- Orwell once wrote that he wanted to "make political writing into an art" ("Why I Write"). He achieved that goal in 1984, a gripping dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarianism.
- 1984's subversive approach to themes of free will, patriotism, rebellion, and insanity resulted in the book's being banned in several states. Today, 1984 is considered a classic.
- 1984's famous first line, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," establishes the foreboding tone of the novel. Orwell goes on to paint a stark, unflinching portrait of life under totalitarian rule.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
Considering 1984’s publication four years after World War II, Orwell’s dystopian society reflects on how the trauma of war impacts civilization. Given the apocalyptic destruction wrought by the deadly global conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, Orwell illuminates the dangerous influence that nationalist policies had in enabling totalitarianism and extremism in the prior decade.
1984 thus paints a picture of a future society embroiled in eternal war in which the Party forcibly manipulates the public to embrace their message—“WAR IS PEACE / FREEDOM IS SLAVERY / IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”—through propaganda and aggressive surveillance tactics. Orwell thus traces a parallel between recent history and the Party’s implementation of dehumanizing and politically corrupt policies into social structures that ensure that the powerless submit to the powerful.
Halfway through the novel, Winston reads Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a controversial text recounting the transformation of civilization as a result of the world’s obsession with war. In the text, Goldstein explains how war “is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century” but rather a necessary means for the Party to maintain a hierarchical society. He asserts that “an all-around increase in wealth threatened the destruction” of this purposeful imbalance of power:
The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.
A central concern in 1984 is the role of consciousness in combating this system. Because the Party’s ideology essentially reduces human lives to the mere “products of human labour,” intelligence and thought threaten to destroy these hierarchical structures. Accordingly, the Party prohibits moral reasoning and emotional awareness. In their system, any individual expression is considered “thoughtcrime.”
In highlighting the conflict between the Party’s objectives and the presence of human consciousness, Orwell investigates the methods by which humans have preserved truth and knowledge throughout history. In particular, books—especially historical texts—symbolize the preservation and dissemination of truth. Winston’s job entails rewriting these texts to destroy any record of history before the Party came into power. For example, he describes having to change the political literature to reflect that “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia” and not Eurasia. Additionally, early on in the novel, Winston has a discussion with his co-worker, Syme, who explains that “the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of human thought” through “the destruction of words” in order to eliminate the possibility of influential ideas that could lead to rebellion. In some respects, then, Winston’s diary—which reflects his intellectual awareness and sense of identity—is considered dangerous, because preserving memories and engaging in reflection threatens the Party’s power.
Furthermore, Goldstein explains in his book the purpose of “doublethink,” in which intentional contradictions in language function for the purpose of exerting mind control:
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in DOUBLETHINK. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. If human equality is to be for ever averted—if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently—then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.
As this passage communicates, the Party is able to achieve its primary objective of absolute power by manipulating the powerless into submission. The Party achieves this by convincing its citizens that any ideas that contradict the Party’s values are irrelevant, nonexistent, or insane. Considering how modern societies, on the other hand, inherently value freedom of speech and freedom of the press as necessary to maintaining a civilized, just, and peaceful society, this contradiction remains an especially grave concern. Modern societies carefully examine how past patterns of war and devastation might recur in the future.
1984 reflects upon the horrors wrought by World War II—the deadliest and most catastrophic war in history—in depicting a dystopian future ravaged by total war. When Winston is imprisoned in the third part of the novel, O’Brien explains to him how the Party’s strategies have been more effective than those of past oligarchies:
All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives.
O’Brien then illustrates how the Party, on the other hand, is transparent in their motive “to seek power entirely for its own sake,” firmly believing that “power is not a means, it is an end.” As recent events in history demonstrate—especially the unspeakable evils committed during the Holocaust—this obsession with absolute power at the expense of the powerless leads to both totalitarianism and demagoguery, and these hierarchal social structures thus rely on discrimination and persecution to enforce their ideologies. The Party instills fear of foreigners as a means to maintaining control over the masses, a tactic that Goldstein explains in the following excerpt:
If [a citizen] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.
This distrust of foreigners also gives the Party fuel to implement extremist policies that capitalize upon the human capacity for hatred, such as portraying foreigners as inhuman forces of pure evil. Likewise, Big Brother—representing the dangers of blind worship and religious extremism—symbolizes the omnipotence and omnipresence of the Party’s values. Further, Goldstein describes Big Brother as a tool used by the Party to serve as a “focusing point for love, fear, and reverence” in order to prevent individuals from engaging in conscious thought and pursuing innovative ideas. He asserts that:
Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration...
Big Brother is simply a construct—a vehicle for the Party’s ideology and a means by which they strategically promote the idea that “ignorance is strength.” If ignorance is the source of strength, then the possibility for implementing progressive policies—especially social and economic equality—diminishes. Moreover, the influence of ignorance continues to threaten progressive humanism. In Goldstein’s words, “everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of semi-divine leader, the same economy existing by and for continuous warfare.”
Orwell’s futuristic society in 1984 remains one of the most influential literary works because of its eerie relevance to historical events since its publication. The novel is thus a cautionary tale that investigates the ways in which humanity veers towards authoritarianism, particularly focusing on the deleterious social effects of warfare. While Winston initially believes in the power of the human mind, in the end he is methodically stripped of this belief, and he succumbs to living out a meaningless existence. The ultimate question the novel presents, then, is whether any hope exists for a promising future if humanity continues to engage in deadly global conflicts.