The last and arguably most powerful book to be written by renowned novelist George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair), 1984 is the chronicle of mankind’s gradual decay under aggressive totalitarianism and blind ideology. The influence of the novel is such that some terms such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink” and “newspeak” have somehow found their way into the modern lexicon. Orwell visualized a world under constant war, with entire societies threatened by an omniscient government that wields control even over an individual’s very thoughts.
Half a century after the book’s publication, academics and casual readers alike continue to find disturbing similarities between Orwell’s 1984 and today’s increasingly intrusive institutions. With censorship, political rhetoric and propaganda becoming more and more like the slogans of Orwell’s dystopian society each day it is unsurprising that the novels remain quite a favorite among academics and literary experts alike. Orwell’s startling depiction of a totalitarian state peddling lies and deceit to its willing masses remains relevant and – to some extent – frighteningly prophetic of the present generation.
Decades after it first saw print, 1984 still achieves significant readership – a literary warning that enemies of propaganda and censorship revisit time and again as a standard through which the growing excesses in government control and power could be measured. It is the world’s worst case scenario, and its enduring social relevance is a testament to both Orwell’s literary style and deep understanding of the human psyche.
This paper posits that George Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian novel that deftly tackles the power of language and censorship in controlling both society and the individual; hence its enduring relevance to academic studies on the political and social status quo. This study shall begin with a brief summary of the novel in order to provide a narrative background. The following discussion involves three parts: first, what is the style or form of the novel, and how does it add to the novel’s appeal and narrative? Second, what are the main themes of the novel?
Lastly, how do these themes – combined with the novel – remain relevant to the present times, hence its popularity with academics in the sociopolitical and literary fields? These are the questions that this study must answer in order to prove its thesis. Summary 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party residing in what used to be London. Smith is a citizen of Oceania, one of the three superstates in the world of 1984. The protagonist lives a life of controlled existence; he works in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news stories and editing photographs in order to make history “adhere” to the Party’s current slogan.
People who went against the Party disappeared and made unpersons – there entire existence is erased by workers like Winston Smith. History, therefore, is constantly edited to fit whatever propaganda or slogan the Party is currently espousing. Though a member of the Party, Smith is far from a dedicated follower. He harbors a secret journal of illicit thoughts about freedom and woodenly participates in the Two Minutes of Hate and other standard Party propaganda activities. Smith meets and falls in love with Julia; there liaison, however, is both illicit and illegal.
It is punishable by law, so Wilson and Julia find a sanctuary in a room above an old junk shop for their trysts. They are betrayed, however, and soon find themselves in the Ministry of Love where they are tortured and “reeducated”. In the end, fazed by the horrors of Room 101, Wilson and Julia succumb and betray each other. They are then released to await their execution on a later date. At the end of the novel, Wilson Smith accepts the power of Big Brother and willingly accepts his fate.
Style and Form George Orwell’s 1984, along with Ray Bradbury’s controversial Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is one of the world’s best-known dystopian novels. It presents a world entirely gloomy and pessimistic – the opposite of a utopia wherein everything is perfect and in its proper place. As Brunsdale (2000) points out, a dystopia is ultimately a “hopelessly wrong society” (p. 146). It is a world that has turned entirely upside down, with nearly everything completely unlike what man would envision as paradise. It is an imagined world perverted – entirely a subversion of all that society must aspire for.
For George Orwell, this world is a warning, a terrible vision that could become a reality if totalitarianism and government intrusion continues unchecked. The use of a dystopian form is particularly useful in delivering Orwell’s message. A staunch critic of imperialism and other authoritarian forms such as communism and fascism, Orwell’s novel is a chilling portrait of what could happen should totalitarian politics remain unabated. His disgust with British Socialism, for example, made its way into the novel’s newspeak as Ingsoc (English Socialism).
By presenting the novel in a dystopian form rather than a different kind of exposition, Orwell successfully parlays his sociopolitical ideas easily through an interesting world rather than a non-fiction tome of tedious words that may find comfort in cobwebs. A form other than dystopia would not have been able to deliver the message as effectively as 1984 has done. Central Themes But what exactly is it that 1984 wishes to convey? At first glance, it seems as if 1984 is doomed to be a dated indictment of the faults of the British Empire in 1948 – when Orwell completed the novel.
In truth, however, the novel is more than the indictment of one government. It is not a scathing criticism on Stalinism, or the British Empire, or Hitler’s destroyed Third Reich alone. It is an attack against Totalitarianism in whatever form or country, as it takes root and slowly sucks the life and freedom out of the individual and society as a whole. The novel is a critique; a warning against what could happen following the unchecked growth of totalitarian governments. It is not the alliance or the nationality, therefore, that matters, but the possible presence of totalitarian rule.
One crucial theme in the novel that supports its criticism of totalitarianism is the power of language. Orwell emphasized the power of language in controlling the individual’s mental freedom, particularly in terms of how much and how broad he is allowed to conceptualize. With words and language designed to limit the mind of the person, it is quite possible to exert control and slowly manipulate his or her inner thoughts. Such is the power of newspeak and doublethink – both significant concepts from the novel that gradually crossed over to the mainstream jargon.
These concepts are reliant on both language and the formation of thought as the primary tools through which the Party and Big Brother carry out their manipulative plans. An example of Newspeak is the naming convention that led to the ironic names of the ministries in Orwell’s dystopian society. The Ministries are named in a weird manner quite opposite to what they truly stand for. For example, the Ministry of Love is one of the most fearsome ministries in Oceania, as this is where prisoners are brought for torture, reeducation and execution.
The Ministry of Truth where Smith works is quite a paradox, as it concerns itself not with the propagation of truthful information, but with the erasure of people and events no longer in line with the present party rhetoric. The Ministry of Plenty and Ministry of Peace are similarly ironically named. Wemyss (1987) calls this use of newspeak as the attempt to “narrow the range of human consciousness by limiting the range of words available and by eliminating their polysemic quality” (p. 45). When some terms and concepts become unavailable for use or without a lingual equivalent, they become obsolete and forgotten by the mind.
With the government controlling just which words to use and which ones to eliminate, the possibility of controlling the individuals and society becomes much larger. Here lies the power of language, which effectively affects how the brain processes and understands the world around him. Moreover, the concepts in Big Brother’s society are defined in a manner describable as “inverted”. A particularly significant example is the slogan “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” – everything in Wilson’s world is completely upside down.
It is, in essence, an example of doublethink, wherein one is forced to contain two opposing thoughts at the same time and believe them both. It is an ability forced on the people of Oceania; the citizens think of war and peace as one rather than opposing sides of the coin. Even when the citizens clearly know that Oceania switches allies from Eurasia to Eastasia constantly, they are capable of manipulating their own minds into thinking that what the Party calls its “history” has always been true and in place. Another significant theme in the novel is censorship.
Radio, television and print censorship is, of course, the norm in Big Brother’s world. More than the controls on media, however, the Party is also highly concerned with purity and the errors of sexual dalliances. Pornography or any form of “smut” publications are also banned in Oceania, and sexual thoughts are viewed as impurities even when conducted within the boundaries of marriage. This mirrors the penchant of totalitarian governments to extend their powers over “decency” and issues of morality. Whether or not the reason behind this is truly about cleaning up society remains a mystery.
Reviews on the Novel The significance of the novel 1984 can be seen in how today’s academics remain enamored and continuously attempt to correlate the classic story of political and social manipulation to Orwell’s final masterpiece. Agathocleous (2000) took note of the relevance of the novel primarily through the proliferation of terms used in the novel in the modern jargon. The world presented by Orwell remains resonant in today’s world, wherein his ideas have become “common knowledge” (p. 101). Orwell’s 1984 is no longer just a novel; it is now a part of popular culture.
This popularity, Agathocleous (2000) attributes to the the relevance of the issues discussed by Orwell even in today’s society. It is popular because it remains true and undated, thereby becoming a classic in its own right (p. 101). For Wanner (1997), on the other hand, notes that Orwell’s dystopian world is completely different from other portrayals of such negative societies. Unlike other dystopian nations, Orwell’s Oceania has resigned itself to imperfection and unhappiness without actually admitting it.
Though the government may still tout this perfect world as their own, Orwell shows the characters to be living in a difficult world, one wherein pretenses are kept up in order to survive the constant watch of Big Brother. This world is described as hopeless, and it is accurate. Rather than follow other similar styles, Orwell opts to present a realistic view of his world and the negativity that sucks everything within its path (p. 77). Wanner (1997) also notes that Orwell is not entirely separate from socialism.
Though the author does indict British socialism and other similar forms of totalitarianism, the presence of Goldstein, according to Wanner, shows that Orwell is still ambivalent regarding the best way to run a society. Even Goldstein, the supposed leader of the opposition, is not a figure against socialism. Wanner thus views this as a softening on Orwell’s part, noting that his message may not entirely be the indictment of all socialism (p. 77). Lastly, the concept of Orwellian language and politics have slowly caught up with the United States, thanks in no small part to the current administration.
In his journal article, Kellner (2007) argues that Orwell’s world has remained enduring over the years because of its relevance. As such, Kellner easily correlates the “War on Terror” and the rhetoric that appears in Oceania as the modern equivalent of Orwell’s world (p. 622). These are some of the reviews that describe the relevance and endurance of the novel, 1984. It utilizes the dystopian model, with sensational usage of the power of language and new terms, in order to correlate Orwell’s fictional world with the present situation.
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