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Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four (sometimes 1984) is a bitingly satirical and nightmarish novel published in 1949 and written by George Orwell, describing a dystopia where all individuality has been subordinated to the will of the state, in a London of the not-so-distant future.

The novel introduced the now infamous concept of the ever present all-seeing Big Brother, the notorious Room 101, the thought police who use telescreens (televisions that contain a surveillance camera—they are found in everyone's home), and the fictional language Newspeak (pronounced news-speak'). The original idea was to call it "1948", but Orwell changed the title in order to highlight the parallels between post-WWII society and the policies of a fictional totalitarian regime.

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The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four The world described in Nineteen Eighty-Four has striking and deliberate parallels to Stalinist Russia—notably, the themes of a betrayed revolution, which Orwell put so famously in Animal Farm, the subordination of individuals to "the Party" and the extensive and institutional use of propaganda, especially as it influenced the main character of the book, Winston Smith.

Orwell is also reported to have said that the book described what he saw as the actual situation in the United Kingdom, where he lived, in 1948, where rationing was still in place, and the British Empire was dissolving at the same time as newspapers were reporting its triumphs. The structure of the government also resembled that of the British government, at least in nomenclature:

The government in Nineteen Eighty-Four has four major ministries, each focused on an object which is, in exquisite irony, utterly antithetical to its name: "The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation."

The three slogans of the Ministry of Truth, visible everywhere, are

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

While by definition these words are antonyms, in the world of 1984 the world is in a state of constant war, no-one is free, and everyone is ignorant. Through the universality of the extremes the terms become meaningless, and the slogans become axiomatic.

The world is controlled by three functionally identical totalitarian superstates—Oceania (ideology: Ingsoc (English Socialism)), Eurasia (ideology: Neo-Bolshevism) and Eastasia (ideology: Death Worship). London is the capital of the Oceanian province of Airstrip One.

Newspeak, the "official language" of Oceania, is extraordinary in that its vocabulary decreases every year; the state of Oceania sees no purpose in maintaining a complex language, and so Newspeak is a language dedicated to the "destruction of words". As the character Syme puts it:

"[T]he great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well.... If you have a word like "good", what need is there for a word like "bad"? "Ungood" will do just as well... Or again, if you want a stronger version of "good", what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like "excellent" and "splendid" and all the rest of them? "Plusgood" covers the meaning, or "doubleplusgood" if you want something stronger still.... In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words—in reality, only one word." (Part One, Chapter Five)

The true goal of Newspeak is to take away the ability to adequately conceptualize revolution, or even dissent, by removing words that could be used to that end. Since the thought police had yet to develop a method of reading people's minds to catch dissent, Newspeak was created so that it wasn't even possible to think a dissenting thought. This concept has been examined in linguistics: see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

To understand why Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, one only has to look at his less famous writings: most significantly, Homage to Catalonia does a lot to explain his distrust of totalitarianism and the betrayal of revolutions; Coming Up For Air, at points, celebrates the individual freedom that is lost in Nineteen Eighty-Four; and his essay "Why I Write[?]" explains clearly that all the "serious work" he had written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism".

Influence of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has been used to the point of cliché in discussions of privacy issues, to the point where the term "Orwellian" has come to describe actions or organisations that remind one of the society depicted in this novel. Some note the closed circuit television cameras used in shopping centres, speed cameras on the roads, technologies such as Echelon and Carnivore, the restrictions imposed on the export of strong cryptography by the US government and supermarket loyalty cards as signs that 'Big Brother' already exists, and is already controlling our lives. Even the personal computer (and, to a lesser extent, the television) could remind one of the novel's telescreens.

The state of perpetual war as justification for domestic surveillance and limits on civil liberties is seen by some as being mirrored in the unending War on Terrorism and related actions like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the PATRIOT Act.

The atmosphere of control and change inspired the British TV show The Prisoner and the film Brazil directed by Terry Gilliam and A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been made into a cinematic film twice, in 1956 and in 1984, and has been made into a television adaptation rather more often.

(Orwell titled the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it is frequently rendered 1984, as in the link below.)

See also: Brave New World

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External References

  • Howe, Irving, ed. 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism In Our Century. New York: Harper Row, 1983. ISBN 0-060-80660-5.
  • Hillegas, Mark R. The Future As Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. Arcturus Books/Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. ISBN 0-809-30676-X.



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