1984 Themes

The main themes of 1984 are the dangers of totalitarianism, the role of surveillance in oppression, and personal versus political loyalty.

  • The dangers of totalitarianism: Orwell wrote 1984 in part to warn readers about how socialist revolutions could degenerate into totalitarian regimes.
  • The role of surveillance in oppression: Big Brother represents the oppression inherent in totalitarianism, and constant surveillance makes it impossible for the people of Oceania to express themselves without fear of the Thought Police.
  • Personal versus political loyalty: In the dystopian world of 1984, love and personal loyalties are discouraged. Instead, the Party demands total loyalty from its citizens.

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(Novels for Students)

The Power of Big Brother
The sinister, mustachioed face symbolizing the Party's power is completely inescapable in George Orwell's parable of the future. When Winston Smith comes home to Victory Mansions, he feels the eyes of Big Brother on him thanks to posters on every landing in the stairwell. It is the same when he looks at a coin or cigarette packet. Each day, at the end of the Two Minutes Hate session directed at Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, all Party workers return to a state of calm when Big Brother appears on the giant telescreen, illustrating the near-hypnotic hold he exercises over the masses. It is just as Winston reads in Goldstein's The Theory of Oligarchic Collectivism: "[Big Brother's]function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt toward an individual than towards an organization."

When Winston is arrested and separated from the corrupting influence of Julia, O'Brien strives to make the rebellious civil servant an empty vessel that will once again surrender to Big Brother's all-consuming love. And in the end, Winston gives in: "He loved Big Brother." Orwell uses this figurehead for tyranny to powerfully illustrate the effect totalitarian government can have on the human spirit.

Freedom and Enslavement/Free Will
Orwell’s 1984 is set in Oceania, a totalitarian state ruled by a god-like leader named Big Brother who completely controls the citizens down to their very thoughts. Anyone who thinks subversive thoughts can be turned in by spies or by Big Brother, who monitors them through highly sensitive telescreens. If someone does not have the proper facial expression, they are considered guilty of Facecrime, so all emotions must be extremely carefully guarded. It is even possible to commit Thoughtcrime by being overheard talking in one’s sleep, which Winston Smith fears will happen to him; it actually happens to his neighbor Tom Parson. Freedom exists only in the proletarian ghetto, where crime and hunger are commonplace. Winston feels he could not live in this ghetto, even though his life is almost as grim as that of the ghetto dwellers.

The punishment for even minor crimes is severe, yet people occasionally choose to break the law. The Party knows that people instinctively want to have sex, form loving bonds, and think for themselves instead of accepting unquestioningly whatever the totalitarian government tells them. As long as people choose to exercise free will, the Party must be ever-vigilant against crime and make their punishments severe in order to remain in control.

Appearances and Reality
In totalitarian Oceania, it seems as if everyone is slavishly devoted to Big Brother and believes everything the government tells them. However, as we can understand from Winston’s thoughts, all is not as it seems. Some people secretly feel and believe differently from how they behave; of course, they are extremely careful not to betray themselves. Moreover, the Party is in control of all information and revises history, even yesterday’s history, to reflect their current version of events. Winston is very much aware of this, because it is his job in the inaccurately named Ministry of Truth to change the records of history. He cannot ignore what he remembers: Oceania was at war...

(The entire section is 2,500 words.)