Nineteen Eighty-four 20

1984 was filmed in the locations around London during the period covered in the book (beginning 4 April 1984). Unless stated all images are from this film

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.

Winston & Julia (John Hurt & Suzanna Hamilton)

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.

Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin at Yalta in Crimea 1945 (Imperial War Museum)

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.

1984 superstate map: my interpretation by maschen-d85vi67

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.

Corrected Bolshevik photograph with vaporised Naval Commissar Yezov removed
(Public Domain)

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.

20 thoughts on “Nineteen Eighty-four

  1. Reply Christy B Nov 27,2017 6:23 pm

    I never thought about the author’s circumstances as they related to the story when I read this book over ten years ago. I may just have to flip through its pages again.

    • Reply Paul Nov 28,2017 1:17 am

      Thanks for the comment Christy. 1984 is really a prime example of an author using what is happening in their life to produce a work of genius. Please God that our future books are about unicorns and flowers and sugar and spice… they might make for a terrible read but at least we will be having nice lives!!!! Px

  2. Reply Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC Nov 25,2017 5:14 am

    1984 is a CLASSIC, a warning, and a vitally important book that is a fascinating read. It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 65 languages.

    I hope that EVERYONE who has not read it will buy it and read it immediately — *especially* anyone in America! (It is also available in most libraries — or SHOULD be — and anyone who knows me knows I eschew, and *rarely* use, that “S” word.)

    To underscore how topical the book remains, the stage adaptation of this masterpiece has recently closed in New York, following four successful U.K. runs.

    SUPER post explaining the context and background, Paul. Unfortunately, Big Brother is alive and thriving in America – and if we are EVER to beat him back we all need to be aware of the end game of each little erosion of human rights.

    Also left a comment under Sally’s reblog.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!

    • Reply Paul Nov 27,2017 12:59 am

      Spot on Madelyn… in many ways we are in a version of the Orwellian age and probably will remain so for a long time to come. It is such a profound book equalled by Animal farm which is a heart-breaking read because of the political realities underlying the twisted fable. Pxx

  3. Reply Shehanne Moore Nov 23,2017 1:37 pm

    A wonderful post Paul, that covered everything really, about the history of that period, about Orwell, about the book. I am quite a fan of Orwell xx

    • Reply Paul Nov 23,2017 8:05 pm

      Thanks Shey, I am a big fan of Orwell too. You can really see his journalism background in his writings.. it is sort of naked and raw…. and all the better for it! So glad you thought i did justice to his work Px

  4. Reply Tina Frisco Nov 23,2017 3:03 am

    It’s chilling to recognize so many elements of this book in the fabric of the present. Reading these lines gave me goosebumps: ‘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.’ We’re in danger of becoming a robotic species. But people are waking up, and I hold hope that the turning tide is moving toward compassion, love, forgiveness, and gratitude ❤

    • Reply Paul Nov 23,2017 8:15 pm

      Hi Tina, I know we complain about the West and certain Presidents (and don’t worry we have our (un)fair share of wannabes here on this side of the pond) but when you consider what happens in other parts of the world and what it could have easily have been, but for the grace of ????, we are lucky we can complain even if we can’t do much to change it (because all politicians are venal). I am glad you liked the lines about the soundbites because it does increasingly seem that is all that matters in a world where people with do any act no matter how shameful to be famous or keep notoriety and where children’s career option is increasingly being famous. I think it will change, but we might have to go through some pretty horrific things before the species even considers growing up! Let’s hope they come to their senses sooner rather than later! Px

  5. Reply dgkaye Nov 23,2017 2:45 am

    A most fantastic rundown of Orwell’s book. I read it earlier this year and it had a much different impact on me than it had back in high school reading.The foresight in that book is frighteningly relevant. Great analysis! 🙂 x

    • Reply Paul Nov 23,2017 8:06 pm

      Dear Debby, It is such a haunting book. The despair in ever page and the sheer brutal thrust of his writing. Once you understand what was happening in his own life it makes it all the more poignant Px

  6. Reply Teagan R Geneviene Nov 22,2017 5:11 pm

    Great post, Paul. It’s a fun flashback-to-the-future. Hugs!

    • Reply Paul Nov 23,2017 8:08 pm

      Thank you Teagan. I am a big fan of future’s past literature! In was way they help you step back and see the shape of the world, not only as it might have been but also why it is. Px

  7. Reply Brigid Gallagher Nov 20,2017 2:47 pm

    I remember reading the book and watching the film Paul. John Hurt was such a fabulous actor. I loved him in “Midnight Express”- another unforgettable film. Sadly, we are living among some of Orwell’s predictions in “1984.” We are being watched!

    • Reply Paul Nov 20,2017 11:46 pm

      I think the way the world is moving Brigid that reading Orwell is still pretty unnerving. It is amazing how these novels written so long ago still have their visionary aspects Px

  8. Reply D. Wallace Peach Nov 19,2017 11:46 pm

    I haven’t read this book, as strange as that is, Paul. It was a “school” book and I was on the off year. Your summary is so bleak and disturbing, primarily because the seeds of so many of those ills are present today. I’m more hopeful than Orwell, I think. I have faith that when things get bad enough, people will find their voices and demand integrity. I hope so.

    • Reply Paul Nov 20,2017 12:44 am

      You Are right Diana, we need faith and belief that the world will get better, or what’s the point? And in some ways maybe it is. I mean we dodged quite a few of the bullets Orwell thought lay in the future. I am relieved you found it bleak and disturbing as I don’t think he would have been too pleased if it would have been bright and breezy. It is definitely good to look at in context to the Russian Communist revolution and what happened to the Eastern bloc post WW2! Hugs P

  9. Reply sally cronin Nov 19,2017 11:20 pm

    Fantastic of course Paul as I have already mentioned.. I had never given any thought to the origins of the book or the events that Orwell was witness to. Perhaps I need to watch the film again 30 years on with the evolved cynicism that has gathered.. hugs xxxx

    • Reply Paul Nov 20,2017 12:47 am

      Sally I love the film but even I have to admit it is as bleak as the book.. perhaps even more so because you can see the deep Austerity influence of the late 40s and Early 50 that lingered on though a large part of our early childhoods with the bomb sites and the grimness. On the bright side the performances are outstanding! Pxx

  10. Reply Robbie Cheadle Nov 19,2017 5:45 pm

    I have not read this book, Paul. Indeed, I had not heard of it. I will have to find a copy and read it during my December holiday.

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