An Analysis of 1984 by George Orwell

Modified: 27th Feb 2023
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George Orwell’s most acclaimed work, 1984, is a dystopian novel set in a futuristic surveillance society. The term Orwell coins in the book for this type of culture is “oligarchical collectivism". Set in the fictional Oceanian colony of Airstrip One (formally Britain), the narrative charts the fall of rebellious propagandist Winston Smith. Written as he lay dying of tuberculosis, the novel illustrates Orwell’s fears for the future in the aftermath of World War II. In a totalitarian state led by the Stalinesque Big Brother, the individual has lost virtually all of their rights. Civil liberties are non-existent and total control is maintained through a combination of propaganda, brainwashing and physical punishment. So adept is Orwell at creating his dystopian world, that his very name is now synonymous with totalitarian regimes, while words such as “newspeak” and “doublethink” have integrated their way into mainstream lexis.

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Recent events during the War had left a left a marked impression on Orwell, with inherent references to Communism and Fascism littering the narrative. Figures such as Josef Goebbels had shown just how damaging propaganda and psychological manipulation could be in the wrong hands. In 1984, the Party utilises a number of different population control devices to keep the nation under the yolk of imperial oppression.

Big Brother is the Party’s enigmatic leader. The parallels between him and Stalin are glaringly obvious, even down to his physical appearance. On the opening page he is described as “…a man of about forty-five with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features.” He is the primary symbol of the Party’s propaganda machine and is ambiguous in his very nature. Big Brother represents the image of the Party that has been created for public consumption. His name suggests a protective nature; that he will nurture and protect the population, who are of the same flesh and blood as he. Yet he is simultaneously intimidating and somewhat threatening as his gaze cannot be avoided. Each picture is emblazoned with the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” and the posters are so numerous that Winston is rarely out of sight of one. His face is described as “simply enormous” and gazes “down from every commanding corner”. It is this dichotomy of protection and intimidation that Orwell’s Party utilises to instil obedience in its citizens.

From the reader’s perspective, it is unclear as to whether or not Big Brother is even a real person. Orwell presents several possibilities. It could be that he is a literal figure and is the dictator at the head of the Party or he may well not exist at all and is merely a character created for the purposes of propaganda. A third option is that he was a real character during the ‘great purges’ but the legend has since far superseded the real man and it is quite possible that he is no involved with the Party or perhaps not even alive. This is an issue that Orwell never resolves in his narrative and indeed there is evidence to support all of these theories within the text. Even his protagonist is deliberately uncertain as to Big Brother’s real origins. Orwell tackles the subject through Winston’s interior monologue.

On page 36 Winston says, “The story really began in the middle sixties, the period of the great purges in which the original leaders of the Revolution were wiped out once and for all. By 1970 none of them was left, except Big Brother himself. All the rest had by that time been exposed as traitors and counter- revolutionaries.” This quotation would support the notion that Big Brother is in fact a real man and is indeed the autocratic leader of the Party. He could, however, just as easily represent a group or collective.

There are other points in the novel where Orwell suggests that in fact Big Brother is not a person and never existed in the first place. There are several potential motives for a tyrannical government such as the Party to create a fictitious leader. If Big Brother was nonexistent then any attempt at assassination would be impossible. It would also mean that any power hungry members of the inner party would be completely unable to stage a coup d’etat.

There are several passages in the novel that would support this thesis, in particular in part 2, chapter 9. Through Winston’s interior monologue, Orwell writes, “Nobody has ever seen Big Brother. He is a face on the hoardings, a voice on the telescreen. We may be reasonably sure that he will never die, and there is already considerable uncertainty as to when he was born.” Here Orwell suggests that he may be more of a concept than a real man, in particular when he suggests that it is more than likely that Big Brother will never die. Winston goes on to say, “Big Brother is the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world. His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organisation.” In these two sentences Orwell elaborates further as to what may be the motives for creating a fictitious figurehead. His choice of the word “guise” further suggests to the reader that Big Brother is in reality an elaborate smoke screen. If the Party is represented by an individual, or at least an image of an individual, then it is much easier for the masses to connect with the Party. The Party requires the population to fear and adore them, and, as Orwell illustrates, these types of emotions are far more readily felt towards another person than to a faceless corporation.

Big Brother is accredited with all of the nation’s successes, no matter how trivial and is never criticised, even remotely. This infallibility raises further suspicion as to the accuracy of his portrayal and, in reality, he worshipped in much the same way as a deity. Orwell writes, “Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration.” This immediately raises suspicion in the reader, particularly given that Winston’s line of work is in editing history, so it is clearly from the start that Party is not above manipulating the truth. During the “Two Minutes Hate” one woman even goes so far as to call him her saviour, before burying her face in her hands, “it was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.”

Big Brother is an image that is never far from the reader’s attention. Orwell’s citizens of Airstrip One are constantly being bombarded with his image from the moment they awaken until the second that they fall asleep. His face is deeply imprinted upon their psyche. During the “Two Minutes Hate” his image is prevalent and leaves such a lasting impression that even after his face has faded away Winston says that his image “seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen”. In addition to the daily “Two Minutes Hate” his likeness is being beamed into the minds of the people through the innumerable telescreens found in the workplace, the homes of every citizen, the streets and squares of the city and even in the toilets.

Yet the telescreens are not merely an instrument for distributing propaganda to the masses. They also create a climate of constant fear through the psychological manipulation of the people who are watching them. For in addition to functioning as televisions, Orwell also tells the reader that they are two-way devices. Not only can the viewer see what is on the screen, but they can in turn be viewed by unseen Party officials. As Winston tells the reader in the opening chapter “the instrument…could be dimmed but there was no way of shutting it of completely.” Orwell does not explain the specific mechanics of how this technology operates or even how often the screens are viewed. Only Inner Party members are privy to this knowledge and as the narrator is not part of this extremely elite group, the issue goes unresolved.

Winston does, however, give some thought to the subject: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.” Orwell creates a climate of fear in which the individual can never be sure whether or not their actions are being analysed for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Winston tells the reader that a person soon instinctively develops “the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.” By manipulating the fear of the citizens the Party creates an atmosphere in which the community polices itself. As it impossible to tell whether or not one is being watched at any given time, it becomes second nature to police one’s own thoughts and actions. This would be an extremely efficient way to police a population.

The telescreen is also the device that delivers the majority of the Party’s propaganda to an individual. Throughout the narrative Orwell presents the reader with a few examples of the type of shows that are being screened. The citizens are constantly berated with patriotic songs and racist images of whoever happens to be the enemy at any given time. In addition to this Big Brother’s achievements are constantly lauded as well as wildly inflated claims about the standard of living in Oceania. There is even reference given to “three year plans” and how they have all been massively over-fulfilled. These are claims that the reader will be immediately sceptical of given that Winston’s profession is altering records to perpetuate exactly these types of claims. Orwell’s reference to “three year plans” is clearly alluding to the five year plans of Stalin’s Soviet Union. This is one of a number of references to the actual political climate of the era littered throughout the text.

One element of Orwell’s dystopia that has no parallel in reality is Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. The novel includes an appendix in which Orwell explains the principles of Newspeak and its role in Oceanic society in great detail. At the point in time that Orwell sets his narrative the language has not yet been officially adopted. This is primarily due to his worry that should he incorporate it fully then the novel would become completely inaccessible to the vast majority of his audience. He circumvents this problem by setting his novel in the interim period when both Newspeak and Standard English are being spoken. He states that the date by which Newspeak will become the first language of Oceania is 2050. The reason stipulated in his appendix is to allow the Party’s scholars sufficient time to translate all of the pre-existing literature that they wished to preserve for the future. This is a very elegant excuse used to keep the sense of realism alive in the text.

The primary aim of Newspeak is to perpetuate the doctrine of Ingsoc (or English Socialism in Standard English). Orwell was acutely aware of the power of language and the damage that can be caused when it is misused. One of the primary motivations for the implementation of Newspeak is that once Oldspeak had faded from living memory there would no longer be any vocabulary left with which to express ideologies contradictory to the Party manifesto. As Orwell writes in his appendix, “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought-that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc-should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

The example that Orwell chooses in his appendix is Thomas Jefferson’s extremely famous writing in the American Declaration of Independence. Obviously it would be completely impossible to translate this passage into Newspeak while also retaining some of the ideologies being expressed in the original. “The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.” This example perfectly encompasses the overall aims of the introduction of Newspeak. An ideological text such as the Declaration of Independence is exactly the type of free expression that Orwell’s Party is trying to extinguish. This is the absolute epitome of psychological manipulation; if an individual has no means by which to express a dissident thought, then how can a revolutionary movement even begin to get off the ground?

Another feature of Newspeak is that there are no negative words of any description. The Newspeak word for bad is “ungood” and if something is really atrocious then it would be said, rather ineloquently, to be “double plus ungood”. This would instil a sense of optimism in the general populace as they would not have the means to express any negative feeling. The language also concurrently quashes any sense of artistry or expression through its horrendously tedious orthodoxy. There are no subtleties of nuance and the definitions of words are rigid and inflexible. Orwell explains that the vocabulary is divided into three main components. A vocabulary consists of words from normal everyday speech, of which there are far fewer than any of today’s modern languages. B vocabulary is made of compound words and shorthand, compressed versions of normal words e.g. “Miniluv” or “crimethink”. C vocabulary encompasses words relating specifically to scientific or technological terminology. Orwell’s influences in creating Newspeak were the political rhetoric of the age and the nonsensical advertising jargon that was just beginning to become prevalent at the time. It served as his warning to the world as to the damages that can arise if language is allowed to become corrupted and is not sufficiently cherished and protected.

The one Newspeak word that Orwell uses more than any other in the novel is “doublethink”. It is a notion that is absolutely central to the politics of the Party. It is an extremely complicated notion and, as a result, Orwell’s definition is extremely long and convoluted. He describes it as a “labyrinthine world”. It is the very embodiment of a complicated subject. Winston describes the act of “doublethink” as being “…conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…”. This is a fairly difficult notion to get to grips with. A degree of self delusion is required in order to practice “doublethink”. It is somewhat similar to hypocrisy although it is definitely not the same. The idea is that an individual can hold two mutually exclusive truths to be self evident. One of the best examples of this is the names of the various administrative ministries of the Party. For example the “Ministry of Truth” where Winston works, is charged with task of manufacturing propaganda in addition to falsifying history. The “Ministry of Peace” handles Oceania’s never ending state of war with its constantly changing enemies. The “Ministry of Plenty” is tasked with managing economic issues. Given the state of Orwell’s London as Winston describes it, perhaps their job would be better described as managing the various economic deficiencies:

“Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions?”

This quotation perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy of the names of the Party’s ministries and in fact the “Ministry of Love”, the one that Winston refers to as “the really frightening one”, is the department in charge of torture and re-education. Another good example of doublethink in action is the Party slogan emblazoned on the walls of the ministries:




The ambition of this slogan is convince the general population that what they desire is in fact what they already have. To any rational reader, uneducated in the intricacies of “doublethink”, these sentences would appear completely irrational. Here the Party is purporting the myth that only through a constant state of war can peace and serenity be achieved. It is suggesting that a population should not strive to be free in the first place as this will only bring about slavery and finally the slogan implies that a good citizen should not ask questions of their government as it is their very ignorance that grants them strength. The aim is convince individuals that they do not wish to be well informed in the first place.

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Yet in order to achieve this goal an individual must suspend their disbelief as their own common sense would immediately tell them that these sentences are complete nonsense. Orwell tackles this issue further on in the aforementioned definition. He writes that an individual is required “to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.” This is particularly important to Winston in his day to day operations as a member of the Outer Party.

Winston’s work for the Party entails rewriting historical data in order to ensure that the Party is never proven wrong and never fails to meet one of their own targets. Orwell’s Party is consistently making claims to having “overfulfilled” their own quotas and Winston is tasked with inventing the facts and figures in order to substantiate these outlandish claims. He describes in detail to the reader how he must edit the number of boots that the Party forecast it would produce for a given quarter in order that it might be lower than the number of boots actually produced. Yet he also elaborates that in all probability the figure for the number actually produced is also erroneous. He even goes so far as to suggest that in all probability no boots were produced at all. Orwell writes, “All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.” This is the crux of the issue and perhaps the main reason for which the Party would want to invent “doublethink” in the first place. Winston knows that the number of boots the Party has claimed to produce is completed fabricated, for he himself is the author of that fiction. Yet, in the Party’s eyes, Winston must also accept this to be fact. In order for this to be the case Winston himself must be complicit in his own deception.

Orwell’s Party is constantly bombarding its population propaganda and perpetually degrading their knowledge through falsified facts and figures. It is through this psychological manipulation that the Party protects its own interests. Yet this very act of self preservation could potentially raise a very serious issue for the Party. The scale of the dishonesty is extremely widespread. Winston tells the reader that it applies to “every class of recorded fact, great or small.” This in turn means that a very large number of people must be involved in manufacturing the sheer volume of lies that are need. Should the general population become aware of this rampant corruption, even if it were only within the relatively close knit circle of the Party, the potential consequences for the Party could be extremely damaging. It could easily be enough to destabilise its position of power. It is for this very purpose that “doublethink” is so crucial to the Party’s survival as every member of the “Ministry of Truth” is required to make up a fact and then immediately believe it.

Yet it is not only the members of the Party that are required to deceive themselves. Every single member of Orwell’s dystopia must be constantly adjusting their opinions and preconceptions to fit with the Party’s ever changing political agenda. One of the most notable instances happens on the sixth day of “Hate Week”. After years of telling the public that “Eurasia” was their most hated enemy and “Eastasia” their ally, suddenly the roles are reversed. The Party now insists that Eastasia is the common enemy. Orwell writes, “There was, of course, no admission that any change had taken place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy.” Yet the whole of “Hate Week” had been devoted to whipping the population into a frenzy of hatred towards Eurasia. It seems improbable that all these people could forget something so fundamental in such a short space of time yet on this matter Orwell remains ambiguous. As the reader is only allowed a glimpse into Winston’s thoughts, it is never made plain whether the rest of the country have been so manipulated that they truly immediately believe what they are told or if they too, like Winston, must make a conscious effort to appear that they do.

The “Hate Week” is yet another tool in the Party’s arsenal of psychological weaponry and works in conjunction with the “Two Minutes Hate”. “Hate Week” is a large scale, annual event where the population is incited into a condition of extreme loathing towards the enemies of Oceania. The “Two Minutes Hate”, on the other hand, is much smaller scale and is a daily dose of emotionally charged propaganda. It is a reminder to the Party members of exactly who they should channel their hatred towards while also attempted to strengthen the love and adoration felt towards Big Brother.

The principle “Enemy of the People” is Emmanuel Goldstein. Each morning, the members of the Party are required to congregate before a massive telescreen where they are subjected to two minutes of upsetting and violent imagery. While the actual content differs each morning, Winston says that “there was none in which Goldstein was not the principle figure.” Goldstein is the enigmatic leader of a revolutionary group named the Brotherhood and allegedly the author of a rebellious text titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”. Winston refers to it as a “compendium of all the heresies”. Much like Big Brother, Orwell does not definitively explain whether or not Goldstein represents a literal character in the novel. It is highly plausible that he is merely a construct of the Party’s propaganda machine. For the vast majority of the novel Orwell allows his reader to wonder as to whether Goldstein or “the book” even really exist. In the house of Inner Party member O’Brien, Winston finally sees a physical copy of this text. However, Orwell later reveals that O’Brien is a member of the “Thought Police” and the whole situation was a trap set for Winston and Julia. This cast further doubt over the author of “the book” as it may well have been published by the Party to help ensnare dissenters.

Irrespective of Goldstein’s actual existence, what is certain is that Orwell’s Party uses Goldstein as focusing point for all of the hatred and negative emotions felt by the Party members. He is continuously vilified and blamed for all that is wrong with society: “All […] crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching.” It is similar to the way similar to the way the USA handles Osama Bin Laden today, although on a much greater scale. While Big Brother can be said to resemble Stalin physically, Goldstein’s beard conjures up images of Trotsky to the reader. At the climax of the “Two Minutes Hate”, with all of the spectators having been induced into a fervour of hatred, the menacing and “despicable” face of Goldstein fades away to be replaced by that of Big Brother. This reinforces the connotations of Big Brother as a benevolent saviour, rescuing his followers from Goldstein’s curse.

The “Two Minutes Hate” clearly has a profound impact on the members of the Party. The reader is allowed a glimpse into one these perverse shows which Winston must endure on a daily basis. Winston says, “Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room.” Here Orwell is emphasising the power that propaganda can hold over people and the potentially damaging consequences of such widespread ignorance. The video implants a racist distrust into the brains of those watching as Goldstein’s hateful speech is set to a backdrop of marching soldiers with “expressionless Asiatic faces”. They have no individuality and all appear identically threatening.

All of the negative emotions that the “Two Minutes Hate” encapsulates are brought to a climax in the annual “Hate Week”. This festival is far larger than the “Two Minutes Hates” and the preparations dominate the narrative throughout. As Winston works for the Outer Party this is a particularly busy time for him. Through his work at the Ministry, Orwell allows the reader an insight into the mechanics of exactly how the Party fabricates the lies that it purports at these events: “…stands had to be erected, effigies built, slogans copied, songs written, rumours circulated, photographs faked.” This presents the reader with further evidence, if any were needed, that nothing the Party says can be trusted.

Both the “Hate Week” and the “Two Minutes Hate” can been viewed as the channelling suppressed sexual energies into practices that could be deemed more productive to the Party. Orwell’s carefully chosen lexis connotes sexual imagery to the reader, in particular during the “Hate Week”. One the sixth day Orwell describes the scenes as a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax”. This example is the most overtly sexual language that Orwell uses. Another manner in which the Party controls its citizens is through depriving them of any sexual gratification. The reproductive act is referred to as a “duty to the Party” and is completely devoid of any love or pleasure. By maintaining a sense of sexual frustration in its inhabitants, the Party can redistribute their repressed energies into hatred towards a common enemy. As Orwell demonstrates when then enemy suddenly switches from “Eurasia” to “Eastasia”, that it is in fact irrelevant who that enemy actually is. Nobody directly refers to the fact that enemy has changed and the posters of the wrong enemy all over the square are blamed on “the agents of Goldstein […] at work.” What is more important than the name of the enemy is that the collective hatred draws the whole nation together. Winston describes how the “square was packed with several thousand people, including a block of about a thousand schoolchildren in the uniform of the Spies.” An orator is vehemently delivering a hateful speech about the enemies of the state. The impact on the receptive crowd is so great that at times “…the voice of the speaker was drowned by a wild beast- like roaring that rose uncontrollably from thousands of throats.” The common enemy creates a sense of unity and brings together people of all ages and walks of life. Orwell even specifically refers just how impressionable the young people in the crowd are, writing, “The most savage yells of all came from the schoolchildren.” This psychological manipulation of extremely impressionable children is another extremely effective manner in which the Party dominates its citizens.

Orwell presents this point most poignantly through Winston’s neighbours, the Parsons family. The family is comprised of Mr. and Mrs. Parsons and their two children, who remain unnamed throughout the novel. The children are avid participants in youth groups called “the Spies” and “the Youth League”. There are several parallels here between these groups and the Hitler Youth and, through including the word Youth in the name of one of these organisations, Orwell draws the reader’s attention to these similarities. Orwell’s narrative carries a harrowing warning about the susceptibility of children to brainwashing and propaganda. Interestingly, the children are never directly named and Orwell instead refers only to “the boy” and “the girl”. This emphasises their complete lack of individuality, as if they have come straight from a Party manufacturing line. When Winston calls to their flat in order to mend a broken sink the boy calls him a “traitor” and a “thought-criminal” and makes violent threats to “shoot” or “vaporise” him. Orwell compares these awful children to “tiger cubs which will soon grow up into man-eaters.” Such is their commitment to the Party’s cause that it leads the reader to question whether their loyalties lay more with their parents or with the Party. In reality, the reader is left in little doubt as to the answer to this question.

Having left the flat, Winston muses over the plight of the poor mother of these children. “Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy.” This thought turns out to be extremely prophetic for when Winston finds himself in the “Ministry of Love” as a suspected “thought-criminal”, he runs into Tom Parsons once more. When he had begun to utter heresies in his sleep, his seven year old daughter had reported him immediately. Parsons says, “She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day.” Here Orwell emphasises that these children have been so successfully psychologically manipulated that, in reality, they are the children of the Party much more than they are the children of their biological parents. Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that Parsons bears his daughter no resentment, going on to say, “I don’t bear her any grudge for it. In fact I’m proud of her.” This reiterates how deeply entrenched the brainwashing is in this family. He is genuinely ashamed of his discretion and pleased that his daughter alerted the authorities.

With 1984 Orwell created a truly classic piece of literature with a strong moral message that is still as relevant today as the time in which he wrote it. His narrative carries stark warnings for the future about the horrors that can ensue if power is allowed to run unchecked. His portrayal of the dangers of propaganda and psychological manipulation is truly expert, in some aspects, strangely prophetic to the TV generation of today. His warning is clear about the need for a society to preserve its civil liberties and the harm that falsifying history and fabricated propaganda can cause. In this text Orwell also emphasises the power of language and the need to preserve it. The sentiments that Newspeak represents are extremely complex, indeed so much so that Orwell felt that they were too complex for the majority of his readers. Yet Orwell’s warning in extremely clear about just how important language can be to a society. As a writer by profession, it is of course only natural that he would feel this way.


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