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Most fictional literature draws from the real life experiences of the author. Therefore, in order to attempt to understand the intricacies of the text we must look at context. George Orwell’s 1984 exemplifies the importance of context when analyzing a text. Orwell introduced the concept of dystopia in a way that was relative to the fear people felt about the state of the world, during the time of World War II. His surroundings, political and societal, influenced his fear and, in turn, the role of the text then and now.
1984 is an important piece of it’s time because it introduces a concept that incited a lot of fear at the time. Due to the theme of total governmental control that is central to the meaning of the novel, we can determine that 1984 was heavily influenced by the context that surrounded it. Orwell wrote 1984 in a time when the world had experienced chaos and the future did not seem as clear as it might have once been.
We can attribute the theme of a totalitarian government to the British control of Burma as well as the state of the Germany and other dictatorships during World War II. In order to get get a full perspective on what influenced the novel, we have to start at the beginning.
Throughout Orwell’s childhood his father was stationed in India and Orwell was never able to form a bond with his father. Although there is nothing to show this, it is possible that Orwell’s distrust in authority began when he was little.
His father essentially abandoned him with his mother leaving Orwell with no father figure and, likely, a general distrust in men with power. Orwell spent most of his childhood alone due to recurring illness and this lead to his interest in writing. “The very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.” (Orwell, Why I Write, 1) Orwell’s isolation led to a perspective not many were accustomed to. Orwell’s isolation and lower class status played a large part in shaping his perspective of the world.
Orwell attended school on scholarship and saw first hand that rich students were treated differently than he was. This seems to have been Orwell’s first authentic interaction with the class system and it allowed him to begin analyzing societal structure and its effects. Due to his family’s lack of money, Orwell was unable to afford university which caused him to leave to Burma for 5 years to work in the India Imperial Police Force. His time stationed in Burma influenced the creation of two works: A Hanging, Shooting an Elephant, and Burmese Days.
In 1931 Orwell released A Hanging, under his real name Eric Arthur Blair, a short essay written from a first person perspective regarding the hanging of a Burmese criminal. It reveals the callous nature of the British in regard to the lives of the Burmese. In the essay, Orwell explores the idea of robbing someone of a life when they are still healthy. “…till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.” (Orwell, A Hanging) It’s here we can see Orwell grapple with the idea that some people held enough power to kill others with no consequence. In the end, power inequality could be connected back to the division of social castes present in Burma, Britain, and across the globe.
Shooting an Elephant explores themes similar to those in A Hanging, in regards to the effects of imperialism and social inequality. One of the most notable points of this essay is Orwell’s acknowledgement of the hate Burmese felt towards the Imperial police. “IN MOULMEIN, IN LOWER BURMA, I was hated by large numbers of people…I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress” (Orwell, Shooting an Elephant). It was no secret that the Imperial police were hated by the Burmese, but the Burmese seemed to know that any act of revolt against the British control would be futile. The theme of governmental control that extends far enough to silence oppressed people is recurring in Orwell’s works.
In 1934, Orwell published Burmese Days a fictional novel that displays themes such as the effects of social class and imperialism. Although this novel was written later in Orwell’s life, it shows that he was very conscious of the control Britain held in the world and how others were affected by it. Imperialism wasn’t generally seen as an issue for those living in imperialistic countries. If anything they benefitted by gaining access to the goods of the imperialized countries. It was seen as a way to “improve” the uneducated, barbaric world through the spread of democracy while also benefitting local economy and lifestyle. Through his trip to Burma, Orwell was able to see imperialism for more than the façade the British government upheld. This examination of governments and social structures translated later into 1984. Orwell’s consciousness is what makes the novel one that has been highly praised for decades.
We can see that even the work Orwell released prior to 1984 centered around his discontent with social class and power inequality. An example of this is Down and Out in Paris and London, an essay which was released in 1933. It was the first novel Blair released under the pseudonym “George Orwell” and sets a tone for his future literary work. After his time in Burma, Orwell was so set on discovering the struggles of the lower class that he moved to Paris and attempted to live “down-and-out”. Many at the time held Orwell’s work in high regard as it shone a light on the struggles of those living in the lower class while also exposing the oppressive nature of the institutions the lower class worked in. It showed how people were at the mercy of their employers and could do nothing to combat that poverty this might cause. Down and Out in Paris and London did receive backlash from those in the restaurant trade because they felt it unfairly depicted the way their businesses operated. However, not many criticized Orwell’s illustration of the life of workers in poverty. James T. Farrell, an American Novelist, called the piece “genuine, unexaggerated and intelligent” which illustrates how many saw Orwell’s work.
Years later, in 1937, Orwell traveled to Spain to fight in the Spanish Revolution. This was Orwell’s first authentic interaction with totalitarianism and a classless society. “Orwell championed the militia system as a social experiment, as ‘a sort of temporary working model of the classless society’. There was complete equality between officers and men. Everyone got the same pay, ate the same food and wore the same clothes. Although orders had to be given and obeyed, it was understood that ‘when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior.’” (Newsinger) This shows how Orwell analyzed almost everything in his life in terms of the class system as well as totalitarianism. It was clear that after his time in Burma, Orwell had no issue opposing those in power and his writing illustrates that. He wrote when he sees “’an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.’” (Newsinger)
Once he returned to England, Orwell found that the media was suppressing information about the revolution. “Orwell was outraged by the extent to which developments in Spain were being lied about and distorted on the left, and by the difficulty in getting any alternative viewpoint heard. The suppression of working class power and the repression of the revolutionary left were completely ignored amidst the general celebration of the Popular Front, and the POUM was routinely libelled as either a fascist organisation or an organisation manipulated by fascists.”
Orwell saw first hand that the government was censoring the media to fit an agenda, a theme that was very important in 1984.
“Manipulation often lurks in the things left unmentioned. The most common form of media misrepresentation is suppression by omission…stories that reflect poorly upon “the powers that be” are the least likely to see the light of day.” (Hiebert) In 1984, it is made very clear that the government is actively controlling the media created and released. Everyday people experience “Two Minutes Hate” and read about how the state of Oceania is in war with either Eurasia or Eastasia.Winston works everyday at the Ministry of Truth producing propaganda to channel the hate of the citizens of Oceania towards an unseen power (Eurasia/Eastasia.) This draws directly from Orwell’s experiences with media suppression and the Spanish Revolution.
World War II began in 1939 and during that time came the rise of fascism as well as the prevalence of totalitarian governments. Germany is a prime example of a totalitarian government that used media manipulation as well as suppression of freedom in order to achieve its goals. Fascism is defined by “radical hyper-nationalist cross-class movements with a distinctive militarist organization and activist political style.” (Morgan, 13) By that definition, we can assume that Big Brother fall in the category of fascist governments. The presence of the Party Youth League, the Anti-Sex League, as well as the Junior Spies all come together to ensure the state of Big Brother. Although Orwell wasn’t writing 1984 during this time the major themes of the novel drew from the things that occurred during World War II.
At the end of World War II, Orwell released Animal Farm. It was one of the first works of fiction that he became well known for. It is a satirical novel regarding the Soviet Union and the two main characters are pigs that represent Stalin and Trotsky. Today we regard Animal Farm as an important piece of the time and it is taught in schools but when it was published Orwell was criticized for his views and it wasn’t because others didn’t agree with Orwell’s stance. “The failure of this book (commercially it is already assured of tremendous success) arises from the fact that the satire deals not with something the author has experienced, but rather with stereotyped ideas about a country which he probably does not know very well.” (Soule, 11) It is interesting to see that Orwell was criticized for not being able to view a situation without biases views since most of his work tackled that idea that the media we consume is manipulated.
By viewing the experiences Orwell had throughout his life we are able to fully understand how 1984 came to be. The creation of Winston and his personality as well the state of Oceania all draw from Orwell’s life. First, let’s discuss Winston. Winston is a lonely man who lives in a constant state of pain. He spends most of his time attempting to remain undetected by Big Brother, even though he detests the government. He struggles daily with human interaction and tries to understand the proles when he encounters them. From this perspective, it seems as if Winston is an illustration of Orwell. Orwell grew up a sick child and adult and because of this he spent most of his life alone and grew up to be introverted. He spent most of his early life travelling and attempting to empathize with the struggles those in lower social classes faced. Orwell never said he saw himself as Winston but from examining Orwell’s biography we can draw parallels between the two.
As for Winston’s hate for the government, we can see that it directly parallels the hate Orwell felt for the Spanish government coupled with his distrust in British Media. In 1984, media is heavily controlled by Big Brother through the Ministry of Truth, a governmental organization that alters news releases, past and present, to fit governmental agenda. When Orwell returned from Spain, he felt the British media was restricting information from certain view points to fit an agenda. Although this isn’t as extreme as media manipulation in 1984, Orwell saw a trend. He believed that any form of media suppression and manipulation to push an agenda was detrimental to the state of society and could lead to its downfall.
Nazi Germany was a great source of inspiration for 1984 as it did not shy away from manipulating youth as well as media information. The Hitler Youth was an organization that indoctrinated children with ideas of racism and hate. Children were encouraged to expose “traitors” and ensure the purity of Nazi Germany. In 1984, we see Parson’s kids, who are a part of the Junior Spies, out him to the thought police for thought crime. This parallel between Hitler Youth and Junior Spies is very clear because children of both groups are taught to be loyal to their governments to a point where familial relationships are void. Orwell illustrated the dangers of totalitarian rule by showing how complete loyalty to a government can lead to the dissolution of things that were previously held dear, like interpersonal relationships.
1984 is regarded as an influential work of literature, but it is important to recognize what influenced it. Ultimately, we can see that 1984 didn’t come about through simple ideation. Orwell drew on personal experiences as well as the state of the world in creating the novel. The outcome was a novel that is highly regarded today and warns of a future where government control leads to the downfall of society.
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