This companion to October 17 Part 1 & Part 2 is not an English Literature Study Guide for 1984. Instead it puts historical context to Orwell’s reasons for writing the novel. He got the title by reversing the year he finished it: 1948. Originally he called it The Last Man in Europe, but decided 1984 sounded punchier.
Although the year 1984 is well behind us, the novel still fascinates. It is not just Big Brother in the age of perpetual surveillance, or finding our worst fears in Room 101. There is the loss of idealism, rise of totalitarianism, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the media’s use of Orwellian ‘Double-Think’ to simultaneously spew contrary opinions to increase our anxiety and helplessness, and the way we prefer soundbites to explanation.
In the novel, every edition of the Newspeak Dictionary is smaller than the last, forcing people to think in narrower ways. ‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words’, says Syme, the dictionary editor. Perhaps he should have said it was ‘doubleplusgood’.
In Orwell’s day, the Bolsheviks used government-speak to mask labyrinthine bureaucracy and the failure of their nightmarish oppressive policies. Today we choose Facebook, Twitter, texts, Snapchat and emojis over meaningful comment. And do not complain when government, media and accountable others do the same.
Originally Orwell served in the International Brigade with the Communists against the Fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He lost faith in communism after seeing how Fascism and Communism seamlessly merged into autocratic dictatorship.
Between 1946 and 1948, while writing 1984, Orwell was dogged by death. The novel begins on 4 April 1984. Orwell’s first wife’s funeral was on 3 April 1945- literally making the start date a new, bleak, beginning. In February 1946 he suffered from a hemorrhage brought on by incipient tuberculosis. Two months later his sister died of kidney disease.
During Christmas 1947 tuberculosis was diagnosed. With antibiotics still in their infancy, it was a death sentence. On finishing 1984 (Jan 1949) Orwell was rushed to a sanatorium in a weak condition. The novel was published in June to critical acclaim. By January 1950 Orwell was dead from a burst pulmonary artery. He was 46.
1984 is a love story set in a society so morally bankrupt, love, and even desire for human contact, is viewed as degeneracy. The lovers are two Outer Party Members- 39 year-old Winston Smith and 26 year-old Julia.
Winston hates Julia for being a perfect Party member: chanting fervently during the ‘2-minutes Hate’ and wearing an Anti-Sex League scarlet sash around her slender waist. The Party aims to abolish intimacy, family love and human tenderness: every emotional outlet except hysterical hate and frenzied love for Big Brother.
Growing up as the Party gained power, Winston feels outraged by their assault on the human spirit. Julia, being younger, never knew anything else. She accepts the Party implicitly while casually flouting every precept: using black-market food and enjoying guiltless sex: her way of asserting ownership over her body. Winston agonises over betraying Julia, whereas Julia brought up to believe resistance is futile, betrays him in an instant.
At different times, Winston says hope lies with the proles. He is wrong. The real hope lies with Julia and the generations to come. They will rip the Party asunder without even being aware they do so. Look at the Soviet Union or Labour under Blair, and possibly the Democrats under the Kennedy. Despite the Inner Party Members’ intellectual arrogance everything changes over time.
As a war correspondent Orwell knew Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin met in 1942 at Tehran and 1945 at Yalta to divide the post-war world into spheres of influence. It led to three global Super-states in 1984:
Oceania is North and South America and the remains of the British Empire: South Africa below the Congo, Australia, New Zealand Papua New Guinea and its islands.
Eurasia, stretching from the Bering Straits to the Atlantic, came into existence when Bolshevik Russia invaded Europe.
Eastasia consisting of China, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet and Japan probably originated with the annexation of territories by the People’s Republic of China under Mao, who seized power in 1945.
Winston lives in London on Airstrip One. The name reflects a joint British/American proposal to make the UK an airbase from which to launch nuclear bombers if the Bolsheviks invaded Europe. The names Britain and England are expunged from history.
London is ruined by a half century of war, where poverty, hunger, filth and disease are normal. The Second World War is forgotten as irrelevant. After Germany’s defeat, our Cold War rapidly heated up to their Nuclear War.
Winston remembers an air-raid taking everyone by surprise when he was a child, when an atomic bomb dropped on Colchester. He also remembers street fighting in London; hinting at the revolution giving rise to Oceania. Since then war has been continuous. Always the same war according to the Party; although Winston remembers times when the enemy was different.
Inside 1984 is another book, a political analysis called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism written by the arch-traitor Emmanuel Goldstein: based on Trotsky’s exposure of Stalin’s Russia.
Goldstein sums up the world’s political systems. Each philosophy is the same. Oceania’s Ingsoc (English Socialism) is as indistinguishable from Eurasia’s Neo-Bolshevism and East Asia’s Obliteration of the Self as Communist Russia and China were from Nazi Germany.
Each state could eradicate the others with nuclear weapons but won’t. The real purpose of eternal war is to use up the wealth that could make people happy and free. It is easier to dominate the down-trodden and starving. The war also channels emotions into a siege mentality and provides an external enemy to focus hate and frustration. Julia wonders if the war is illusionary; if their own government sent the bombs falling on London.
Goldstein’s book explains the 4 Ministries housed in 1,000 foot high pyramids dominating decaying London. The Ministry of Peace runs the eternal war. The Ministry of Plenty creates shortages. The Ministry of Love is the home of the Thought Police where political criminals are re-educated.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth. He corrects ‘historical errors’, for the Party is always right. He also eradicates every mention of disgraced Party members from official records and newspapers, so they never existed.
The book opens with Winston hiding in the far corner of his cramped cold apartment where the Telescreen cannot see him. In the 1930s Television was trialed in London on a cable system, which allowed two-way communication. The experiment was abandoned with the onset of World War 2 and televisions did not become popular again in the UK until the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. This time the picture was transmitted through very high frequency radio waves.
Winston contemplates writing a diary. As he explains, he committed the crime even before putting pen to paper. Crime is intention, not action. The crime exists from the moment it pops into your head. Regardless of whether you carry it out, the real crime is thought crime.
It is inconceivable Julia and Winston can beat the system. The Thought Police have strung them along since the beginning. Winston is tortured; the party’s way of correcting his aberration, destroying his hubris, and opening his heart to the love of Big Brother. His torturer O’Brien makes things clear:
‘Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’
‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct… You are outside history, you are non-existent.’
‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever.’
These quotes could be from Stalin’s Russian or any oppressive regime. The language might be poetic, but it underlies what is happening to political prisoners the world over.
Winston is re-educated and released, having confessed in his show trial to all sorts of crimes, real and imagined. His greatest hope is the Party executes him while his mind is clean and filled with love for Big Brother.