Theme Developed Through Characterization: As a protagonist, Winston develops from a dissatisfied but otherwise ordinary citizen into a rebellious enemy of the party and finally into a subservient loyalist. The dystopian setting informs his behavior and worldview, forcing Winston to either internalize his thoughts and feelings or risk execution. This specific use of characterization makes 1984 an excellent text for students to analyze in order to understand how characterization develops themes in works of literature.
- For discussion: How does Winston develop over the course of the text? What are some of the key turning points for Winston’s character? What does he learn? How does he change? Draw on specific examples from the novel.
- For discussion: Julia can be read as a character foil for Winston. Compare and contrast Winston with Julia in terms of their perspectives and interactions with others in Oceania. How do they feel about the Party? How do Winston’s acts of rebellion compare to Julia’s? What do the contrasts between these characters reveal about Winston? What do they reveal about the text’s themes?
- For discussion: How does Big Brother function in the text? What information does he convey to readers about the Party? What does his character reveal about the novel’s major themes?
Analyzing Language as an Instrument of Thought Control: Orwell subverts readers’ understanding of words, concepts, and reality as he describes Oceania’s oppressive world. This effect is built through irony, both verbal and situational, as shown through the Party’s implementation of Newspeak. The Party uses Newspeak to restrict language and thought, creating cognitive dissonance through which to control its citizens. Their slogans are paradoxical: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” Prominent institutions bear names that directly contradict what happens inside them: the Ministry of Love carries out torture, the Ministry of Truth disseminates propaganda, the Ministry of Peace wages war, and the Ministry of Plenty specializes in poverty. Citizens are required to accept these contradictions by developing the skill of “doublethink,” or the ability to think two opposing thoughts while accepting both to be true. Similarly, as readers’ understandings of Oceania develops along with Winston’s, they must also realize that meanings and situations are often different from what they seem.
- For discussion: Why is diction so important to the Party? In which situations does the Party use accurate language? When do they use contradictory language? How does verbal irony help the Party stay in control?
- For discussion: Syme, one of Winston’s co-workers, claims that the aim of Newspeak is to “narrow the range of thought.” How does Orwell seem to be defining the relationship between language and consciousness? Do you agree or disagree? How do you think restricting language impacts the way people think?
- For discussion: Cognitive dissonance is the deep discomfort felt when one is presented with two contradictory ideas, concepts, or versions of events. Why does the Party use cognitive dissonance as a weapon of manipulation? What do they gain by doing so?
- For discussion: Which aspects of Winston’s world do you find surprising? Compare and contrast your understanding of Oceania with Winston’s growing knowledge of the Party and how it forces citizens to willingly give up their freedom.
- For discussion: Why does the Party name their leader “Big Brother,” given that they all but destroyed familial love and loyalty? How does Big Brother help them stay in power?
The Threat of Totalitarianism: 1984 can be read as a political fable that presents a disturbing example of how a totalitarian state could arise anywhere at any time. Orwell draws on his own experiences with totalitarianism to explore how citizens can be systematically stripped of basic human rights through terror, propaganda, and poverty.
- For discussion: How would you describe Airstrip One,...
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