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Nineteen Eighty-Four (sometimes 1984) is a darkly satirical political novel and love story by George Orwell. A tragedy, the story takes place in a nightmarish totalitarian dystopia, in which the ever-watching State enforces perfect conformity among citizens through indoctrination, lies and ruthless punishment. Published in 1949, it is Orwell's most famous work, and represents the reference for the word "Orwellian." Along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the world of 1984 is one of the first and most cited characterizations of a realistically based dystopia to have appeared in English literature. It has been translated into many languages.
Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers.
The novel introduced the now infamous concept of the ever present all-seeing Big Brother, the notorious Room 101, the thought police who use telescreens (televisions that contain a surveillance camera — found in everyone's home), and the fictional language Newspeak (pronounced new-speak'). The title is a play on 1948, the year in which it was written, as well as being the year the book is set in.
The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four
The world described in Nineteen Eighty-Four has striking and deliberate parallels to the Stalinist Soviet Union — notably, the themes of a betrayed revolution, which Orwell put so famously in Animal Farm, the subordination of individuals to "the Party" and the extensive and institutional use of propaganda, especially as it influenced the main character of the book, Winston Smith.
Orwell is also reported to have said that the book described what he saw as the actual situation in the United Kingdom, where he lived, in 1948, where rationing was still in place, and the British Empire was dissolving at the same time as newspapers were reporting its triumphs. The structure of the government also resembled that of the British government, at least in nomenclature: the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four has four major ministries, each focused on an object which is, in exquisite irony, utterly antithetical to its name. "The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation."
The mysterious head of government is the omniscient, omnipotent, beloved Big Brother or "B-B". Big Brother is described as "a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features." He is usually displayed on posters with the slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU".
His nemesis is the hated Emmanuel Goldstein, a Party member who had been purged early in its history. Goldstein is said to be a major part of the Brotherhood, a vast underground anti-Party fellowship. The reader never truly finds out whether the Brotherhood exists or not, but the implication is that Goldstein is either entirely fictitious or was eliminated long ago.
The three slogans of the Party, visible everywhere, are
- WAR IS PEACE
- FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
- IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
The world is controlled by three functionally identical totalitarian superstates: Oceania (ideology: Ingsoc (English Socialism)), Eurasia (ideology: Neo-Bolshevism) and Eastasia (ideology: Death Worship or Obliteration of the Self). In terms of the political map of the late 1940s when the book was written, Oceania covers the areas of the British Empire and Commonwealth, the United States of America and Latin America; Eastasia corresponds to China and Japan; and Eurasia corresponds to the Soviet Union and Continental Europe. The United Kingdom's placement in Oceania instead of Eurasia is commented upon in the book as a historic anomaly that is undisputed.
London, the novel's setting, is the capital of the Oceanian province of Airstrip One, which is presumably the British mainland. It is said in the novel that the three ideologies are basically the same, but it is imperative to keep the public uninformed about that. The population is led to believe that the other two ideologies are detestable.
Newspeak, the "official language" of Oceania, is extraordinary in that its vocabulary decreases every year; the state of Oceania sees no purpose in maintaining a complex language, and so Newspeak is a language dedicated to the "destruction of words". As the character Syme puts it:
- "Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well... If you have a word like "good", what need is there for a word like "bad"? "Ungood" will do just as well... Or again, if you want a stronger version of "good", what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like "excellent" and "splendid" and all the rest of them? "Plusgood" covers the meaning, or "doubleplusgood" if you want something stronger still.... In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words—in reality, only one word." (Part One, Chapter Five)
To understand why Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, one only has to look at his less famous writings: most significantly, Homage to Catalonia does a lot to explain his distrust of totalitarianism and the betrayal of revolutions; Coming Up For Air, at points, celebrates the individual freedom that is lost in Nineteen Eighty-Four; and his essay "Why I Write" explains clearly that all the "serious work" he had written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism".
Influence of the novel
Nineteen Eighty-Four has been used to the point of cliché in discussions of privacy issues, to the point where the term "Orwellian" has come to describe actions or organisations that remind one of the society depicted in this novel. Some note the closed circuit television cameras used in shopping centres, speed cameras on the roads, technologies such as Echelon and Carnivore, the restrictions imposed on the export of strong cryptography by the US government and supermarket loyalty cards as signs that 'Big Brother' already exists, and is already controlling our lives. Even the personal computer (and, to a lesser extent, the television) could remind one of the novel's telescreens.
In the United States, the state of perpetual war as justification for domestic surveillance and limits on civil liberties is seen by some as being mirrored in the unending War on Terrorism and related actions like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the PATRIOT Act.
The atmosphere of control and change inspired the British TV show The Prisoner, the film Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam and A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been made into a cinematic film twice, in 1956 and in 1984, and has been made into a television adaptation rather more often. The 1984 cinematic film is a faithful adaptation of the novel and was critically acclaimed. It is notable as Richard Burton's final performance before his death.
The term Big Brother was borrowed by a reality television program first produced in the Netherlands in 1999 and later copied by many other countries around the world. A group of contestants live in a house under constant surveillance, they are set many tasks and their progress is broadcast on television and the internet. The viewing public then get to vote contestants off the program one by one over several weeks. The last remaining contestant wins a large cash prize. As all the contestants (especially those voted off last) have a high media exposure they are sometimes able to use their brief celebrity to launch themselves into a career in the media.