burmese Days) was an outlet for the author's conflicted views of imperialism as well as Orwell's fears of his physical frailties and his awkward relations with women; Gordon Comstock (Keep the Aspidistra Flying) vented Orwell's hatred of literary cliques and the “money god” that hovered over his impoverished life in London; George Bowling (Coming Up for Air) personified Orwell's nostalgic search for the lost England of his childhood and his vilification of left-wing activists and alternative lifestyles.

Winston Smith provides Orwell with multiple approaches to issues in the author's life. Winston's evolving thoughts on the individual and the State/Party, through history, memory, and “propaganda,” present the arguments of Orwell's nonfiction to a wider audience. Winston's troubled relations with his mother, his wife, and his lover are an expression of Orwell's own problems. Winston is even a physical representation of Orwell's anxiety about his constant illness and the decay of his body.

The social environment of Oceania owes much to Orwell's observations of British and French conditions of the 1930s. The origins of the political environment, however, owe more to Orwell's troubled, even hostile, relationship with the “socialism” that he supposedly advocated. Early in his career, Orwell rejected the systematic approach that marked not only Marxism but other critiques of capitalism and rejected those who pursued such approaches:

I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory. It seemed to me then—it sometimes seems to me now, for that matter—that economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop, and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.12

The second half of The Road to Wigan Pier documented Orwell's break with those activists (including Victor Gollancz, the publisher of the book) who were either “warm-hearted, unthinking” Socialists from the working class or “intellectual, book-trained” Socialists with their “soggy half-baked insincerity,” complemented by a “prevalence of cranks” including “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”13

Homage to Catalonia, the documentary of Orwell's experiences in the Spanish Civil War, further established him as a scourge of the Left. Of course, Orwell was no friend of the “Right” and movements such as Fascism (after all, in the Spanish front line he faced fascists and other conservative supporters of General Francisco Franco, but Homage to Catalonia becomes a story of the in-fighting in Spain between the Communists and groups such as Trotskyists and anarchists and a depiction of a cowardly left-wing British press following the Communist line.

Orwell's personal politics were more complex than anti-communism, however. He was active in the Independent Labour Party, which had separated from the “mainstream” Labour Party in the 1930s and was opposing war with Germany. Orwell put the case in Coming Up for Air, closing with an oblique reference to the “after-war” world of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

In 1914 we thought it was going to be a glorious business. Well, it wasn't. It was just a bloody mess. … You think war's all heroism and V. C. [Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration] charges, but I tell you it isn't like that. You don't have bayonet-charges nowadays, and when you do it isn't like you imagine. You don't feel like a hero. All you know is that you've had no sleep for three days, and stink like a polecat, you're pissing your bags with fright, and your hands are so cold you can't hold your rifle. But that doesn't matter a damn, either. It's the things that happen afterwards.14

After this short-lived if passionate embrace of pacifism, Orwell used his experiences in World War II to develop his criticism of the totalitarian system of National Socialism. At the same time, Orwell bolstered his hatred of many on the Left. He maintained a pointed skepticism about the Soviet Union, even though that country had become an ally of Britain's in the fight against Germany. He vehemently denounced pacifists, who only a few years earlier had been his colleagues, and naive or cunning Socialists: “The quisling intellectual is a phenomenon of the last two years.”15 The protracted effort to publish Animal Farm reinforced Orwell's opinion that he was being blocked not only by the London “literary clique” but also by political forces.

The thing that politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce a vigorous literature by terrorising everyone into conformity.

(George Orwell “As I Please,” Tribune, 3 January 1947)

By the end of World War II, Orwell was caught up in contradiction. His politics were conflicted, as Alok Rai notes, by a “wartime phase of accommodation with his ambient society [in which] Orwell is lulled into making a ‘conservative’ commitment which he can later neither live with nor reject.”16 Orwell's vision of socialism, always shaky because of his inability and disinterest in economic and social theory and analysis, was becoming little more than a fetish.

Not only was he offering little in the way of an alternative to U.S.-led capitalism, his defence of political rights was far from absolute. On the one hand, he was defending individual freedom not only through his writing but also through his involvement in the Freedom Defence Committee and support of activists arrested for speaking out in Hyde Park in London.17 On the other, he was advocating that “Communists” and “crypto-Communists” be publicly identified, shamed, and removed from positions of influence. His accusations paralleled those of Red-hunters such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover:

The actual number of Communists and “fellow-travellers” is still only a few score thousands, and has no doubt dwindled over the past year. But while they have somewhat lost ground with the general public, they have now succeeded in capturing the leadership of several important unions, and in addition there is the group of “underground” Communist MPs—that MPs elected as Labour men but secretly members of the CP or reliably sympathetic to it.18

When Konni Zilliacus, the left-wing Member of Parliament, denied that he was a ‘crypto-Communist,’ Orwell had the unanswerable rebuttal, ‘What else could he say?’19

Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell's way out of the dilemma over the individual and the State. Any problems with a State, led by non-Communists, and its oppression and denial of the rights of Communists and suspects on the “Left” were removed by reversing the labels. Because the villainous State/Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of the Left, with its slogan of “Ingsoc” (English Socialism) and propaganda denouncing capitalism, Orwell could pursue his familiar themes of revolution betrayed (the central theme of Animal Farm), totalitarian power, and Communist menace. Because Winston Smith, Orwell's surrogate, is the “common man” without power, the reader could be reassured that Winston and Orwell were always on the side of individual freedom.

Yet Orwell had qualms about the resolution. The U.S. press seized upon Nineteen Eighty-Four as a seminal anti-Communist and even anti-Socialist tract. In one of the last letters of his life, Orwell wrote Francis Henson, an official of the United Auto Workers who was concerned about the press reaction, “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.”20

Some critics and biographers have argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the outcome of other aspects of Orwell's life. Anthony West sparked a debate by claiming that the novel was fostered by Orwell's memories of his first boarding school, an experience that the author recalled with horror and dread in an essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” which was written or revised in 1947. Others have attributed the bleakness of the work to Orwell's failing health; Tom Hopkinson, for example, claimed that Orwell told him, “[Nineteen Eighty-Four] wouldn't have been so gloomy. … If I hadn't been so ill.”

These claims have been vigorously challenged, notably by Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick. A significant objection is that Orwell first outlined the novel in 1943, long before his final illness and “Such, Such Were the Joys,” and that the outline changed little after 1947. In the end, there is no need to separate the personal from the political in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


By the time Orwell began drafting Nineteen Eighty-Four, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, former allies in World War II, were in conflict throughout the world. The U.S. and Britain were pursuing a Western European economic bloc which included a revived Germany, while the Soviet Union was ensuring that Eastern Europe would be a “buffer zone” under Communist control. The first Cold War crisis had occurred in March 1946 over Iran and its oilfields when the Soviet Union had balked at withdrawing its troops from the north of the country. Greece was split by civil war, with the U.S. mistakenly believing that Moscow was supporting the insurgency of the Greek Communists, and the Administration of President Harry Truman also feared the Soviet Union was pressing for a military presence in Turkey.

By 1948, with Mao Zedong's Communist Party gaining the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War and promising to unite the country as the leader of a new Asia, Orwell could contend that the world was dividing into the three blocs that James Burnham had foreseen.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. …

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

(Harry Truman, “The Truman Doctrine” speech to Congress, March 12, 1947, quoted in Scott Lucas, Freedom's War: The U.S. Crusade against the Soviet Union, 1945-1956 [New York: New York University Press, 1999]: 6-7)

The Marshall Plan and the Soviet response divided Europe not only economically but also into political and military camps. Two months before the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, ten Western European countries, the U.S., and Canada formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; four months after publication, the victorious Communist Party proclaimed a new People's Republic of China.

The Cold War was a new kind of conflict. As Orwell foresaw in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it could not be resolved by the atomic bomb or by conventional military forces. Instead, the goal for each superpower was to maintain its sphere of influence through propaganda, ideology, and the promotion of a superior way of life. Orwell wrote at length about Soviet control of the media, literature, and the arts; what he did not mention was that Western governments, including the U.S. and Britain, were using more subtle methods to shape the output of the “private” sector.

The only big political questions in the world today are: for Russia—against Russia, for America—against America, for democracy—against democracy.

(George Orwell, “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus,” late 1947/early 1948, in CEJL, Vol. 4: 395)

The Central Intelligence Agency and its British equivalent, MI6, provided millions of dollars in secret funds to journalists, artists, women's and youth groups, trade unions, and intellectual movements. (After his death, Orwell's work benefited from this secret largesse, with MI6 subsidizing the distribution of his books and the CIA helping arrange the film versions of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.)


The election of a Labour Government in 1945 began a new era in British politics. The Government, led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, sought extensive State involvement in the running of the economy, including nationalization of banks and key industries, and set the goal of universal provision of education, health care, and unemployment and disability benefits. This program, which some claimed as “socialism,” became popularly known as the “welfare state.” At first glance, Labour's programme should have addressed Orwell's long-standing concerns about the materialism and decay he associated with urban capitalism.

However, Orwell had mixed feelings about the Government's quest. On the one hand, he claimed to be a socialist and had advocated, in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941, a fixed scale of incomes between the highest and lowest-paid and nationalization of land, mines, banks, railways, and key industries.21 On the other, he worried that the information and organization needed to implement the welfare state would lead to State interference in private lives.

Socialism, in the sense of economic collectivism, is conquering the earth at a speed that would hardly have seemed possible 60 years ago, and yet Utopia, at any rate Wilde's Utopia, is no nearer.

(George Orwell, Review of Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man under Socialism,The Observer, May 9, 1948; reprinted in CEJL, Vol. 4: 426)

Nineteen Eighty-Four refers to the “remote committees which were liable to hold up even the mending of a window-pane for two years.” Moreover, the depressing environment of London is directly linked to the Socialist project: “Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC” (744). In the end, Orwell's pessimism overcame his optimism, primarily because of his vision of new technologies.


Technology had become a leading theme of public discussion after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945; however, writers had been debating the benefits and dangers of new technologies long before this. The challenge came not only from military technologies but also from “social” technologies which could be put to different uses. Television, created just before World War II, but only beginning to reach a wide audience in the late 1940s, could become the surveillance “telescreen” of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newsreel in the cinemas not only informed but conditioned the audience to endorse and applaud the terror and warfare of the State. All the technology of “modernity” could be used to control as well as liberate the populace. Orwell had written in a 1946 column, “The tendency of many modern inventions—in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane—is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.”22


Orwell's opinion of technology was linked to his dark vision of urbanization. The growth of the city, with the shift of the population from rural to urban areas and the “Industrial Revolution,” accelerated from the 19th century. The associated problems, such as overcrowding, filth, and disease, and the image of the city as a dangerous and forbidding place, were recurrent concerns of British writers.

Orwell, despite being a resident of London for much of his adult life, had a particularly harsh view of urban life. His novels of the 1930s featured characters roaming the streets of an uncaring metropolis (Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman's Daughter), railing ineffectively at the filth and garish lighting of an area dominated by money (Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying), or seeking to escape the bleak, unfeeling environment (George Bowling in Coming Up for Air). He was no kinder about London in his wartime “Letter” for the journal Partisan Review, writing in 1944, “There has been no real shift of power and no increase in genuine democracy. The same people still own the property and usurp all the best jobs.”23 After World War II, this pessimism was reinforced by deprivation. The rationing system continued until 1955, and in the late 1940s, the average Briton was consuming fewer calories than in wartime. There was a protracted struggle to repair the bomb and rocket damage that scarred much of London, and reconstruction was limited by recurrent economic crises. Only in 1951, the year after Orwell's death, would London try to lift itself with the Festival of Britain.


Orwell's novel of dystopia, be it in the present or the future, and political terror was unique in late 1940s Britain; however, it clearly drew from several important works published before the war, and it arguably had an ancestor from the 17th century.

The antecedent was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. As Patrick Reilly has noted, “Both texts pursue the truth about man, seeking the true self, the authentic person, who will at last be found beneath the accretions of culture and the drapings of mythology; both end in a kind of conversion in which once sacrosanct dogmas about human identity are exposed as totally untenable superstitions.”24

Orwell had written an extended essay about Swift in 1946. The essay is notable not for the literary criticism, which is muddled, but for Orwell's efforts to fit Swift into a Cold War environment—Swift, although a “reactionary” writer, is to be commended for his stand against totalitarianism—and for a revealing misinterpretation. Far from appreciating the black comedy of Swift's work, Orwell conducts amateur psychoanalysis: “Swift was presumably impotent, and had an exaggerated horror of dungà. Such [a person is] not likely to enjoy even the small amount of happiness that falls to most human beings.”25 It is far from surprising, given Orwell's failure to recognise the “comic satire” in Gulliver's Travels, that Nineteen Eighty-Four is “depressingly humourless.”26 Yet, just as Gulliver's journey ends with the “revelation” of the ascendancy of the cruel Yahoos, so Winston's ends in Room 101.

As Andy Croft has noted, Orwell owed a great deal to the futurist literature of a previous generation of writers. Since he was a boy, he had been an avid reader of H. G. Wells, citing The Sleeper Awakes (1900) as one of his favorite books.27 Orwell also was familiar with and critical of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Other futurist writers who may have influenced Orwell included his friend Cyril Connolly, who had published a 1938 short story “Year Nine,” in which a young man and woman pursue a love affair in a totalitarian state headed by “Our Leader,”28 and even Rudyard Kipling, who wrote stories of “the A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons [which] controls the planet.”29

The primary model for Oceania may have been We (1920), the work of Soviet writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, which Orwell reviewed in January 1946 and which he recommended (unsuccessfully) to Fredric Warburg for re-publication in Britain in 1949.30 Set in the 26th century, the novel depicts a world where people live in glass houses so they can be watched by the “Guardians,” the equivalent of Orwell's Thought Office. Everyone wears identical uniforms, and each person is designated by number. The Single State is led by the Benefactor, who is unanimously re-elected by the population. Like Orwell, Zamyatin also pays close attention to the State's attitudes towards sexual behaviour. In his world, which has no marriage, sex is not discouraged but regulated with each person having a ration book for his/her encounters.

The protagonist in We, a mathematician named D-503 who is in charge of building the first rocket for inter-planetary flight, carried out advance work for Nineteen Eighty-Four. He considers the relationship between power, justice, and “faith”: “Their [the Ancients'] God couldn't come up with any smarter idea than sacrificing yourself, never mind why. But we, when we sacrifice to our God, OneState, we make a calm, rational, carefully considered sacrifice.” He is a generation ahead of Winston in evaluating knowledge and freedom. He writes, “Truth is one, and the true path is one. And that truth is two times two and that true path is four.” He even exalts the service of literature for the ends of the State:

Our poets no longer soar into the Empyrean: they've come down to earth. … Their lyre consists of the morning hum of electrical toothbrushes, the spark's ominous snap in the Machine of the Benefactor, the grandiose echo of the OneState Anthem, the intimate sound of the crystal bright chamber pot at night, the exciting clattering of lowering blinds, the merry voices of the latest cookbook, and the barely audible whisper of the street membranes [for perpetual surveillance].31

Some scholars have emphasized a fundamental difference between the future “fantasy” world of We and Orwell's naturalistic Oceania of the present. Given the general approach of the books to the individual, the State, and power, the difference is not so fundamental. More intriguing is that Zamyatin, far from establishing how the struggle of the individual is to use reason to challenge the State, allies the “reason” of D-503 and authority. He is fulfilling the State's command “to integrate completely the colossal equation of the universe … to unbend the wild curve, to straighten it tangentially, asymptotically, to flatten it to an undeviating line. Because the line of OneState is a straight line.” Only when D-503 declares, “Everybody has to go mad, everybody must absolutely go mad, and as soon as possible!” does his personal revolution (ultimately a failure like Winston's) begin.32

The influences upon Orwell's depiction of political terror have not been as widely studied by scholars. In addition to the nonfictional accounts of the Spanish Civil War and dictatorial regimes before, during, and after World War II, Orwell appears to have drawn from Jack London and Arthur Koestler.

London may appear at first glance an unusual source for Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Orwell was fascinated by the American's depiction of authority in The Iron Heel (1903), reviewing the novel in 1940. In The Iron Heel, London portrays a tyranny of the Oligarchs who, as in Oceania, pursue violence in the name of progress. The Oligarchs' propaganda is explicit (“Not God, not Mammon, but Power”), and London's description of violence anticipates O'Brien's depiction of a “boot stamping on a human face—for ever” (898). The Oligarchs declare they “will grind you revolutionaries down under our heel, and we shall walk on your faces.”33 Unlike Orwell, however, London still projects power as a means to a broader end, in this case the defense of “civilization” against the proletariat.

Arthur Koestler was another inspiration for Orwell with Darkness at Noon (1940), an acclaimed account of the terror of the Soviet purges of the 1930s. In the show trials, leading Party members would confess to “crimes.” The question of why and how they were led to confession shaped Darkness at Noon but Koestler, like Orwell, focuses his narrative on a single protagonist. Orwell's friendship with Koestler from World War II offered many opportunities to discuss the work.

For a full appreciation of the influences upon Orwell, however, one must go beyond fiction. The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is based on the projections of James Burnham, in particular two books reviewed by Orwell in 1946, The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. Orwell, while troubled by Burnham's alleged fascination with power and proponents such as Stalin and the Nazis, adopted his political theory.34Nineteen Eighty-Four reproduced Burnham's division of the world into three superstates which control their populations through permanent, inconclusive war. Burnham's “managerial” society also was inspiration for Orwell's Inner Party bureaucrats controlling the Outer Party of functionaries as well as the mass of proles.

In the end, Burnham's vision of managerial advance would overwhelm technological advance. Orwell, considering “You and the Atom Bomb” in 1945, concluded:

But suppose—and really this is the likeliest development—that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless.35

He would repeat the assertion two years later, “Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years.”36


  1. Roger Lathbury, Literary Masterpieces: The Great Gatsby (Farmington Hills MI: The Gale Group, 2000), p. 57.

  2. George Orwell, “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” Horizon, October 1944, reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume III, p. 222.

  3. George Orwell, Coming Up for Air in The Collected Novels (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000), p. 519.

  4. George Orwell to Julian Symons, February 1949, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, p. 502.

  5. Beatrix Campbell, “Orwell—Paterfamilias or Big Brother” in Christopher Norris (ed.), Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), p. 131.

  6. Deirdre Beddoe, “Hindrances and Help-Meets: Women in the Writings of George Orwell,” in Norris (ed.), p. 148.

  7. Raymond Williams, Orwell (Glasgow: Fontana, 1971), p. 81.

  8. See Scott Lucas, George Orwell (Farmington Hills MI: The Gale Group, 2002).

  9. Campbell in Norris (ed.), p. 135.

  10. George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (New York: Viking Penguin, 1982), p. 37.

  11. Rai, p. 120.

  12. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Penguin,1962), p. 130.

  13. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 139, 152, and 159.

  14. Coming Up for Air, p. 520.

  15. “London Letter,” Partisan Review, March-April 1942, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 2, p. 182.

  16. Rai, p. 132.

  17. Hyde Park, one of the chain of major parks in central London, is famed for Speakers' Corner where, in theory, any person may speak out on any topic.

  18. George Orwell, “London Letter,” Partisan Review, Summer 1946, reprinted in CEJL, Volume IV, p. 184.

  19. George Orwell to Tribune, 17 January 1947, reprinted in CEJL, Volume IV, p. 192.

  20. George Orwell to Francis Henson, 16 June 1949, reprinted in CEJL, Volume IV, p. 502.

  21. See George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (New York: Viking Penguin, 1982).

  22. George Orwell, “Pleasure Spots,” Tribune, 11 January 1946, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, p. 78.

  23. George Orwell, “London Letter,” Partisan Review, Winter 1945, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 3, p. 293.

  24. Patrick Reilly, The Literature of Guilt (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 92.

  25. George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels,” Polemic, September-October 1946, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, pp. 205-23.

  26. Reilly, p. 93.

  27. See Orwell's use of Wells and other authors in his pamphlet, “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution” (London: Socialist Book Centre, 1946), reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, p. 160.

  28. See Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (London: Heinemann, 1991), p. 355.

  29. See William Steinhoff, The Road to 1984 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975) for a further discussion of these influences.

  30. George Orwell, review of We,Tribune, 4 January 1946, CEJL, Volume 4, p. 72; George Orwell to Fredric Warburg, 30 March 1949, CEJL, p. 487.

  31. Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin, 1993), pp. 45 and 65-8.

  32. Ibid., pp. 4 and 152.

  33. See Christopher Small, The Road to Miniluv (London: Victor Gollancz, 1975), p. 186.

  34. Orwell, “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution,” CEJL, Volume IV, pp. 160-80.

  35. George Orwell, “You and the Atom Bomb,” Tribune, 19 October 1945, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, pp. 7-12.

  36. George Orwell, “Toward European Unity,” Partisan Review, July-August 1947, reprinted in CEJL, Volume 4, pp. 370-5.

Critical Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3102

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 written sharply, “Arguing endlessly about the political ‘message’ of this one novel only serves to confirm its exceptional status.”1 Croft's wish, that the novel would simply go away, is futile. Nineteen Eighty-Four, if only because it has served the political agenda of Western “freedom” for more than 50 years, is here to stay.

Most of the initial criticism did not label the novel as “anti-Soviet” but it emphasized Orwell's warning about “power,” even as it used that very term to sum up the qualities of the book. Veronica Wedgwood in Time and Tide explained, “It is no doubt with the intention of preventing his prediction from coming true that Mr. Orwell has set it down in the most valuable, the most absorbing, the most powerful book he has yet written.”2 V. S. Pritchett in the New Statesman compared the work to the best of Swift as a pointed depiction of the “moral corruption of absolute power,” and Julian Symons in The Times Literary Supplement offered “thanks for a writer … who is able to speak seriously and with originality of the nature of reality and the terrors of power.”3

Reviewers with other interests, however, pulled the book into the center of the Cold War. It did not require great effort to do this for as Fredric Warburg, Orwell's publisher, wrote in a private summary of the novel: “Here is the Soviet Union to the nth degree, a Stalin who never dies, a secret police with every device of modern technology.”4 Samuel Sillen in the Communist Masses and Mainstream protested, “There is a hideous ingenuity in the perversions of a dying capitalism, and it will keep probing for new depths of rottenness which the maggots will find ‘brilliant and morally invigorating.’”5 In the United States, the tribute to Orwell's power was overlaid with coded references to his place in the current battle abroad against Soviet-led enemies and at home against “bad” liberals who would not support confrontation with Moscow. The review in the New York Times declared that “no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.”6 Philip Rahv of Partisan Review proclaimed:

This novel is the best antidote to the totalitarian disease that any writer has so far produced. … I recommend it particularly to those liberals who still cannot get over the political superstition that while absolute power is bad when exercised by the Right, it is in its very nature good and a boon to humanity once the Left, that is to say “our own people,” takes hold of it.7

Strident opponents of Communism such as Time,Life, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal, hailed the book not only as a challenge to Moscow but as a warning against Socialism.

Other reviewers in the U.S. did move beyond the question of individual power versus State/Party power. Diana Trilling, for example, thought the novel “brilliant and fascinating” but was troubled by the intensity of vision recommended by other reviewers: “the nature of its fantasy [was] so absolutely final and relentless” that she could “recommend it only with a certain reservation.”8 Lionel Trilling, perhaps cognizant of Orwell's work from the 1930s, praised the approach to modernism rather than to political systems as such, complimenting the portrayal of all aspects of modern life that could lead to “deprivation, dullness and fear of pain.”9

Orwell's death seven months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four reinforced this image of the work as a “Cold War novel.” While Orwell had protested the depiction of his book as anti-Socialist, his early demise left further interpretation to those who eulogized and those who vilified him. Meanwhile, the Cold War had become a total conflict. Five days after Orwell's death, the Truman Administration launched the study that would become NSC 68, the blueprint for a global political, economic, and cultural offensive against the Soviet bloc. Five months later, the Korean conflict took the Cold War into a new military phase.

Yet even these wider commentaries would be pulled back into a Cold War environment. Lionel Trilling is an excellent example. Known for his depiction and defense of the “moral center,” the critic's work was upheld as an example of the superior political as well as cultural and literary sensibility of the American system, and he was allied, often under the misleading label of “the New York intellectuals,” with writers and editors such as Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Sol Levitas, and Dwight Macdonald who had become a vanguard denouncing Communism at home and abroad. (Both Diana and Lionel Trilling would be prominent members of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, CIA-funded organizations to challenge the supposed Soviet hold over intellectuals.)

In 1951, Trilling would provide the introduction to Homage to Catalonia, finally issued in the U.S.. He wrote that Orwell told the truth “in an exemplary way, quietly, simply, with due warning to the reader that it was only one man's truth.”10 Orwell was the “moral center”:

Orwell's native gifts are perhaps not of a transcendent kind; they have their roots in a quality of mind that ought to be as frequent as it is modest. This quality may be described as a sort of moral certainty, a directness of relation to moral—and politica—fact.11

Trilling might have aspired to transcend politics with his criticism but, by the time of its appearance, the issue of the “truth” of Nineteen Eighty-Four had become part of the campaign against Communism.

More importantly, if Nineteen Eighty-Four was to be enshrined as a “great” novel, its literary significance would have to be considered, if only in conjunction with its political impact. Orwell's novels of the 1930s had had a mixed reception, and some of them had disappeared from critical view by 1950. While Animal Farm had brought acclaim, there was always the possibility that it would be the exception that would prove the rule. Tom Hopkinson's tribute to Orwell in 1950, wittingly or unwittingly, slights Nineteen Eighty-Four by omission: “I know only two present-day works of fiction before which the critic abdicates: one is Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, the other Orwell's Animal Farm.12

In the end, however, Nineteen Eighty-Four would be both exalted and limited by its place in a larger political and cultural conflict, one which continues today. Isaac Deutscher's 1955 essay, “1984—The Mysticism of Cruelty,” may be derided by Orwell's defenders but as a summary of the reception and recycling of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it has no equal. For Deutscher, Orwell's creation was now out of the author's hands:

The novel has served as a sort of ideological super-weapon. … A book like 1984 may be used without much regard for the author's intention. Some of its features may be torn out of their context, while others, which do not suit the political purpose which the book is made to serve, are ignored or virtually suppressed.

The political had conquered the literary:

Nor need a book like 1984 be a literary masterpiece or even an important and original work to make its impact. Indeed a work of great literary merit is usually too rich in its texture and too subtle in thought and form to lend itself to adventitious exploitation. As a rule its symbols cannot easily be transformed into hypnotising bogies, or its ideas turned into slogans.13

Julian Symons had illustrated this shift from the literary to the political in his obituary of Orwell in 1950: “Nineteen Eighty-Four, in spite of its great popular success, is a book marked by George Orwell's faults, and yet even in its passages of crude sensationalism the clean hard style holds the book together, even in his most extreme pessimism, hope in libertarian socialism is never quite lost.”14The Times was even starker in its opinion: “In a less troubled, less revolutionary period of history [Orwell] might have perhaps have discovered within himself a richer and more creative power of imagination a deeper philosophy of acceptance.”15

Irving Howe, writing in 1956, would further prove Deutscher's point. Howe, through his writing and his founding of the journal Dissent, had put some political distance between himself and other anti-Communist critics while remaining a “mainstream” intellectual. He upheld Orwell in this spirit of courageous dissent, “In 1984 Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.” However, he had to admit that Nineteen Eighty-Four “is not, I suppose really a novel, or at least it does not satisfy those expectations we have come to have with regard to the novel.”16

A pattern had been established. If a critic approached a troublesome literary junction, he/she veered towards safer political ground. Richard Rees, Orwell's initial sponsor and good friend, was unsettled by the torture scenes. Like Julian Symons, he passed this off as the result of Orwell's health and then reassured himself: “It is … an example … of the remorseless honesty from which his work derives its rare vitality and its unmistakable touch of nobility.”17 George Woodcock wrote in 1966, “In comparison with … dubious disciples, Orwell still shines out, half a generation later, as a noble and colourful figure, large in act and vision, the almost complete opposite of the narrow-visioned academics who have closed in during the present generation on the literary worlds of both Britain and North America.”18 George Steiner reverted to Cold War justification in the New Yorker in March 1969: “Nineteen Eighty-Four is a close imitation [of We], and Zamyatin's seems to me the subtler, more inventive fiction. … Both the strength and the ambiguity of Orwell's fantasia stem from a latent identification between Stalinist terror and the inhumanity of a supertechnology. The result is a harrowing but somewhat forced and unsteady parable.”19

This safe reception of Orwell the man had become more than a retreat from literary criticism, however. In the 1960s, when troubling social questions were prompting a re-examination and re-definition of the “Left,” political qualms were also being set aside. Both Rees and Woodcock, for example, are unhappy with Orwell's treatment of the poor whom he supposedly championed. Rees wrote of the author's “unrealistic attitude towards the urban working class” and his depiction of “proles” as “comic postcard figures.”20 Woodcock notes the equation of proles with animals.21 Such doubts cannot stand by the final page. As Woodcock, ironically retreating into a brief consideration of “style,” concludes, “In that crystalline prose which Orwell developed so that reality could always show through its transparency, lies perhaps the greatest and certainly the most durable achievement of good and angry man who sought for the truth because he knew that only in its air would freedom and justice survive.”22

Only in 1971 would a critic challenge this construction of Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Raymond Williams, in a powerful extended essay, took on Orwell the personality by arguing that the author himself had fashioned his “identity” as “an imperial police officer, a resident of a casual ward, a revolutionary militiaman, a declassed intellectual, a middle-class English writer.” For Williams, this did not necessarily devalue Orwell the writer:

[He] could connect as closely and with as many different kinds of people as he did, precisely because of his continual mobility, his successive and serious assumption of roles. When he is in a situation, he is so dissolved into it that he is exceptionally convincing, and his kind of writing makes it easy for the reader to believe that this is also happening to himself. The absence of roots is also the absence of barriers.23

The problem for Williams is that the “last” Orwell was one who could be enshrined and upheld by enemies of socialism: “If the only effective social contrast was between ‘democracy’ and ‘communism,’ then some sort of accommodation with capitalism … was at first temporarily and then habitually conceivable. Having made this accommodation, and the corresponding identification of ‘communism’ as the sole threat, it became harder to see and to admit what capitalist imperialism was still capable of doing: what, in the years since Orwell died, it has done again and again, in repression and in war.”24 It was not just that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four had equated proles with animals; it was that, in his accommodation with capitalism, the character of ‘Orwell’—a man physically and intellectually alive and conscious and tough and persistent—moved these feebler and less conscious figures in an undifferentiated theatrical landscape.”25

Williams's analysis may have reconfigured the author and his work as socially contingent but it continued to depend upon Orwell the personality: “He is still there, tangibly, with the wound in his throat, the sad strong face, the plain words written in hardship and exposure. But then as we reach out to touch him we catch something of his hardness, a necessary hardness.”26

The possibility of a new approach to Nineteen Eighty-Four awaited the consideration of the novel's treatment of gender. In the 1984 volume Inside the Myth, Deirdre Beddoe considered Orwell's “heroines” from Elizabeth Lackersteen to Julia, as well as the characters of his documentaries, as caricatures which ignored the actual experience of women in the 1930s and 1940s. The political author succeeded in part because he wrote out the political, economic, and social experience of 50 percent of the population: “Orwell altered the record of the past, so far as women are concerned, as efficiently as if he had been in the employ of Minitrue. He was part of a conspiracy of silence.”27

It was Beatrix Campbell who broke new ground, however, in her linkage of Orwell's treatment of gender to his treatment of class. She shook up the stagnant debate over Orwell as “good” or “bad” socialist, exposing his lack of a practical economic and social approach through his depiction of the prole washerwoman: “The imagery contains pathos, isolation, inertia, defeat: it incites pity and philanthropy rather than protest and politics.” Indeed, women finally become the enemy: “Among the middle class and the upper class, women are targets of his acidic class contempt, expressed in the same vein as the mother-in-law joke. It's the ‘Brighton ladies’ and rich women lolling around in Rolls Royces whom he can't abide.”28

Another vital critique came from Alok Rai in Orwell and the Politics of Despair in 1988 as he sought “a way of engaging with, while not being swamped by [the] polemical quality” of Orwell's work.29 Building upon Williams's approach, Rai seeks “a particular, plausible construction of Orwell [which] is almost uniquely suited to the mythical needs of liberal social democracy,” part of “the ideologically staged confrontation between ‘freedom’ and ‘totalitarianism’.”30 Having deconstructed Orwell, however, Rai has to grapple with what is left. His intricate reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which highlights contradictions in Orwell's fable approach to language, ends up with little beyond the “paranoid coherence” of Oceania. In Winston's failure lies “Orwell's own ambivalent radicalism.”31 Rai, however, could not resist seeking a happier ending; all he can offer is the injunction to “unfreeze our minds” for a “potentially ‘hopeful’ collectivity.”32

And so once again the ground was ceded to those with a simpler, more accommodating reading of “Orwell” and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with issues such as gender, class, and politics replaced by reassuring platitudes about “hope.” Patrick Reilly praised the author, with his “deliberate, strategic despair which is meant to save, not stupefy,” but his excellent study of the novel ends with the questioning of salvation, “At the end of Orwell's dark prophecy the self has not only ceased to be sufficient—it has ceased to exist.”33 This assessment could not stand for Michael Walzer, even as he described the “absolute bleakness” of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

[Orwell] was not dead yet; nor had he withdrawn from the world in order to pronounce a final judgement upon it. He meant to write again. The story of the last man was not intended to be his last word on politics. Nor need it be ours, so long as we speak with the terrifying awareness that was his gift.34


  1. Andy Croft, “Worlds Without End Foisted Upon the Future—Some Antecedents of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in Christopher Norris (ed.), Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984), p. 186.

  2. Veronica Wedgwood, Time and Tide, 11 June 1949, pp. 494-5.

  3. V. S. Pritchett, New Statesman and Nation, 18 June 1949, pp. 646-8; Julian Symons review, Times Literary Supplement, 10 June 1949, p. 380.

  4. Fredric Warburg, “Publisher's Report,” December 1948, reprinted in Jeffrey Meyers, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 247.

  5. Samuel Sillen review, Masses and Mainstream, August 1949, p. 276.

  6. New York Times, 12 June 1949.

  7. Philip Rahv, Partisan Review, July 1949, p. 749.

  8. Diana Trilling, Nation, 25 June 1949, p. 716.

  9. Lionel Trilling, New Yorker, 18 June 1949, pp. 78-81.

  10. Lionel Trilling, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” in The Opposing Self (London: Secker and Warburg, 1955), pp. 151-2.

  11. Lionel Trilling, “Orwell on the Future,” in Samuel Hynes (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of 1984 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971), p. 24.

  12. Tom Hopkinson, World Review, June 1950, quoted in Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 490.

  13. Isaac Deutscher, “1984—The Mysticism of Cruelty,” in Russia and Transition and Other Essays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955), pp. 230-1.

  14. Julian Symons, “Tribune's Obituary,” reprinted in Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick, Orwell Remembered (London: Ariel, 1984), p. 275.

  15. The Times, 23 January 1950, p. 7.

  16. Irving Howe, “Orwell: History as Nightmare,” American Scholar, Spring 1956, reprinted in Politics and the Novel (London: Stevens and Sons, 1961), p. 236.

  17. Richard Rees, George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (London: Secker and Warburg, 1961), p. 27.

  18. George Woodcock, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), pp. 50-1.

  19. George Steiner, New Yorker, March 1969, reprinted in Meyers (ed.), p. 372.

  20. Rees, pp. 40 and 104.

  21. Woodcock, p. 157.

  22. Woodcock, pp. 258-9.

  23. Raymond Williams, Orwell (Glasgow: Fontana, 1971), pp. 87-8.

  24. Ibid., p.93.

  25. Ibid., p. 82.

  26. Ibid., p. 94.

  27. Deirdre Beddoe, “Hindrances and Help-Meets: Women in the Writings of George Orwell,” in Norris (ed.), p. 153.

  28. Beatrix Campbell, “Orwell—Paterfamilias or Big Brother,” in Norris (ed.), p. 130.

  29. Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 8.

  30. Ibid., pp. 153 and 160.

  31. Ibid., p. 139.

  32. Ibid., p. 139.

  33. Patrick Reilly, The Literature of Guilt (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 113.

  34. Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (London: Peter Halban, 1989), p. 135.

Nineteen Eighty-Four In History

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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,,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.,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.”


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2465

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,

  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,,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 and

  8. The Times, March 1, 1956.

  9. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for 1984 (1985), reprinted in

  10. Paul Howlett, “Watch This,” The Guardian, April 14, 2000,,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,

  13. Alfred Hickling, The Guardian, March 23, 2000, and Neil Cooper, The Sunday Times, March 18, 2000, reprinted at

Nineteen Eighty-Four As Studied

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4155

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 as the depiction in Orwell's “fantasy” of a present danger. Orwell would have the advantage of writing in a style and technique which many considered superior to that of science fiction or other genres such as the Western or the detective novel, which pursued Cold War tropes. Moreover, Orwell's fantasy would soon be hailed as a vision or reality.


Nineteen Eighty-Four is often compared, by those who admire Orwell, with the work of Jonathan Swift, in particular the satire Gulliver's Travels. The comparison is not as obvious as that with Animal Farm, given Swift's use of animals in his work, but Orwell scholars have focused on Part 4 of Gulliver, where the protagonist is stranded in the land of the equine Houyhnhnms.

Through Gulliver's explanation of his society to his Houyhnhnm master and his observation of the brutish human Yahoos “kept” by the Houyhnhnm, Swift critiques the hypocrisies of “civilization.” As Gulliver tells his master of the violence and vices, he begins “to view the actions and Passions of Man in a very different Light, and to think the Honour of my own Kind not worth managing.” Gulliver concludes to his readers, “I here take a final Leave of all my Courteous Readers, and return to enjoy my own Speculations in my little Garden at Redriff, to apply those excellent Lessons of Virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhnms, to instruct the Yahoos of my own Family as far as I shall find them docile Animals.”1

In this sense, both Orwell and Swift can be seen as literary “dissidents,” questioning the presumption that the rulers of a society must be just. Winston might be a 20th-century Gulliver, awakening to the realization that he cannot passively accept the tyranny of the State/Party. The link, however, is tenuous, both in the content and the style of the novels. Gulliver's English government may be far from optimal but it does not begin to approach the totalitarianism of Oceania. Gulliver may be chastened at the end of his adventure, but he is not crushed. Indeed there is a hope in his proclamation that he will “instruct” his fellow Yahoos. Swift's mockery, even in the depth of his frustration, also eases the evils of his world, even if it does not remove them. Orwell never approaches the humor, albeit a black humor, that is present in Gulliver's Travels.

There seems to be another, non-literary agenda for juxtaposing Swift and Orwell. The latter can be seen as the 20th-century descendant of the former, upholding the tradition of the English “dissenter” maintaining independence against the pressures of the State. (Of course Swift was Irish; however, English critics have a habit of adopting Irish writers as their own.) Fredric Warburg wrote in his publisher's summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The savagery of Swift has passed to a successor who looks upon life and finds it becoming ever more intolerable.”2 Bernard Crick, quoting Orwell's friend T. R. Fyvel, would elevate the author as “the independence of Swift mixed up with the humility of Oliver Goldsmith.”3


In the first half of the 20th century, there was a plethora of novels which projected future societies. Perhaps the most famous were the works of H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, but there were other popular authors such as the poet Cecil Day Lewis, the political activist (and later Member of Parliament) Feener Brockway, and established writers Storm Jameson, Patrick Hamilton, and Kenneth Allot.4 And, of course, there was Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, to some the “inspiration” for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Andy Croft has argued that the promotion of Orwell ensured the eclipse of almost all of these works. Other scholars, however, point to essential differences. Orwell's Oceania was not of the future but of the near-future or even of the present gone wrong. Orwell's vision of political systems was not based on speculation about what might happen socially, economically, and technologically over several hundred years but upon observation of what actually existed in 1948.

In fact, this division between Orwell and other authors of dystopia is contrived. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), perhaps the best-known futurist vision in Britain, may be dealing with a genetically and psychologically-engineered Utopia of the 26th century; however, Huxley is concerned with many of the issues that occupied Orwell.

At the heart of both works is the question of the relationship between the individual and a system which will not tolerate individuality. Huxley's Bernard Marx cannot accept the established ideology, beliefs, and conventions of his society. That ideology is directed toward the assurance of happiness (rather than Oceania's crushing of the desire for happiness) through conditioned acceptance of a place within the hierarchical society. “Thought” is replaced by a full schedule of sporting and sexual pursuits and the consumption of soma, a drug which brings contentment.

Huxley goes even further than Orwell by offering other protagonists in search of themselves within Utopia. There is Bernard's friend, Helmholtz, who aspires to turn his writing talents from “emotional engineering” into poetry about solitude. There is John who, through a series of accidents, is the offspring of two citizens of Utopia but is born and raised in the Savage Reservation. He is taken by Bernard to the Utopia where he rebels against being displayed, swaps poetry with Helmholtz, and challenges the society's views of sex, marriage, death, and happiness. The personal “revolutions,” like Winston's, end in failure: Bernard begs for forgiveness, blaming the others for his transgressions; Helmholtz leaves for the “thoroughly bad” climate of the Falkland Islands to write his poetry, John hangs himself.

This, in itself, offers much for comparison with Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Huxley went even further with a foreword to the novel, written in 1946. Unlike Orwell, he turned upon his novel to seek an ending beyond the pessimism of the defeated individual. Whereas the “hope” of Nineteen Eighty-Four has had to be manufactured by defenders of Orwell who cannot accept the bleakness of the vision, Huxley wrote:

Today I feel no wish to demonstrate that sanity is impossible. On the contrary, though I remain no less sadly certain than in the past that sanity is a rather rare phenomenon. I am convinced that it can be achieved and would like to see more of it.5

It is worth quoting Huxley on his hoped-for society at length, not only to establish an alternative to pessimism but also to burst the depiction of Orwell as the repository of English “decency”:

If I were to now rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World, living within the borders of the Reservation. In this community economics would be decentralist …, politics … co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not … as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligence pursuit of man's Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of High Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle—the first question to be asked and answered in every of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man's Final End?”6

Huxley's work does draw upon the stereotype of the “noble savage” present in European writing since the 16th century but, unlike Orwell's one-dimensional and ultimately empty recitation of hope in the proles, Huxley offers a considered evaluation of hierarchy without simply elevating the “primitive” above the “advanced.” His critique shows a consideration and appreciation of political, economic, social, philosophical, and religious theories which Orwell shunned.

One other aspect of Brave New World, in comparison with Nineteen Eighty-Four, should be noted. The work is playful in its satire, showing a lightness of touch that Orwell only approached in Coming Up for Air. The Utopia's “God” is Henry Ford; its sign the “T” (the Christian cross with the top cut off) of Ford's Model T. The production line of automobiles has pointed the way for the production line of human beings. Huxley also dabbles with playground rhymes, psychology (at one point, “Our Ford” becomes “Our Freud”), and the language of Shakespeare; in comparison, Orwell's use of “Orange and Lemons” is harsh and somewhat clumsy. Huxley's fancy offers relief from his nightmare; Orwell's literalness gives no such respite.7


In its glum portrayal of an individual crushed by a relentless system without humor, without joy, Nineteen Eighty-Four is possibly best compared not with Swift or Huxley but with Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Rubashov is a member of the Inner rather than the Outer Party, and he is more of a “believer” in the system than Winston; however, the crushing of his spirit is just as poignant as that of Winston's will in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Koester's work arguably carries more impact than that of Orwell. Because of Rubashov's genuine adherence to Communism, his disillusionment and anguish have a depth not matched by Winston's giving up of “2 + 2 = 4.” The sacrifice of Nineteen Eighty-Four's protagonist is ultimately personal, whereas Rubashov has given up a lifetime of political belief. This loss is heightened because Koestler is clearly referring to a real-life system, in this case the Soviet Communism of The Leader (Lenin) and Number One (Stalin). Orwell, in contrast, always maintains a “general” conception of a totalitarian system which is not tied to a specific country or ideology. As O'Brien makes clear:

There were the German Nazis and the Russian Communists. The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done. …

In the old days the heretics walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.


Another difference between Koestler and Orwell would ultimately work to the latter's advantage. Whatever the power of Darkness at Noon, Koestler was in the end a foreigner. Orwell could uphold Nineteen Eighty-Four as an Englishman.


British literature featured a rich variety of authors in the middle of the 20th century. Despite this, Orwell is usually considered a special case, treated separately not only from the novelists of the previous generation such as Virginia Woolf, poets such as W. H. Auden, and critics such as Cyril Connolly (a good friend of Orwell's), but also contemporary novelists such as Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene.

In part, this is due to Orwell's distancing of his opinions and his work from fellow writers. He was well-known for his attacks upon the character of contemporaries as well as their publications. W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and “the rest of that gang” were “of the pansy Left,” writers of the “public school-university-Bloomsbury pattern” of “the soft-boiled emancipated middle-class.”8 It is notable that Orwell's major essays of literary criticism were either of past British authors such as Charles Dickens or Rudyard Kipling or of recent or contemporary American authors such as Jack London and Henry Miller. His criticism of contemporary British works, in contrast to his sweeping attacks on the British “literary clique,” was limited to reviews of books by minor authors.

Orwell himself had been set apart from other novelists by critics long before the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a sense, this was due to Orwell's relative failure as a writer of fiction before 1945. Q. D. Leavis, in the only comprehensive review of Orwell's work up to 1940, wrote, “if he would give up trying to be a novelist, Mr. Orwell might find his métier in literary criticism, in a special line of it peculiar to himself and which is particularly needed now.”9 Later critics agreed, as in John Wain's assessment, “Orwell's essays are obviously much better than his novels.”10

However, this still does not explain why the “established” Orwell, with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, was not compared with those writers who followed him. Less than a decade after his death, critics would be labeling novelists and playwrights such as John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Alan Sillitoe as the “Angry Young Men” of British literature. Few made the obvious link with the work of Orwell who, like these writers, had condemned the materialism, hypocrisy, and grimness of modern British life. Nor would Orwell be considered with Ray Bradbury, whose Fahrenheit 451 would appear within a few years of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Anthony Burgess, whose Clockwork Orange (1962) would further Orwell's consideration of the individual, violence, psychological “adjustment,” and society.

It appears that Orwell has been privileged because of his special linkage of internal and external enemies, particularly in the late 1940s. Auden wrote about the civil war in Spain, in a poem which was attacked by Orwell, and Isherwood set his novels in Germany, but both were left behind once the menace was Soviet Communism. While Graham Greene had established himself, his novels and nonfiction about Englishmen and Americans abroad, with their scathing critique of the hypocrisy of Western foreign policy, were still to come. The “Angry Young Men” offered an “inward” examination of Britain, never linking social problems to evils abroad.


It has been the special fate of Nineteen Eighty-Four that not only are its themes held up as universal but that the novel established how these themes should be considered. Whether or not Orwell intended the work as a commentary on the Soviet threat, the book would be held up as the consummate “Cold War novel.”

You must read [Nineteen Eighty-Four], sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atomic bomb on the Bolshies.

(New York bookseller, 1949. Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, “1984—The Mysticism of Cruelty,” in Russia in Transition and Other Essays [London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957]: 245)

(A valuable comparison is with Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead, which was published the year before Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mailer's study of the effects of war on an American unit in the Asian theatre in World War II was not only specific but general, raising the question of whether conflict produced an American embrace of authoritarianism and fascism. While the novel would receive literary acclaim, its political message would be set aside in the 1950s.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four was a broad enough work, however, to move beyond the immediate environment of anti-Communism. In the 1960s Orwell and the novel would be adopted by some “New Left” activists to criticize the expanding authority of Western governments. Even more importantly, Nineteen Eighty-Four has survived because, although the conflict with Soviet Communism ended in 1991, other themes of the novel continued to have contemporary resonance. In particular, Orwell's picture of the “surveillance society” has been used to question the introduction and expansion of computer records, closed-circuit television, and electronic and satellite spying from the 1960s.

Yet even this may not be enough to secure the novel's lasting reputation, at least as a harbinger of danger. In recent years, the “surveillance society” has been accepted in many areas, with Western cities now featuring cameras in public areas as well as in many “private” neighborhoods and with the economic life of most people well-documented by financial agencies if not “the State.” The adoption of Nineteen Eighty-Four for the global phenomenon “Big Brother,” in which contestants compete by living “on-camera” 24 hours a day, raises the question: will Orwell and his dark vision ultimately become part of a world of light entertainment more akin to the Brave New World of Huxley?


A symbol, in the broadest sense, is an image, an incident, or an item in a work that takes on a significance other than its evident objective meaning. Unlike most literary works, where the symbolism is latent or even unintended, the political nature of Nineteen Eighty-Four means that much of its symbolism is usually “given” by Orwell to the reader. Thus the portrayal of the leader, Big Brother, stands for the totalitarian nature of the Party “watching” over the populace. Other intended symbolism is subverted by Orwell's critique of propaganda. There is little that is victorious in Victory Mansions, Victory Gin, or Victory Cigarettes. The Ministry of Love is far from loving and the Ministry of Peace far from peaceful.

This overt symbolism extends to other aspects of the novel. The meaning of the Golden Country is apparent in its name. The antique hemisphere of coral in Mr. Charrington's shop, as well as the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” and the associated churches of England (including one, St. Clement Danes, whose painting is on the wall of Winston and Julia's hideaway), also represent the “lost” England. These symbols are also “lost” or subverted when the Thought Police smash the hemisphere and Mr. Charrington adds the lines to the nursery rhyme: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” (869) A more subtle subversion is within the name of Winston's pub, The Chestnut Tree Café. The pub is grimy and filled with sadness, but it is here rather than in the Golden Country that Winston comes to rest after his torture and betrayal of Julia. This is echoed in a song heard in the pub earlier in the novel, “Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me: / There lie they, and here lie we / Under the spreading chestnut tree.” (788)


Orwell establishes a clear economic as well as political and social structure in Nineteen Eighty-Four with the division between the Party members and the “proles.” The structure is defined not as much by the caricatured depiction of the proles as by the explanation in Goldstein's manifesto. The book offers a Marxist explanation of imperialism, “All of the disputed territories [between the superstates] contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber which in colder climates it is necessary to synthesize by comparatively expensive methods. But above all they contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labour.” (854) It then turns to the necessary division of the classes at home:

An all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction—indeed, in some sense was the destruction—of a hierarchical society. In a world which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. … In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.


Orwell's explanation, through Goldstein, is the most complete development of economic theory to be found in any of his writings. It is undermined, however, by its place in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is not integrated into the novel but attached, somewhat artificially, as an exegesis. It is likely that many readers skip the description altogether, especially as some editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four print it in small typeface which is difficult, even painful, to follow. The worth of Goldstein's explanation is also questioned by O'Brien's revelation that it is not “real” but is the creation of the Party.


The dominant approach of critics towards Nineteen Eighty-Four is the evaluation of its representation of history and current events as well as its political significance for later generations. For most, the strength of Nineteen Eighty-Four is its “realism” in portraying actual conditions in post-war England and its portrayal of a totalitarianism which might control Britain in the near-future. That strength, however, was undermined by Orwell's refusal to define whether the novel was a specific criticism of Soviet Communism and the threat of its expansion, whether it was directed at political philosophies, apart from Communism, which existed within Western countries, or whether it was directed at a general psychological tendency which transcended a specific political movement or philosophy.

Orwell's position was further complicated by his own record of anti-Communism, which included savage attacks against non-Communist figures whom he believed too “soft” on the Soviet Union, and by his place within a network of anti-Communist writers, political activists, and intelligence officers in postwar Britain. The eagerness of Orwell's publishers, especially in the United States, and subsequently his widow to work with Government authorities to promote Nineteen Eighty-Four would also contribute to the novel's specific positioning within a political as well as literary environment.

Thus no “pure” or transcendent reading of the novel may ever have been possible. Defenders of Nineteen Eighty-Four often start from the premise that Soviet Communism was evil; the novel took a stand against that Communism; therefore, the novel is “good,” whatever its literary merits. Conversely, other critics have started from the premise that anti-Communism was a destructive force in Western societies; Nineteen Eighty-Four was an important weapon in the hands of anti-Communists; therefore, Nineteen Eighty-Four was “bad,” whatever its literary merits.

A historical approach might “rescue” Nineteen Eighty-Four by taking it out of this immediate Cold War environment. One could argue that the Soviet Union, with the death of Stalin, changed significantly only four years after the death of Stalin and that by 1963 the immediate conflict between Washington, London, and Moscow was replaced by “co-existence.” It might be observed that the costliest conflict for the United States, both in the cost of lives and in the effect on national psychology, was not with Communism but with the nationalist movement in Vietnam. One might also ask how Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is primarily based on a vision of North American and European systems, could be read in the “emerging” countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Thus Nineteen Eighty-Four's significant political impact in countries in Eastern Europe up to the fall of repressive systems in 1989 could be upheld, as Orwell may have intended, as a victory against the general tyrannies of States rather than a specific Red threat. If so, one might argue that the book's mission had not ended, for repressive States were arguably as common and as pernicious in the non-Communist world as they were beyond the Iron Curtain.

With such an approach, the book might offer new challenges today. The reader might pause, for example, to consider if the State can continue to mobilize mass hatred against new enemies, if patriotism can lead to further destruction rather than progress, or if a “war against terrorism” abroad might lead to curbs on civil liberties at home. Above all, in a world where the terms “good” and “evil” have been invoked with as much or more strength than they were in the late 1940s, the reader might consider that Nineteen Eighty-Four finds that the pursuit of such “good” and “evil” is the justification, rather than the cure, of the all-powerful State.


  1. The text of the 1726 Motte edition of Gulliver's Travels, with corrections from the 1735 Faulkner edition, is available at

  2. Fredric Warburg, “Publisher's Report,” in George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, ed. Jeffrey Meyers (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975): 24.

  3. Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982): 58.

  4. See Andy Croft's “Worlds Without End Foisted Upon the Future—Some Antecedents of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left, ed. Christopher Norris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984): 183-216.

  5. Aldous Huxley, 1946 foreword to Brave New World (London: Harper Collins, 2001): ii.

  6. Ibid, iii.

  7. When one compares Huxley and Orwell, Bernard Crick's paean to the “humour” of the latter is curious. [Bernard Crick, “The Reception of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Apocalyptic Imagination in America (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1985): 18.

  8. George Orwell to Cyril Connolly, 27 April 1938, 328; and George Orwell, “Inside the Whale,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell, eds. Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, Vol. 1 (London:Secker and Warburg, 1968): 493-528.

  9. Q. D. Leavis, “The Literary Life Respectable: Mr. George Orwell,” Scrutiny, September 1940: 173-6.

  10. John Wain review, Twentieth Century, January 1954: 71.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143

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; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 4, 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 3, 7; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 29; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 6, 15, 31, 51; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.


Essays and Criticism