Big Brother is watching you • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
Post-war Writing • 1945–1970
1516 English humanist Sir Thomas More’s Utopia first imagines an ideal society, and its opposite — a dystopia.
1924 Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We describes the One State, where people live for the collective good.
1932 In English writer Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World individuality is suppressed.
1953 In Fahrenheit 451 by US novelist Ray Bradbury, books are banned and burned.
1962 English novelist Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange depicts a world full of violence.
1985 The Handmaid’s Tale, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is set in a USA run by a totalitarian Christian regime.
Dystopian literature is a genre that portrays the nightmarish vision of a society that is the polar opposite of a utopia (an ideal, perfect world). Ever since the appearance of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, dystopias have been evoked over the centuries by a wide range of writers to focus on topics such as dictatorships (both communist and fascist), poverty, torture, the oppression of populations, and the control of people’s minds.
Authors use these dystopian worlds to explore central human concerns, creating visions of the possible consequences of things happening in ways that are unrestrained. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for instance, sees a world run by a military regime, in which women have been stripped of their rights and are appreciated purely for their reproductive value.
Dystopias focus primarily on imagined futures, and often on the fear of what may arise from new technologies and social change. For example, in the 20th century, the threat posed by the destructive force of the atomic bomb and the scenario of dramatic climate change have both provided powerful sources for dystopias.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the best-known modern dystopia. Orwell’s fear of rising Stalinism is the starting point for the novel. Although Orwell believed in a democratic socialism, he saw the emerging USSR — in which one political party had consolidated complete control — as anything but socialist. He had also witnessed the splintering of anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when pro-Stalin communists turned on those who were supposed to be their allies.
Orwell had already painted a bleak vision of such treachery in his novella Animal Farm (1945). He also had a template of sorts for his new work: the world outlined by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), in which individual freedom no longer exists.
Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a totalitarian society manipulating its citizens through propaganda, flipping truths into lies for the sake of maintaining political power. This dystopian society is far darker — one without the hope that the revolution in Animal Farm had first promised, and one in which individual lives have become mere cogs in an overarching system.
"He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."
The end of history
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s opening words — “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — alert the reader to the fact that even the very nature of the day’s temporal construction has shifted. Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, is entering his apartment building. He is a citizen of London, capital of Airstrip One (once known as Great Britain), a province of Oceania, one of the three cross-continental states that exist following a global nuclear war. Posters fill the wall space with the image of a face — “a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features”, and whose “eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran”. Big Brother is the leader of the Party that governs Oceania.
The world Smith inhabits is ruled by an elite. The masses (“the proles”), who make up 85 per cent of the population, are controlled by four paradoxical ministries: the Ministry of Peace, which oversees war; the Ministry of Love, which deals with policing; the Ministry of Plenty, which controls the economy, including rationing for the population; and the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, which deals with news and the education of the masses, issuing propaganda to control the thoughts of the people.
One of the chief conduits of control is Newspeak, the language of the Ministry of Truth, which dictates the truth of the past as well as the present. History is revised and rewritten to fit the changing diktats of the state. And Winston Smith himself works in the Ministry of Truth: editing historical records, and burning the original documentation by posting it into a “memory hole”. History, as the reader understands it, has stopped: “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
The role of the Ministry of Truth is to intimidate and terrify the population into compliance. Orwell describes the ministry’s building as “an enormous pyramidal structure”, upon which is written the three slogans of the Party.
The all-seeing government
A network of telescreens, cameras, and covert microphones operate to spy and eavesdrop on the population: these are run by the Thought Police, who supervise the protection of the ruling Party.
“Newspeak” is a sinister, curtailed form of everyday English (“Oldspeak”) devised by the all-powerful state. In time, “Oldspeak” will be replaced by Newspeak, a stark, simple language, purified to express meanings and to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. Because thought requires words, the state will have inhibited “thoughtcrimes”, and personal ideas and feelings of dissent will have become unthinkable.
Orwell immerses his readers in this hideous totalitarian world before revealing that Winston Smith is engaged in a vital act of rebellion. In his tiny flat, dominated by the instrument of Party control (the telescreen), Smith is starting to write his own history in a diary he has acquired second-hand — a crime of self expression. He knows it will be an act that he cannot ever step back from and, moreover, that “he was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear”. And yet he continues to write.
Winston Smith is the everyman hero of the novel — his surname’s commonality suggesting that there is nothing special or unusual about him. That quality makes his act of subversion so incendiary: if every Smith or Jones were to rise up against society, then revolution would follow. The use of a name that feels ordinarily English echoes Eric Blair’s own adoption of the pseudonym “George Orwell”, which he did shortly before publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), to avoid any embarrassment to his family.
Orwell’s characterization of the ordinary Smith as a rebel, one who makes his own stand for genuine truth against the machinery of the Party, creates an unlikely champion. In Julia, he finds a fellow dissenter and a lover. Younger than Smith, Julia is an apparent firebrand for the Junior Anti-Sex League, but passes Smith a note with the simple message “I love you”. Their affair is an act of rebellion itself, a sex crime. Yet their covert love cannot last for long, hidden beneath the facade of their obedience to Big Brother and the rules of Oceania.
"In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it."
Enemies of the state
The state’s acknowledged enemy is Emmanuel Goldstein, the Party’s former leader who now heads a resistance movement called The Brotherhood. Goldstein is a despised figure (like Leon Trotsky was in Stalin’s USSR — the two even have the same goatee beards), who is used to unite the citizenship of Oceania via the daily ritual act of “Two Minutes Hate”, during which abuse is flung at Goldstein’s image on the telescreens.
In a second-hand bookshop, Smith opens a text “with no name or title on the cover”. The book is The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein. Orwell inserts full pages from this book into the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four to draw the reader closer to the rebel-protagonist and to reveal the political philosophies and social theories that have led to the present. This book within a book thus serves as a device to fill in some of the background, explaining the establishment of Oceania and the other superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia, in the global reorganization following World War II, and to expose the truth that each superstate has a similar ideological construct based on keeping their population compliant.
The persuasiveness of the passages from Goldstein’s book reveal the seductive power of words and language. One of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s greatest legacies is the plethora of words and phrases that have seeped from “Newspeak” into English. Big Brother, sex crime, thoughtcrime, and Room 101 are just a handful of the most common linguistic creations found in Orwell’s work.
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."
The ways in which the state can manipulate and control its citizens are key themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a totalitarian system, individual choices and lifestyles largely become the dictates of an overarching body of governance.
Oceania’s ruling organization shows that it is determined to maintain its grip on power by weakening personal relationships and eradicating trust and mutuality. Orwell traces the psychological and physical methods by which the state can coerce, either covertly or overtly, and try to crush human feelings and break a person’s spirit. As Julia remarks: “Everybody always confesses. You can’t help it.” The experience of Winston Smith reveals how the state apparatus acts on a single, human individual, making the reader not only feel his pain but also his burning desire to fight back against the machine in whatever ways he can.
A Soviet poster depicts Stalin as the revered leader. Orwell’s dystopia was shaped by his experience in Spain, where the Stalinist faction was ruthless in its pursuit of total control.
"You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself."
A modern message
Initial critical reception of Nineteen Eighty-Four was extremely positive, referencing the originality of the bleak vision. Since then, the text has reached across the globe, been translated into some 65 languages, and found new audiences in a major film version directed by Michael Radford and released in 1984, with John Hurt playing Winston Smith.
The central concern at the heart of the dystopia depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the danger of allowing those who rule us to gain too much control. In a globalized modern era of mass surveillance, Orwell’s warning resonates more than ever.
George Orwell was born as Eric Arthur Blair in India in 1903 to British parents. He was schooled in England before heading back to the East, to enrol with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. In 1928, he moved to Paris, returning to London in 1929 to write Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). In 1936, Orwell travelled to Wigan, northern England, to experience the poverty forged by the Depression. That same year he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy before going to fight in Spain’s civil war and getting shot through the throat. Orwell returned to England in 1937 and in 1941 he joined the BBC, only to resign in 1943. He returned to writing with Animal Farm (1945), which proved an immediate success. His wife died unexpectedly that same year, and Orwell isolated himself on Jura, a Scottish isle, where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He died of tuberculosis in 1950, aged 46.
Other key works
1934 Burmese Days
1937 The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 Homage to Catalonia
See also: Candide • Gulliver’s Travels • Brave New World • Fahrenheit 451 • Lord of the Flies • A Clockwork Orange • The Death of Artemio Cruz • The Handmaid’s Tale