1984 Study Guide

1984

1984 by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is an allegorical dystopian novel about the dangers of police states, groupthink, and surveillance of the public. It follows the hapless government employee Winston Smith as he dreams secretly and fruitlessly of rebellion against the all-powerful Big Brother and the Inner Party. Smith's England has been renamed Airstrip One, its citizens stripped of their individuality, its world locked in a constant state of manufactured war. It is a grim vision of the future intended as a commentary on the policies of England at the time of its writing.

Biography

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in 1903 in Bengal, India to prosperous civil servants who were working in India for the British Empire. In 1904, his mother moved him and his sister back to England for a more Christian upbringing. He attended mostly public school until high school for which he attended Eton College in London. He refused to attend university and chose to return to India after finishing Eton. A year after moving to Burma, he joined the Indian Imperial Police, working on behalf of the British Empire. After five years of service with the Imperial, Orwell returned to Europe where he began writing novels and essays in Paris. From Paris, he returned to England where he continued to write while working as a private school teacher. In 1936 he married Eileen O'Shaughnessy and the two of them moved to Spain to join the Marxist revolutionary group POUM. However, they were forced to flee to England after Spain's communist party waged a propaganda war against POUM. By the time of his death on January 21, 1950, Orwell has written seven novels, five collections of essays, an autobiography, and a study. Most of his writing can be classified as political in that he focused on the sociopolitical conditions of his time. Despite his own socialist tendencies, he was anti-totalitarianism as well as anti-communism. His two most popular novels, 1984 and Animal Farm are literary treatises that use allegory and satire to explore the dangers of totalitarianism and communism.

Historical Context

1984 can be considered Orwell's argument against authoritarianism as well as a call for action to prevent the rise of totalitarian regimes. Based largely on his experiences in India, France, England, and Spain, it was first published in 1949 as Orwell's response to the post-WW II rise of fascism and communist thought in the world. He was exposed to the duplicitous nature of the British Empire while serving on the Indian Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927 during which time he worked mostly in the poor and downtrodden sections of India. Serving as an officer for what was effectively the British Empire gave Orwell an insider's perspective on the harsh treatment suffered by the Burmese peasants under the British regime. The year following his time with the Imperial Police, he moved to Paris to pursue his writing full time while living among the poor. After a year of financial struggle in Paris, Orwell returned to England where he worked as a private school teacher. Of course working with privileged children exposed him to the striking economic discrepancies between the poor among whom he felt most comfortable living and the wealthy who he believed were partly responsible for the existing class stratification. In 1936, the same year he married, he was sent on assignment to northern England where he met what he considered to be everyday, working-class people.

A year later the Orwells moved to Spain in order to join the Marxist revolutionary group POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista) fight the Spanish communist party from which they split. However, the Spanish communist party with the support of Stalin began publicly accusing POUM of being pro-fascist thus forcing the Orwells to flee. His life in Spain fostered Orwell's obsession with totalitarianism, fascism, and the threats the two political ideologies pose to the free world. Although it may not have had as much of an impact on Orwell, the rise in Nazism and fascism in Germany and Italy during this period of his life added to his distrust of and hatred for authoritarianism. It also forced him to abandon his socialist leanings because of the similar methods used by both fascists and communists in terms of creating their ideal society. The fascists deify one leader (dictator) and seek the support of the middle-classes whereas the communists advocate the power and security of the party and seek the support of the under-classes. Both philosophies exclude the people from the political process and, almost out of necessity, both continue to promote class differences.

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