1984 Study Guide


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.


Orwell wrote 1984 as both an expose and a warning of the dangers totalitarianism poses to the free world. The novel is a satirical treatment of his personal experiences both as a former member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and a citizen of the British Empire. He witnessed firsthand the duplicitous nature of England's activities in the Far East. His suspicion of the far left developed as a result of his experience with Stalinists in Spain whose fascist leanings forced his family to flee Spain. The rise of fascism during World War II solidified Orwell's loathing for totalitarianism from all schools of thought. Big Brother's brand of totalitarianism is modeled after Stalinism. It embraces both fascism and communism: the latter appeals to mainly to the working classes while the aforementioned is favored by the middle and upper classes. To be more specific, fascism deifies the leader and enables megalomania. Communism adheres to the firm belief in collectivism and the power of the people. In the novel Big Brother represents the fascistic tendencies of Oceanic society. His ominous warning/slogan Big Brother is Watching You exemplifies the overreaching power typical of a fascist leader. The Party exemplifies communism's ideal of collectivism as demonstrated by O'Brien's demand for Party members to relinquish their individualism to the distinct identity of the Party.

In a sense 1984 portrays the perfect totalitarian society. True to dystopia, Oceania is the most severe manifestation of a modern-day authoritarian government. The date that serves as novel's title also serves as Orwell's prediction for the future. At the time of writing this, 1949, he believed that totalitarianism would soon replace the democratic ideals of freedom and individualism throughout the world. Orwell sensed the very real threat posed by totalitarianism to the global community. Hitler's invasion of Europe and the rise of the Third Reich amplified his fear. Orwell accurately describes a state in which the fascist/communist, oligarchic government exercises absolute control over every aspect of its citizens lives to such an extreme that one can actually be guilty of thought-crime. In addition to thought-crime, there is also sex-crime; however, it is not prostitution. Rather sex crime involves two people making love rather than simply performing the sex act for the purpose of procreation. In creating these two types of crime, Orwell is letting the reader know that they are the two most dangerous things to a totalitarian regime which survives on hate and ignorance.

As the drama unfolds, the protagonist Winston Smith embarks on a mission to find the key to ousting Big Brother and the Party from power. However, he discovers that the Party's power is too immense and its scope all-encompassing. Winston realizes, and with him the reader also comes to understand, that when an authoritarian regime has infiltrated the fabric of society, there is neither a possibility of escape nor of a successful rebellion. There are several methods employed by the Party to maintain its absolute control over Oceania, some of which include: technology, information control, psychological control, limitations on the distribution of consumption goods (this is discussed in Part 2, Chapter 9), and the simultaneous destruction of human emotions and interpersonal relationships.

Technology as a Weapon

Orwell portrays uses 1984 to expose the dangers of technological advancements when controlled by an authoritarian regime. Again, Orwell was influenced by WWII and the era's scientific developments made in weaponry (i.e. atomic bomb) and intelligence (i.e. cryptography). The rise of television and radio was significant during this time as well. Orwell takes the seemingly innocent entertainment appliances and turns them into weapons for mind and body control. The telescreens dominate the novel as if they were characters in and of themselves. Their vast visual and auditory ranges are used to monitor the activities and conversations of Party members. Such invasiveness forces Party members to exercise a heightened level of self-control that borders on compulsiveness and leads to automation. In Chapter 1 Winston is extremely conscious of not only his body movements, but also his countenance such that prior to facing the telescreen he ensures his face is expressionless. The Party publicly promotes such self-monitoring through governmental surveillance as an enhancement of Oceania's moral fabric. In all actuality, self-surveillance and one's surveillance of others only serves to increase the Party's power and control of its members.

In addition to telescreens the Party uses hidden microphones. Orwell does not disclose the exact location of the microphones, but the reader can assume from the exchange between O'Brien and Winston at the end of the novel that microphones are hidden virtually everywhere. The one location microphones cannot be found is the countryside. Orwell deliberately lays the stage for the environmental dichotomy discussed in the literary analysis. The countryside offers a striking contrast to the city in that the latter is overrun with oppressive technology and machines whereas the aforementioned is free of the horrors of mankind and its power lust. In some sense, the countryside symbolizes the purity and simplicity of the Garden of Eden. It is no coincidence that Julia and Winston's affair begins in the countryside. Initiating the relationship in this location marks their first step towards freedom. Julia's dramatic casting off of her overalls amplifies the effect. By violently discarding the Party uniform, she is discarding, if only for a brief moment, the iron hand with which the government rules its citizens.

The technology of war is used literally and figuratively as a weapon against Oceanians. One of the primary aims of the Party is to murder as many citizens as possible in one fell swoop. Given the era in which the novel was written, Orwell is referencing the atomic bomb. In fact, in the early stages of the Revolution, the atomic bomb was used though by who is unclear. The reader can safely assume that the Party was using it against the masses of people (Middle and Low classes) for whom they claimed to be fighting. The bombing continued well after the Revolution. Steamers, as they are called by the proles, are dropped with great frequency on the prole section of town. Twice, Winston was nearly killed by a bomb while wandering among the proles. Although the main purpose of bombing is the kill quickly and efficiently, the Party also aims to increase the fears its citizens have of the enemy (Goldstein, Eurasia, or Eastasia depending on the whim of the Party).

Psychological Manipulation through Information Control

The above theme segues into the theme of psychological manipulation through information control. Not only is technology used to monitor Party members' thoughts and actins, but it is also used to manipulate them. The Ministry of Truth, where nearly all of the key characters work, is the epicenter of propaganda. The Records department falsifies news items before they are reprinted for the public. Within the Records Department are subsections that deal with the alteration of photographs and newsreels. The Fiction Department translates classic literature into Newspeak while also censoring it to make it ideologically appropriate. Ampleforth's translation of a Kipling poem is a primary example of the type of censorship. However, he left the word God at the end of the final stanza, more for aesthetic reason than unorthodoxy, and was quickly arrested for his oversight. The Department also creates new Party and prole literature for both entertainment and educational purposes. Julia works in the pornosec subsection of the Fiction Department where the Ministry creates low-grade, highly demoralizing pornographic films and literature.

Telescreens play a key role in the control of information as well. They are one of the main news sources for Party members in that they announce false reports from the Ministry of Plenty (altered at the Ministry of Truth) regarding the production of consumption goods. For example, in Part 1, Chapter 5 the telescreen announces that the chocolate ration has been increased to 20 grams despite the previous announcement that it was reduced to 20 grams. The telescreen broadcasts updates on the war from the Ministry of Peace that usually announce either the victories of Oceania's army or the impending threat of Oceania's enemy of the time. These news breaks are important to note because they represent the continuous barrage of false information necessary for weakening the mind's reasoning skills. Sensory overload of dense and impertinent information desensitizes the receivers to not only what is important but also to what is true. For example, Parsons sits in the canteen with a vacant look on his face while the telescreen announces the new production totals. The reader has to wonder if he is actually hearing the announcement which is a blatant lie or if he's allowed his mind to wander knowing that the information will be a positive reflection of Big Brother's policies. Either way, he celebrates the announcement with a laudatory remark about Big Brother before lighting a cigar.

In addition to controlling present information the Party controls history and its members' memories. No Party member is permitted to keep a visual or written record of past events and as previously stated, the records provided by the government institution are fabrications and alterations of the truth. Such limitations on one's thoughts result in vague and unreliable memories that eventually are replaced with the history and memories created by the Party. The Party slogan Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past (35) best exemplifies the motivation behind making the past mutable and inconsequential. This practice suspends Oceanians in a permanent state of flux which only serves to increase their dependence on Big Brother and the Party. The heightened sense of insecurity forces Oceanians to seek solace and comfort from their dubious leaders.

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