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Written more than 70 years ago, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while 1984 has come and gone, his dystopian vision of a government that will do anything to control the narrative is timelier than ever…
• Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read •“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
A startling and haunting novel, 1984 creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the novel’s hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions—a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time. George Orwell (pseudonym for Eric Blair [1903-50]) was born in Bengal and educated at Eton; after service with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, he returned to Europe to earn his living penning novels and essays. He was essentially a political writer who focused his attention on his own times, a man of intense feelings and intense hates. An opponent of totalitarianism, he served in the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Besides his classic Animal Farm, his works include a novel based on his experiences as a colonial policeman, Burmese Days, two firsthand studies of poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia; and the extraordinary novel of political prophecy whose title became part of our language, 1984.
INTRODUCTIONIn 1949, on the heels of another literary classic, Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote 1984, his now legendary and terrifying glimpse into the future. His vision of an omni-present and ultra-repressive State is rooted in the ominous world events of Orwell’s own time and is given shape and substance by his astute play on our own fears.
As the novel opens, we learn that in year 1984, the world has been divided into three states: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, all of which, it is said, are almost continually in battle with one another. This world structure has come about following a nuclear war which took place sometime in the 1950’s. In the state of Oceania, a revolution has resulted in the rise of an all-seeing figurehead known only as Big Brother, and a secretive group of individuals referred to as The Party. Under this regime, basic freedoms of expression—even thought—are strictly forbidden. History and memory are actively erased and rewritten so as to support the omnipotence and infallibility of The Party and its pronouncements. To this end, the State even employs its own language, Newspeak, and its own thought process, Doublethink.
It’s against this background that we are introduced to Winston Smith, a low-level Party member (not to be confused with the elite group which surrounds Big Brother) who works in the Ministry of Truth. His job here, paradoxically, is to destroy and rewrite news articles and State facts and figures so as to align them with the most current views of The Party. A resident of Airstrip One—formerly London, England—Smith lives in a world devoid of even the simplest liberties. In this repressive society, where thoughts themselves can be ascertained and monitored, Winston finds himself alone and in quiet “revolution” against Big Brother. Boldly, he even goes as far as to write his own thoughts down on paper— a crime worthy of abduction by the Thought Police.
Early in the novel, Winston meets Julia, another worker at the Ministry of Truth, whom he has been watching from afar. Secretly, the two begin a love affair. This liaison inspires Winston to indulge his ever-growing obsession with revolution, and he and Julia begin to discuss, however implausible, ideas for the overthrow of The Party. Winston’s eventual (and inevitable) capture at the hands of the Thought Police leads to his purification and re-education by inner Party members.
Orwell’s strict attention to detail and realistic description of a world thirty-five years ahead of his own add validity to 1984, and make its larger conclusions all the more frightening. Even today, the novel remains a bleak and shadowy forewarning of what might someday occur.
ABOUT GEORGE ORWELLEric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. The family moved to England in 1907 and in 1917 Orwell entered Eton, where he contributed regularly to the various college magazines. From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). Several years of poverty followed. He lived in Paris for two years before returning to England, where he worked successively as a private tutor, schoolteacher and bookshop assistant, and contributed reviews and articles to a number of periodicals. Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933.
In 1936, he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit areas of mass unemployment in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a powerful description of the poverty he saw there. At the end of 1936 Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republicans and was wounded, and Homage to Catalonia is his account of the civil war. He was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco and there wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1941 to 1943. As literary editor of the Tribune he contributed a regular page of political and literary commentary, and he also wrote for the Observer and later for the Manchester Evening News. His unique political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him world-wide fame.
George Orwell died in London in January 1950. A few days before, Desmond MacCarthy had sent him a message of greeting in which he wrote: “You have made an indelible mark on English literature . . . you are among the few memorable writers of your generation.”
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe world within which Winston lives is replete with contradictions. For example a, major tenet of the Party’s philosophy is that War is Peace. Similarly, the Ministry of Love serves as, what we would consider, a department of war. What role do these contradictions serve on a grand scale? Discuss other contradictions inherent in the Party’s philosophy. What role does contradiction serve within the framework of Doublethink? How does Doublethink satisfy the needs of The Party?
In the afterword, the commentator describes 1984 as “a warning.” Indeed, throughout the text, Orwell plants both subtle and overt warnings to the reader. What do you think are some of the larger issues at hand here?
Describe the role that O’Brien plays in Winston’s life. Why do you think that initially, Winston is drawn to O’Brien? Why does he implicitly trust him, despite the enormous dangers involved?
Discuss the significance and nature of Winston’s dreams. Deconstruct the dream wherein O’Brien claims that they “shall meet in a place where there is no darkness” (page 22), and the dream in which Winston’s mother and sister disappear (page 26). What are the underpinnings of these dreams? What deeper meanings do they hold? Why do you think the author devotes as much time as he does to Winston’s dreams?
Discuss Winston as a heroic figure. What qualities does he posses that could define him as one?
Compare and contrast some of the other characters in Winston’s world: Parsons, Syme, O’Brien. How does Winston view each one? How do they differ from Winston? What opinion do you think each one has of Winston?
On pages 147-148, Winston reflects on the omnipresence of The Party: “He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them….Facts at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by inquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive, but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make?” What, in essence, is Winston saying about the lone individual in relation to The State? Does this contention remain true throughout the novel?
Early on in the novel, we learn of Winston’s belief in the proles as a liberating force. What accounts for Winston’s almost blind faith in the proles? What are some of the characteristics of the proles that, in Winston’s eyes, make them the ultimate means for overthrowing Big Brother?
From her first appearance as “the dark-haired girl,” through to the end of the novel, Julia is a key figure in 1984. Trace the path of Julia in relation to Winston’s life; in what ways does she influence him? Did you trust her, initially? Overall, do you feel she had a positive or negative impact upon him?
After his first formal meeting with O’Brien, Winston receives a book, ostensibly written by Emmanuel Goldberg. In reading passages from this book, Winston is further enlightened as to “how” the current society came into being. Focus on these passages, and in particular, on the theory of the High, Middle and Low classes (page 179). If true, what does this theory hold for the proles? Is Winston’s plan for the proles now altered? Why or why not?
During Winston’s interrogation, O’Brien explains that whereas preceding totalitarian regimes had failed, The Party was truly successful in its consolidation of power (page 226). How, according to O’Brien, does the The Party as an oligarchy differ from Nazism or Russian Communism? How does he define the role of the martyr, both in terms of The Party and the other totalitarian systems?
Following his capture in Mr. Charrington’s spare room, Winston undergoes a process of “philosophical cleansing” and re-education against which he valiantly, but unsuccessfully fights. Discuss Winston’s “capitulation” at the hands of O’Brien. How is Winston brought to “love Big Brother?” In sacrificing Julia, how has Winston, in essence, signaled his own end?
How would you describe the author’s tone in 1984? Does it add to or detract from the character’s discourse?
Discuss the role of sex and intimacy in 1984. What specific function does the Party’s directive on sexual interaction serve?
In the final analysis, how accurate was Orwell in his vision of the future? In what ways does our contemporary society compare to his idea of society in 1984? Are there examples in which he was correct? What is most opposite? Do you see a potential for aspects of Orwell’s “vision” to come true?
During his final encounter with O’Brien, Winston argues that, if all else fails, the inherent nature of the individual-the “spirit of man”-is strong enough to undermine a society such as that created by The Party. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Is Winston’s belief applicable to the world we live in today? Can you cite examples in our own recent history that support or dismiss Winston’s belief in the resiliency and righteousness of the human spirit?
Prior to meeting her, Winston fantasizes about Julia in violent, humiliating ways. Later, he describes in his diary an encounter with a middle-aged, toothless prostitute. How do you account for these thoughts? How does Winston’s understanding of women change after his first liaison with Julia?
Given Winston’s own acknowledgment that he is under constant surveillance, and that it would only be a matter of time before the Thought Police caught him, no one in his world could be trusted. Prior to his capture, which character or characters did you envision as betraying Winston? How did you foresee his ultimate demise? Did you, on the contrary, feel that by some chance he would overcome the forces aligned against him, and fulfill his wish to conquer The Party?
Imagine yourself as Winston Smith at the beginning of 1984. What would you do to undermine The Party? Knowing what you know now, how would you extricate yourself from the fate that awaits you?
Refer back to Winston’s conversation with the old man at the pub (page 78). Why is Winston so determined in his approach to the old man? What is Winston hoping to learn from him?
ONEIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine, and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagerness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uni- form of the Party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.
Outside, even through the shut window pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered every- where. The black-mustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a blue-bottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.
Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live— did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste—this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth- century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger path and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux, occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.
The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak*—was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
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