Background

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1984 is George Orwell’s most famous and enduring work, with the possible exception of his political fable Animal Farm. The novel has been translated into more than 60 languages, condensed in the Reader’s Digest, made into two movies, and presented on television.

The widespread impact of 1984 is evidenced by the changes in language that it effected. Today, the word “Orwellian” refers to any regimented and dehumanized society. Words like “Newspeak,” “unperson,” “doublethink,” and “thoughtcrime” have become part of the English language. And the familiar phrase “Big Brother Is Watching You” has become synonymous with the concept of a totalitarian state.

1984’s influence on other twentieth-century works has been considerable: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1954) shares the theme of repression and the destruction of a culture (in this case, books), and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) shares a British setting as well as an invented language, much like the Newspeak of Oceania.

Orwell thought of writing 1984 as early as 1940, during World War II but he did not complete it until 1948 when the Cold War was beginning. The anti-Fascist writing of the 1930s and 1940s had a profound influence on Orwell, and is reflected in his writing.

Moreover, events in Communist Russia also impacted the plot and theme of 1984. From 1922 when Lenin suffered a stroke until 1928—four years after his death—there was a power struggle between Leon Trotsky Minister of War, and Joseph Stalin then Secretary of the Communist party. Stalin continued to grow even more influential as a member of the Politbureau, a small group of party bosses where his function was to manage the day-to-day activities of the Communist party. In 1921 Stalin became liaison between the Central Control Commission and the Central Committee; in this capacity he could control the purges designed to keep the party pure. He used this position to his advantage.

Stalin, along with allies Zinoviev and Kamenev, soon proved invincible as they utilized the secret police to put down all plots against them. While resisting Trotsky’s urges to somewhat democratize the party, they eliminated his followers by sending them abroad. Trotsky was forced to resign as Minister of War. He was later expelled from the Politbureau, exiled from Russia, and eventually assassinated by one of Stalin’s secret police.

From 1928 until World War II, Stalin enjoyed supreme power in Russia. Among the changes he brought to Russian life were collective agriculture, industrialization with forced labor, and the build-up of the authoritarian state combined with the annihilation of all political opposition. In 1928 began the era of the Five-Year Plans, each of which set ambitious goals for the next five years. The goals of the first Five-Year Plan were never actualized; nevertheless, the government announced that they had been realized in 1932. Immediately, another Five-Year Plan went into effect.

Changes were felt in Russian society as well. Freedom to choose one’s job was non-existent; those who resisted were sent to labor camps. Stalin’s dictatorship was complete when the vast majority of unskilled workers became controlled by a minority of loyal skilled workers and bureaucrats who enjoyed certain privileges restricted from the masses. Thus, the gulf between the classes widened and a new elite was created.

To refute contradictory information, Stalin had histories rewritten to show that Lenin had favored his accession to power. He enjoyed a certain amount of hero-worship as cities were named in his honor.

There were critics, however, whom Stalin eliminated during the Great Purges of 1934-1938, which destroyed all possibility of future conspiracies. By 1936, when Stalin proclaimed the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) “the most democratic in the world,” this was hardly an accurate description.

Under Stalin’s dictatorship, the USSR had become a one-party state where elections were a mockery. Although all were eligible to belong to the Communist party, membership was, in fact, a privilege. The party was built upon a pyramidical structure with power and privilege for an elite few. At each level of the pyramid existed organizations to generate propaganda, train military personnel, and educate bureaucrats. All of these activities were designed to increase party loyalty and strength. Stalin remained a dictator through World War II until his death in 1953. Some elements in the plot of 1984 parallel this history.

Five books, in particular, seem to have had a direct impact on the creation of 1984. Fyodor Zamyatin’s We (1923), reviewed by Orwell in 1946, provided the idea for a futuristic, anti-Utopian frame for the novel. There are several resemblances between the works, both of which are also derived from H. G. Wells’ anti-Utopian satire When the Sleeper Walks (1899). Likewise, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), to which 1984 is frequently compared, is set in the future and deals with a regimented society. From Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), Orwell took ideas about the atmosphere of a totalitarian society. This “concentration camp” literature details the struggle of its main character to maintain his individuality after his arrest and torture. James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941) gave Orwell the idea for a world controlled by superstates. These powers became the Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia of 1984.

The novel’s bleak ending prompted readers and critics to take it as an attack on socialism in general and Communist Russia in particular and a prophesy of what would happen in the West should communism spread. Orwell was asked if his book should be interpreted as prophesy. He answered this question in a letter of June 1949:

I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily WILL, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it COULD arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. (1)

In 1949, some readers were also concerned that Orwell had set the novel in Britain. Orwell replied, “The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not FOUGHT against, could triumph anywhere.” (2)

Opinions among critics have not been entirely favorable. Some point to the novel’s overwhelming pessimism and its denouement as flawed, claiming the novel obviously is a reflection of Orwell’s last illness. Others believe that it should be judged as a period piece bearing little relevance to today’s world. After all, there was no special significance to the title. Orwell simply transposed the last two numbers of the year in which he finished the book.

Thus, it can be seen that a number of factors influenced the creation of 1984, including literary sources and historical events. In order to understand the full impact of this novel, the student needs to be familiar with these influences.

Historical Context

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

Totalitarianism

When Orwell's 1984 was released in 1948, World War II had just concluded. One of England's wartime allies was Russia, governed by the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin's rule was marked by his brutal midnight purges, during which he would gather and execute hundreds of people, much like the "vaporized" citizens of Oceania. Stalin's targets were often perceived enemies, including political dissidents, artists, and Jews. Similarly, Adolf Hitler in Germany had exterminated his adversaries, ultimately killing six million Jews and nine million Slavs, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, and mentally challenged individuals. In China, Mao Tse-tung was engaged in a battle for communism against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Mao eventually triumphed over the nationalists in 1949, ushering in a long period of oppressive totalitarian rule.

Other notable dictators of the era included Francisco Franco in Spain and Benito Mussolini in Italy. These autocrats maintained control over their citizens through a combination of propaganda and violence. This environment inspired Orwell to create Big Brother, the ultimate totalitarian figure who oversees all political, social, and economic activities.

Socialism and Communism

In the mid-1930s, Orwell fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, aligning himself with the socialist left. Though not a communist, Orwell was a committed democratic socialist who believed that the government should manage the production and distribution of goods, rather than private businesses. He was deeply concerned with the welfare of the poor and working class.

Throughout the twentieth century, working-class people globally struggled for better living conditions. In America, workers fought a prolonged battle for labor reforms that eventually led to benefits such as job security, safety regulations, overtime and hazardous duty pay, vacation and sick days, health insurance, pensions, disability, and child labor laws—benefits modern workers often take for granted. Some workers in the U.S. and Britain turned to socialism and communism, hoping these alternative economic and social systems might address their issues. In the late nineteenth century, German philosopher Karl Marx suggested that to address the severe inequality between workers and their employers, the working class, or proletariat, would need to revolt and establish a new communist regime where a single authoritarian party would control both political and economic systems. Marx envisioned workers owning their farms and factories, distributing profits evenly among themselves.

In America, capitalist factory and mine owners eventually acceded to labor's demands, marginalizing socialists and communists and preventing a worker-led revolt against the government. While communist revolutions did occur in Russia and China, those countries ultimately modified their economic systems.

During the Cold War in the 1950s, America's reaction to communism was extreme. Many believed the U.S. government was acting as oppressively as communist regimes. Led by Senator Joe McCarthy, the House Committee on Un-American Activities aggressively targeted public figures suspected of being communists. They demanded these individuals name other communists or face being blacklisted in their industries. Hollywood writers and filmmakers were particularly affected, with many careers ruined before President Truman and public sentiment turned against McCarthy, bringing an end to the witch hunt. The paranoia of the McCarthy era was reminiscent of the fear depicted in 1984, where people were pressured to betray friends, colleagues, and even family to protect themselves. Today, communism still has some adherents in the United States and England, along with Democratic socialism, which Orwell fully supported.

Television

In addition to his concerns about labor and government, Orwell was keenly aware of a significant invention gaining popularity after World War II: the television. The first BBC broadcast in Britain occurred in 1937, and TV was first showcased to the American public in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. Television's popularity surged throughout the 1950s, and today, 98% of American households own at least one color TV. Orwell foresaw the immense potential of this communication tool, which would soon be ubiquitous. He envisioned that television could not only broadcast continuous propaganda but also transmit images back, enabling broadcasters to spy on viewers.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

1948: The Soviets blockade West Berlin, Germany. In response, the Americans initiate an airlift to support the isolated Berliners.

1984: The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, still stands.

Today: East and West Germany have reunified following the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

1948/49: Mao Tse-tung engages in conflict with Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist forces, ultimately defeating them in 1949 and establishing a totalitarian communist regime.

1984: China has endured the harsh cultural purges of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Following President Nixon's visit in 1972, China opened to the West in the 1970s and is now trading with Western nations, incorporating minor democratic and economic reforms.

Today: In 1989, students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, protested for greater economic and civil rights reforms but were violently suppressed by Chinese troops. China continues to trade with the West, although its democratic movement has significantly slowed.

1948/49: In September 1949, President Truman announces that Russia has developed its own atomic bomb.

1984: The Cold War persists in 1991, with the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States intensifying.

Today: On December 8, 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign an agreement to dismantle a total of 1,752 U.S. and 859 Soviet nuclear missiles within a 300 to 3,400-mile range. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrates. American investors are aiding the Soviets in establishing new businesses as they focus on economic reform.

1949: The United States boasts one million television sets and two dozen TV stations. By 1951, there will be ten million sets, and by 1959, fifty million.

1984: Eighty-five million U.S. households own a television set, with almost half having cable access. Computers are becoming household items, with approximately 13% or 516,750 computers owned by consumers.

Today: Ninety-eight percent of U.S. households (95 million homes) own a color television set, with 28 percent owning three or more TVs, and 65 percent having cable access. Emerging TV technology includes high-definition television. By 1995, over three million people owned a personal computer. The Internet, a vast network originating in the 1960s, connects users from over 160 countries and saw explosive growth in the 1990s, with an estimated 20 to 30 million users by mid-1995.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

Written in the tradition of the Utopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four is best described as a dystopia, essentially the opposite of an ideal society. In this regard, Orwell's work aligns with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and, more notably, Eugene Zamiatin's We (circa 1920), both of which Orwell had read before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although structurally distinct, Orwell's novel shares thematic similarities and developmental patterns with these works. Unlike Huxley and Zamiatin, who envisioned futuristic societies vastly different from their own times, Orwell crafted a future that was strikingly realistic and recognizable.

First published in 1924, Zamiatin's We was an early fictional critique of the nascent Soviet Russia. Bearing a strong resemblance to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamiatin's novel evidently influenced Orwell's view of the totalitarian state and reinforced much of his political and creative ideology. Zamiatin's work can be credited with providing Orwell thematic guidance, character insights, and perhaps the most effective means to convey his artistic vision.

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