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Introduction

Published in 1949 and set thirty-six years in the future, 1984 is George Orwell’s dark vision of the future. Written while Orwell was dying and based on the work of the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, it is a chilling depiction of how the power of the state could come to dominate the lives of individuals through cultural conditioning. Perhaps the most powerful science fiction novel of the twentieth century, this apocalyptic satire shows with grim conviction how Winston Smith’s individual personality is wiped out and how he is recreated in the Party’s image until he does not just obey but even loves Big Brother. Some critics have related Winston Smith’s sufferings to those Orwell underwent at preparatory school, experiences he wrote about just before 1984. Orwell maintained that the book was written with the explicit intention “to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.”

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George Orwell

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India, in 1903, into a middle-class family. The son of a British civil servant, Orwell was brought to England as a toddler. The boy became aware of class distinctions while attending St. Cyprian’s preparatory school in Sussex, where he received a fine education but felt out of place. He was teased and looked down upon because he was not from a wealthy family. This experience made him sensitive to the cruelty of social snobbery.

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Plot Summary

A Part One summary of the novel 1984

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party from Oceania (a fictional state representing both England and America), lives in all visible ways as a good party member, in complete conformance with the wishes of Big Brother-the leader of the Inner Party (Ingsoc). He keeps his loathing for the workings of the Party-for the vile food and drink, the terrible housing, the conversion of children into spies, the orchestrated histrionics of the Two Minutes’ Hate-deep inside, hidden, for he knows that such feelings are an offense punishable by death, or worse. But, as the year 1984 begins, he has decided, against his better judgment, to keep a diary in which his true feelings are laid bare. He sits back in an alcove in his dingy apartment, just out of view of the telescreen (two-way television screens that are in all buildings and homes, which broadcast propaganda and transmit back the activities of anyone passing in front of the screen) and writes of his hatred for Big Brother.

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Characters

A Big Brother in the novel 1984

Big Brother, the mysterious all-seeing, all-knowing leader of the totalitarian society is a god-like icon to the citizens he rules. He is never seen in person, just staring out of posters and telescreens, looking stern as the caption beneath his image warns “Big Brother Is Watching You.” Big Brother demands obedience and devotion of Oceania’s citizens; in fact, he insists that they love him more than they love anyone else, even their own families. At the same time, he inspires fear and paranoia. His loyal followers are quick to betray anyone who seems to be disloyal to him. Through technology, Big Brother is even able to monitor the activities of people who are alone in their homes or offices.

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Themes

A Freedom and Enslavement/Free Will in the novel 1984

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 Parsons. 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.

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Construction

A Point of View of the novel 1984

Orwell’s 1984 is told in the third person, but the point of view is clearly Winston Smith’s. Through his eyes, readers are able to see how the totalitarian society functions, in particular how an individual deals with having illegal thoughts that can be detected easily by spies and telescreens that monitor one’s every movement. Because readers are in Winston’s head, they make the mistakes he makes in judging people. At one point he looks around a room at work and tells himself he knows just who will be vaporized within the next few years and who will be allowed to live. His perceptions of who is a loyal party member and who is not turn out to be inaccurate, however. In this way, Orwell shows that in a paranoid society, where personal relationships with others are at best only tolerated and at worst illegal, no one can really know his fellow man.

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Historical Perspective

A Totalitarianism

In 1948, when Orwell’s 1984 was published, World War II had just ended. One of England’s allies had been Russia, which was ruled by a despotic dictator named Joseph Stalin. Stalin ruled with an iron fist, and was famous for his midnight purges: he would round up hundreds of citizens at a time and murder them in deserted areas, much as Oceania citizens are “vaporized.” Stalin’s victims were his imagined enemies, such as political dissidents, artists, or Jews. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, in Germany, had slaughtered his enemies as well, in the end killing six million Jews plus nine million Slavs, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, and mentally challenged people. Mao Tse-tung in China was fighting for communism against Chinese nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek. Mao would finally defeat the nationalists in 1949 and begin a long, oppressive totalitarian regime.

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Questions

  • Explain how history is distorted and hidden from the citizens of Oceania. What is the result?
  • Discuss how Newspeak works to alter the expression of thoughts in 1984. Give examples from today’s society of institutions and leaders that have used language to distort reality.
  • Explain Winston’s feelings about the proletariat, its past, present, and future.
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Compare and Contrast

1948: West Berlin, Germany, is blockaded by the Soviets. The Americans begin an airlift to help the stranded Berliners. 1984: The Berlin wall, built in 1961 to keep East Germans from defecting to the West, remains in place. Today: East and West Germany are reunified, after the Berlin wall was taken down in 1990.

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