- 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.
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,”...
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