Nineteen Eighty-Four

big brother

Nineteen Eighty-Four (first published in 1949) by George Orwell is a dystopian novel about Oceania, a society ruled by the oligarchical dictatorship of the Party. Life in the Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control, accomplished with a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (Ingsoc), which is administrated by a privileged Inner Party elite. Yet they too are subordinated to the totalitarian cult of personality of Big Brother, the deified Party leader who rules with a philosophy that decries individuality and reason as thoughtcrimes; thus the people of Oceania are subordinated to a supposed collective greater good.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. His job is to re-write past newspaper articles so that the historical record is congruent with the current party ideology. Because of the childhood trauma of the destruction of his family — the disappearances of his parents and sister — Winston Smith secretly hates the Party, and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.

As literary political fiction and as dystopian science-fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic novel in content, plot, and style. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, and memory hole, have become contemporary vernacular since its publication in 1949. Moreover, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ popularized the adjective Orwellian, which refers to official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past in service to a totalitarian political agenda.

George Orwell ‘encapsulate[d] the thesis at the heart of his unforgiving novel’ in 1944, and three years later wrote most of it on the Scottish island of Jura, during the 1947–48 period, despite being critically tubercular. By 1989 it had been translated in to some 65 languages, then the greatest number for any English-language novel. The title of the novel, its terms, its Newspeak language, and the author’s surname are contemporary bywords for privacy lost to the State; while the adjective Orwellian connotes a totalitarian dystopia characterized by government control and subjugation of the people. As a language, Newspeak applies different meanings to things and actions by referring only to the end to be achieved, not the means of achieving it; hence, the Ministry of Peace (Minipax) deals with war, and the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) deals with brainwashing and torture. The Ministries do achieve their goals; peace through war, and love of Big Brother through mind control.

In the novel ‘1985’ (1978), Anthony Burgess proposes that Orwell, disillusioned by the onset of the Cold War, intended to title the book 1948. The introduction to the Penguin Books Modern Classics edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four reports that Orwell originally set 1980 as the story’s time, but the extended writing led to renaming the novel, first to 1982, then to 1984. Alternatively, the name was chosen because it is an inversion of the 1948 composition year. Among literary scholars, the Russian dystopian novel ‘We,’ by Zamyatin, is considered to have inspired ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ occurs in Oceania, one of three intercontinental super-states who divided the world among themselves after a global war. Most of the action takes place in London, the ‘chief city of Airstrip One,’ the Oceanic province that ‘had once been called England or Britain.’ Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’ adorn the landscape, while the ubiquitous telescreen (transceiving television set) monitors the private and public lives of the populace.

The social class system of Oceania is threefold: (I) the upper-class Inner Party, the élite ruling minority; (II) the middle-class Outer Party; and (III) the lower-class Proles (from proletariat), who make up 85% of the population and represent the uneducated working class.

As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries: the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty), the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), and the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue).

In this last one, the protagonist Winston Smith (a member of the Outer Party) works as an editor revising historical records to concord the past to the contemporary party line orthodoxy — that changes daily — and deletes the official existence of unpersons, people who have been ‘vaporized’; who have not only been killed by the state, but effectively erased from existence.

The story of Winston Smith begins on 4 April 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’; yet he is uncertain of the true date, given the régime’s continual historical revisionism. His memories and his reading of the proscribed book, ‘The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,’ by Emmanuel Goldstein, reveal that after the Second World War, the United Kingdom fell to civil war and then was integrated to Oceania. Simultaneously, the USSR annexed continental Europe and established the second superstate of Eurasia. The third superstate, Eastasia comprises the regions of East Asia and Southeast Asia.

The three superstates fight a perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world, in pursuit of which they form and break alliances as convenient. From his childhood (1949–53), Winston remembers the Atomic Wars fought in Europe, western Russia, and North America. It is unclear to him what occurred first — either the Party’s civil war ascendance, or the US’s annexation of the British Empire, or the war wherein Colchester was bombed — however, the increasing clarity of his memory and the story of his family’s dissolution suggest that the atomic bombings occurred first (the Smiths took refuge in a tube station) followed by civil war featuring ‘confused street fighting in London itself,’ and the societal postwar reorganization, which the Party retrospectively call ‘the Revolution.’

Winston Smith is an intellectual, a member of the Outer Party, who lives in the ruins of London, and who grew up in some long post-World War II England, during the revolution and the civil war after which the Party assumed power. At some point his parents and sister disappeared, and the Ingsoc movement placed him in an orphanage for training and subsequent employment as an Outer Party civil servant. Yet his squalid existence consists of living in a one-room flat on a subsistence diet of black bread and synthetic meals washed down with Victory-brand gin. He keeps a journal of negative thoughts and opinions about the Party and Big Brother, which, if uncovered by the Thought Police, would warrant his execution. The flat has an alcove, beside the telescreen, where he apparently cannot be seen, and thus believes he has some privacy, while writing in his journal: ‘Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death.’ The telescreens (in every public area, and the quarters of the Party’s members), hidden microphones, and informers permit the Thought Police to spy upon everyone and so identify anyone who might endanger the Party’s régime; children, most of all, are indoctrinated to spy and inform on suspected thought-criminals — especially their parents.

At the Minitrue, Winston is an editor responsible for historical revisionism, concording the past to the Party’s contemporary official version of the past; thus making the government of Oceania seem omniscient. As such, he perpetually rewrites records and alters photographs, rendering the deleted people as ‘unpersons’; the original documents are incinerated in a ‘memory hole.’ Despite enjoying the intellectual challenges of historical revisionism, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the true past and tries to learn more about it.

One day, at the Minitrue, as Winston assisted a woman who had fallen, she surreptitiously handed him a folded paper note; later, at his desk he covertly reads the message: I LOVE YOU. The name of the woman is ‘Julia,’ a young dark haired mechanic who repairs the Minitrue novel-writing machines. Before that occasion, Winston had loathed the sight of her, presuming she was a member of the fanatical Junior Anti-Sex League, because she wore the red sash of the League, and because she was the type of woman he believed he could not attract: young, beautiful, and puritanical; nonetheless, his hostility towards her vanishes upon reading the message. Cautiously, Winston and Julia begin a love affair, at first meeting in the country, at a clearing in the woods, then at the belfry of a ruined church, and afterwards in a rented room atop an antiques shop in a proletarian neighborhood of London. There, they think themselves safe and unobserved, because the rented bedroom has no telescreen, but, unknown to Winston and Julia, the Thought Police were aware of their love affair.

Later, when the Inner Party member O’Brien approaches him, Winston believes he is an agent of the Brotherhood, a secret, counter-revolutionary organization meant to destroy The Party. The approach opened a secret communication between them; and, on pretext of giving him a copy of the latest edition of the ‘Dictionary of Newspeak,’ O’Brien gives Winston ‘The Book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,’ by Emmanuel Goldstein, the infamous and publicly reviled leader of the Brotherhood. The Book explains the concept of perpetual war, the true meanings of the slogans ‘WAR IS PEACE,’ ‘FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,’ and ‘IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,’ and how the régime of The Party can be overthrown by means of the political awareness of the Proles.

The Thought Police capture Winston and Julia in their bedroom, to be delivered to the Ministry of Love for interrogation. Charrington, the shop keeper who rented the room to them, reveals himself as an officer in the Thought Police. After a prolonged regimen of systematic beatings and psychologically draining interrogation, O’Brien, who is revealed to be a Thought Police leader and becomes Smith’s inquisitor, tortures Winston with electroshock, showing him how, through controlled manipulation of perception (e.g.: seeing whatever number of fingers held up that the Party demands one should see, whatever the ‘apparent’ reality, i.e. 2+2=5), Winston can ‘cure’ himself of his ‘insanity’ — his manifest hatred for the Party. In long, complex conversations, he explains the Inner Party’s motivation: complete and absolute power, mocking Winston’s assumption that it was somehow altruistic and ‘for the greater good.’ Asked if the Brotherhood exists, O’Brien replies that this is something Winston will never know; it will remain an unsolvable quandary in his mind. During a torture session, his imprisonment in the Ministry of Love is explained: ‘There are three stages in your reintegration . . . There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance,’ i.e. of the Party’s assertion of reality.

In the first stage of political re-education, Winston Smith admits to and confesses to crimes he did and did not commit, implicating anyone and everyone, including Julia. In the second stage of re-education for reintegration to the society of Oceania, O’Brien makes Winston understand that he is rotting away. Winston counters that: ‘I have not betrayed Julia’; O’Brien agrees, Winston had not betrayed Julia because he ‘had not stopped loving her; his feelings toward her had remained the same.’ One night, in his cell, Winston awakens, screaming: ‘Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia!’O’Brien rushes in to the cell, but not to interrogate Winston, but to send him to Room 101, the most feared room in the Ministry of Love, where resides each prisoner’s worst fear, which is forced upon him or her. In Room 101 is Acceptance, the final stage of the political re-education of Winston Smith, whose primal fear of rats is invoked when a wire cage holding hungry rats is fitted onto his face. As the rats are about to reach Winston’s face, he shouts: ‘Do it to Julia!,’ thus betraying and relinquishing his love for her. Julia, also, betrayed Winston, in what O’Brien described as ‘a text book case’ of betrayal. At torture’s end, upon accepting the doctrine of The Party, Winston Smith is reintegrated to the society of Oceania, because he loved Big Brother.

After reintegration to Oceanian society, Winston encounters Julia in a park; each admits having betrayed the other: ‘I betrayed you,’ she said baldly. ‘I betrayed you,’ he said. She gave him another quick look of dislike. ‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘they threaten you with something — something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.’

In 1984, the society of Airstrip One lives in poverty; hunger, disease and filth are the norms and ruined cities and towns the consequence of the civil war, the atomic wars and purported enemy (but quite possibly self-serving Oceanian) rockets. Social decay and wrecked buildings surround Winston; aside from the ministerial pyramids, little of London was rebuilt. The standard of living of the populace is low; almost everything, especially consumer goods, is scarce and available goods are of low quality; half of the Oceanian populace go barefoot — despite the Party reporting increased boot production. The Party claims that this poverty is a necessary sacrifice for the war effort; ‘the book’ reports that this is partially correct, because the purpose of perpetual war is consuming surplus industrial production. The Outer Party has no access to anything that could be used to commit suicide — there are no tall buildings, no sharp objects, even razors for personal grooming, etc.

The Inner Party upper class of Oceanian society enjoy the highest standard of living. O’Brien resides in a clean and comfortable apartment, with a pantry well-stocked with quality foodstuffs (wine, coffee, sugar, etc.), denied to the general populace, the Outer Party and the Proles, who consume synthetic foodstuffs; liquor, Victory Gin, and cigarettes are of low quality. The brand ‘Victory’ (as in the cigarettes and gin) is taken from the low-quality ‘Victory Brand Cigarettes’ (also known as Vs) that were often the only ones that could be obtained in Britain on minimal ration coupons during World War II by the average member of the public and often issued to soldiers, as this brand was made in India and could be shipped to Britain more easily than American cigarettes, which had to cross the U-boat-infested waters of the North Atlantic. These were of low quality and often derided by the people who used them.

Winston is astonished that the lifts in O’Brien’s building function and that the telescreens can be switched off. The Inner Party are attended to by slaves captured in the disputed zone. O’Brien has an Asian manservant, Martin. The proles live in poverty and are kept sedated with alcohol, pornography and a national lottery, yet the proles are freer and less intimidated than the middle class Outer Party, and jeer at the telescreens. ‘The Book’ reports that the state of things derives from the observation that it is the middle class, not the lower class, which traditionally started revolutions, therefore tight control of the middle class penetrates their minds in determining their quotidian lives, and potential rebels are politically neutralized via promotion to the Inner Party or ‘reintegration’ by Miniluv; nonetheless Winston believed that ‘the future belonged to the proles.’

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ expands upon the subjects summarized in the essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ (1945) about the lack of vocabulary needed to explain the unrecognized phenomena behind certain political forces. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ the Party’s artificial, minimalist language ‘Newspeak’ addresses the matter.

With the Junior Anti-Sex-League, the Party encourages its members to eliminate the personal sexual attachments that diminish political loyalty. O’Brien tells Winston that neurologists are working to extinguish the orgasm; the mental energy required for prolonged worship requires authoritarian suppression of the libido, a vital instinct.

In the book, Inner Party member O’Brien describes the Party’s vision of the future: ‘There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.’

This contrasts the essay ‘England Your England’ (1941) with the essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ (1941): ‘The intellectuals who hope to see it Russianized or Germanized will be disappointed. The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.’

The geopolitical climate of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ resembles the précis of James Burnham’s ideas in the essay ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’ (1946): ‘These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new ‘managerial’ societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.’

A major theme of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is censorship, especially in the Ministry of Truth, where photographs are doctored and public archives rewritten to rid them of ‘unpersons’ (i.e. persons who have been arrested, whom the Party has decided to erase from history). On the telescreens figures for all types of production are grossly exaggerated (or simply invented) to indicate an ever-growing economy, when the reality is the opposite. One small example of the endless censorship is when Winston is charged with the task of eliminating reference to an unperson in a newspaper article. He proceeds to write an article about Comrade Ogilvy, a fictional party member, who displayed great heroism by leaping into the sea from a helicopter so that the dispatches he was carrying would not fall into enemy hands.

The inhabitants of Oceania, particularly the party members, have no real privacy. Many of them live in apartments equipped with two-way telescreens, so that they may be watched or listened to at any time. Similar telescreens are found at workstations and in public places, along with hidden microphones. Written correspondence is routinely opened and read by the government before it is delivered. The Thought Police employ undercover agents, who pose as normal citizens and report any person with subversive tendencies. Children are encouraged to report suspicious persons to the government, and some even denounce their own parents. This surveillance allows for effective control of the citizenry. The smallest sign of rebellion, even something so small as a facial expression, can result in immediate arrest and imprisonment. Thus, citizens (and particularly party members) are compelled to absolute obedience at all times.

‘The Principles of Newspeak’ is an academic essay appended to the novel. It describes the development of Newspeak, the Party’s minimalist artificial language meant to ideologically align thought and action with the principles of Ingsoc by making ‘all other modes of thought impossible.’ Linguists also note the possible influence of the German book ‘LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii,’ published in 1947, which details how the Nazis controlled society by controlling the language.

During World War II Orwell believed that British democracy as it existed before 1939 would not survive the war, the question being ‘Would it end via Fascist coup d’état (from above) or via Socialist revolution (from below)?’ Later he admitted that events proved him wrong: ‘What really matters is that I fell into the trap of assuming that ‘the war and the revolution are inseparable.” Thematically ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) and ‘Animal Farm’ (1945) share the betrayed revolution; the person’s subordination to the collective; rigorously enforced class distinctions (Inner Party, Outer Party, Proles); the cult of personality; concentration camps; Thought Police; compulsory regimented daily exercise and youth leagues. Oceania resulted from the U.S. annexation of the British Empire to counter the Asian peril to Australia and New Zealand. It is a naval power whose militarism venerates the sailors of the floating fortresses, from which battle is given to recapturing India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire. Much of Oceanic society is based upon the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin—Big Brother; the televised Two Minutes Hate is ritual demonization of the enemies of the State, especially Emmanuel Goldstein (viz Leon Trotsky); altered photographs and newspaper articles create unpersons deleted from the national historical record, including even founding members of the regime (Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford) in the 1960s purges (viz the Soviet Purges of the 1930s, in which leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution were similarly treated).

In his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write,’ Orwell explains that the serious works he wrote since the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) were ‘written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.’ ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a cautionary tale about revolution betrayed by totalitarian defenders previously proposed in ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938) and ‘Animal Farm’ (1945), while’ Coming Up for Air’ (1939) celebrates the personal and political freedoms lost in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949).

Biographer Michael Shelden notes Orwell’s Edwardian childhood at Henley-on-Thames as the golden country; being bullied at St Cyprian’s School as his empathy with victims; his life in the Indian Burma Police — the techniques of violence and censorship in the BBC — capricious authority. Other influences include ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940) and ‘The Yogi and the Commissar’ (1945) by Arthur Koestler; ‘The Iron Heel’ (1908) by Jack London; ‘1920: Dips into the Near Future’ by John A. Hobson; ‘Brave New World’ (1932) by Aldous Huxley; ‘We’ (1921) by Yevgeny Zamyatin which he reviewed in 1946; and ‘The Managerial Revolution’ (1940) by James Burnham predicting perpetual war among three totalitarian superstates. Orwell told Jacintha Buddicom that he would write a novel stylistically like ‘A Modern Utopia’ (1905) by H. G. Wells.

Extrapolating from World War II, the novel’s pastiche parallels the politics and rhetoric at war’s end—the changed alliances at the ‘Cold War’s’ beginning; the Ministry of Truth derives from the BBC’s overseas service, controlled by the Ministry of Information; Room 101 derives from a conference room at BBC Broadcasting House; the Senate House of the University of London, containing the Ministry of Information is the architectural inspiration for the Minitrue; the post-war decrepitude derives from the socio-political life of the UK and the USA, i.e. the impoverished Britain of 1948 losing its Empire despite newspaper-reported imperial triumph; and war ally but peace-time foe, Soviet Russia became Eurasia.

The term ‘English Socialism’ has precedents in his wartime writings; in the essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius'(1941), he said that ‘the war and the revolution are inseparable… the fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy’ — because Britain’s superannuated social class system hindered the war effort and only a socialist economy would defeat Hitler. Given the middle class’s grasping this, they too would abide socialist revolution and that only reactionary Britons would oppose it, thus limiting the force revolutionaries would need to take power. An English Socialism would come about which ‘… will never lose touch with the tradition of compromise and the belief in a law that is above the State. It will shoot traitors, but it will give them a solemn trial beforehand and occasionally it will acquit them. It will crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly, but it will interfere very little with the spoken and written word.’

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