The main themes of 1984 are mind control, conformity vs. individuality, and humanity as a destructive force.
- Mind control: Orwell depicts how an authoritarian state can shape its citizens' view of reality in order to control them.
Conformity vs. individuality: The Party views individual thoughts and actions as threatening to the state and therefore encourages conformity in all aspects of life.
- Humanity as a destructive force: In the dystopian world of 1984, love and other benevolent human principles are discouraged. Instead, the Party accentuates the basest and most destructive human qualities.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1354
Throughout 1984, George Orwell examines how in dystopian societies those in power seek to manipulate its citizens through mind control tactics. Winston illustrates how members of the superstate of Oceania live in constant dread of being found guilty of “thoughtcrime”—a term for harboring any thoughts considered criminal by powerful members of the Party, the faction ruling over Oceania. He even writes in his diary that “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Because of the overpowering presence of telescreens, he must also constantly monitor his emotional awareness, his conscious beliefs in opposition to the Party’s values, and “anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality” that could be detected by the Party’s Thought Police.
Moreover, Winston becomes dissociated from reality due to his inability to reconcile the contradictions between his memories and the present. This metaphysical conflict between emotional and physical existence, combined with his lapsed perception of time, causes Winston to question what these repressed memories mean. For example, after dreaming about his mother, Winston is aware “that he must have deliberately pushed [the memory] out of his consciousness over many years.” He reflects upon the power that this self-awareness holds in a society that rejects the existence of authentic human emotion:
But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings: for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They 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.
This objective to “stay human” is central to Winston’s evolution as a character, and while he is imprisoned the forces of mind control overpower him. As Winston sinks further into a dissociative state, O’Brien tells Winston his memories are defective and simply reveal his evident insanity. Accordingly, after he is released back into the world, Winston explains how “from now onwards he must not only think right; he must feel right, dream right.” Yet he is aware of his hatred—which he portrays as “a ball of matter which [is] a part of himself and yet unconnected with the rest of him”—towards the ideology he is forced to submit to.
Conformity vs. Individuality
The Party’s goal is to convince members of society that individualism is dangerous. Thus the Party intends to methodically enforce social conformity through fear-mongering, surveillance and censorship laws, and emotional manipulation. Early on in the novel, when Winston describes the events of Hate Week, he captures the pervasive herd mentality among citizens, which results from the Party’s efforts to eradicate any sense of identity from each human. This dissolution of identity ostensibly enables the Party to suppress the dissemination of ideas that could lead to rebellion. Accordingly, members are expected to abstain from pleasure under the belief that “marriage and the care of a family [are] incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty.” Members are to solely concern themselves with the Party’s principles. Consequently, Winston notes how “nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” due to the Party’s process of eliminating individuality.
In detailing the relationship between Winston and Julia, Orwell illustrates the power of ideas as a source of individual freedom and expression, as well as the consequent eradication of that power. Initially, Julia succeeds in appearing to conform to social norms, advising Winston to “always yell with the crowd,” because “it’s the only way to be safe.” Winston, however, does contemplate how her naiveté leads to a degree of indifference; after all, she has no memories of the former world to hold on to. Ultimately, neither Winston nor Julia successfully rebels against the system, and the Party’s conformist ideology reigns supreme. Nevertheless, their journeys show that individuality can never be completely eradicated.
Humanity as a Destructive Force
Orwell examines the process by which the ruling powers of the Party exploit human instincts to commit violent acts—described by Winston as “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness”—by removing all other values and sources of pleasure. Reflecting upon his mother’s death, Winston explains that the only emotions that matter are “fear, hatred, and pain." As O’Brien tells Winston near the end of the book, the only principle that truly matters in Oceania is power. There is no other value in human nature that will supercede it:
We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside—irrelevant.
In denying that human nature exists on its own, O’Brien suggests that essential human values—such as family, love, and compassion—are arbitrary and eradicable. In Oceania, this dehumanization process begins in childhood, during which phase children are “systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations,” thereby preventing non-Party values from having any influence. Orwell thus emphasizes the ethical implications of seeking power at all costs. In capitalizing upon these destructive human instincts, the Party maintains its control over the public.
Knowledge vs. Ignorance
Winston continually struggles to hold onto his own conceptions of truth in the face of the Party’s aggressive efforts to erase and rewrite history. Their concerted efforts to absolve any reliance on knowledge and intelligence allows the Party to coerce the citizens of Oceania to capitulate to Party values and thus believe the Party’s version of the truth. Internally, Winston’s narrative is driven by his hypervigilance in confronting these methods of deception and reclaiming both personal and objective truths. Despite his efforts, Winston is ultimately aware of his powerlessness in this endeavor.
Winston’s frustration with accepting the obsolescence of truth, history, and knowledge is illustrated in the following passage:
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists; its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre.
Winston’s growing commitment to defending the truth ultimately leads him to pursue rebellion, which then leads to his imprisonment. During Winston’s detainment, O’Brien aims to make Winston believe that “whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth,” and instructs him to “humble [him]self” in “an act of self destruction” in order cure his supposed insanity and absorb the Party’s versions of the truth.
This cycle—in which the Party disguises lies as truth and erases history to justify political and ethical decisions made in the present—is referred to as “reality control.” Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth ensures that this cycle continues. While engaging in his daily tasks, he communicates that history is “a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed.” This process of reality control thus further provides the ruling members of the Party with ammunition to assert their power over the powerless. Even Winston acknowledges that “the only evidence” of past events exists “inside [his] own mind,” methodically erased for the purpose of representing the Party and Big Brother as eternal and omnipotent forces in history. In order to obstruct the quest for absolute truth, the Party enforces blind faith and “a loyal willingness” to believe in unreliable truths among citizens as a means of control. In this way, Orwell suggests that the Party’s dangerous effectiveness in achieving this power arises out of the crucial conflict between ignorance and knowledge.