Nineteen Eighty-Four

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If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
—O'Brien, Nineteen Eighty-Four[1]

Nineteen Eighty-Four (also printed as 1984) is a dystopian novel and cautionary tale by George Orwell first published in 1949. Set in the eponymous year[note 1], it is mainly on the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, economic deprivation and of indoctrination. Most clearly modelled on Stalin's Soviet Union and of Nazi Germany, it also draws inspiration from the economic situation of Great Britain (and the rest of Europe) in the aftermath of the Second World War; a worn-out, almost-bankrupt nation with rickety buildings, cold rooms, empty shelves and mystery meat for dinner.[2]

As a somewhat clunky critique of the 'Soviet system' turned up to eleven, it was promptly banned in the Eastern Bloc, which gave it a fillip in being translated into other languages for worldwide distribution[note 2], including behind the Iron Curtain via samizdatWikipedia[note 3]. A cynic can also suspect its 'anti-Communist' message might have led the text being inserted into more school reading lists than its literary worth alone would justify.[note 4] Its internal language – 'Newspeak' – has led to a clutch of terms to enter the English language, 'Orwellian' to be a shorthand for totalitarian/dystopian systems and 'Big Brother' to become a reference towards any (apparently) omnipresent system of surveillance and/or cults of personality.

Now celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary[3], the book is still relevant; that while the 'bleak privations' of Airstrip One have not come to pass[note 5], the powers of surveillance, propaganda and general paucity of facts have at least in part. It is one of those few novels you should read, or if you really cannot read it (or found your school experience of it poor), either read the 2021 graphic novel drawn by Fido Nesti or watch the 1984[note 6] film by Michael Radford. Expect more adaptations to come along in the next few years, as it left copyright (except in the US) in 2021[4].

Background[edit]

Some works have a convoluted and opaque backstory; Nineteen Eighty-Four is not one of them. Take the geopolitical and societal predictions of James BurnhamWikipedia (in particular his 1941 work The Managerial Revolution), pinch much of the plot of Yevgeny Zamyatin'sWikipedia 1921 We (novel)Wikipedia[5], while absorbing the atmosphere and techniques of Arthur Koestler as shown in Darkness at NoonWikipedia (1940) and The Yogi and the CommissarWikipedia (1945). It could also be said Orwell's work is a counterpoint to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931)[note 7]; in which Orwell expressed doubts of how such a hedonistic society would survive long-term as well as questioning the motivations of the novel's ruling class in doing what they did. Not that this is conjecture, either; Orwell wrote essays on Burnham[6] and Koestler[7], knew Koestler[8] and Huxley[9] personally and had reviewed We[10]. In some of Orwell's other essays in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a sharp eye can almost see bones of Nineteen poking through, such as a proto-Newspeak in his 'Politics and the English Language' essay in 1946[11].

When Orwell actually started to write Nineteen is a bit more blurry; his surviving notebooks suggest he had started to outline and produce short sketches in late 1943[12] and told his Animal Farm publisher in mid-1944 that he had started drafting what would become Nineteen[note 8]. Progress throughout was slow due to a myriad of issues worthy of a melodrama; Orwell's London home was destroyed by a V-1 rocket that year[13], his first wife died (leaving him a single parent of a small child) the following year as well as psychologically unable to return to his Hertfordshire home due to (apparent) grief[14], had to produce 'hackwork' (journalism and reviews) for money to live on until Animal Farm's financial success and then decided to move to an isolated farmhouse on a remote Scottish island with rudimentary 'creature comforts'[15][16] – perhaps not the wisest move for a man in clear declining heath[note 9].

Once at Jura, illness attacked Orwell again, sending him back to London for six months, much of the time he was unable to work [note 10], a situation which was repeated the next winter. If you want a vision of Orwell in 1948, it is of a haggard, hacking man in a dressing-gown, sustained on Marmite and cups of tea as he worked on his final draft; the clacking of the typewriter within a nicotine fug in a gloomy-looking fortress of a house in one of the most remote locations of Great Britain – deliberately not seeking medical attention due to the (correct) suspicion that it would lead him to be hospitalised again.

In this race between the reaper and publication, the latter won – just; seven months after British launch, Orwell was dead.

'Orwellian'[edit]

It is from this work (and this work alone) which the popular definition 'Orwellian' is derived; that if a state is described as such, it is suggestive that they are a totalitarian system in which not even the contents of your head are your own, similar to if a policy is described as 'Big Brother' it is assumed to be regarding intrusive mass surveillance (the British libertarian 'civil liberties' organisation is called 'Big Brother Watch'[17], for example[note 11]. Other aspects of 'Orwellian' – such as a new realistic expose on poverty might be called such a la Road to Wigan Pier – is ignored.[18]

Orwell himself wouldn't have been that surprised (perhaps a bit proud, though) to learn that 'Orwellian' has become a cliché itself which his own 'Rules for Writing' would advise you to avoid at almost all costs. The term 'Orwellian' has also undergone Orwellian treatment itself; in which some folks will call anything they remotely don't like as such, or use it as an attempt to slime enemies[19]. Which is quite Kafkaesque.

'Newspeak'[edit]

Newspeak is the 'official language' of the state of Oceania; or more correctly (from the appendix) a future official language[note 12]. In short, it is a variant of Basic English turned up to eleven; where the language has not only been pruned down to the bare minimum of words, but the bare minimum of meanings too, with the general goal to make 'incorrect thoughts' impossible (or at least, heresies blatant, such as 'Big Brother is ungood'). Newspeak is to reduce language to the status of a mere tool; to communicate simple facts and basic needs, and no more. This was only really possible in a society which had no need for literature or science (engineering and technical terms being covered by the 'C' vocabulary) and desired to make 'normal conversions' almost impossible[note 13].

There is a small (and frankly pedantic) debate whether the new terms Orwell introduced were in fact 'Newspeak'; for how (for example) can a 'Ministry of Love' (Miniluv) exist in Newspeak if the word 'love' has been eliminated? Technically, several of the terms may simply represent jargon to represent 'new' concepts or situations. Like the totalitarian systems the novel was modelled on, many of the terms are simply political euphemisms ('joycamp' = forced labour camp) but Orwell also coined some new terms which entered the English language, such as;

  • Crimestop is the ability to quit thinking about a topic before you reach thoughtcrime. That you accept at face value what you are taught/told without 'thinking things through' and seeing the contradictions, holes or simple incoherence within them. It is perhaps closest to being learned wilful ignorance meaning that leaders are never challenged.
  • Doublethink is the ability to believe two incompatible viewpoints simultaneously. A close sibling of crimestop, presumably used when they are topics which cannot be ignored. In short; techniques to 'compartmentalize' the conflicting topics so they do not cause cognitive dissonance and lead to thoughtcrime.
  • Memory hole is not strictly a Newspeak term, more a particular device (a huge incinerator fed with rubbish transported via pneumatic tubes[20]) which became a verb; to memory hole something, you are burning the evidence of things which are 'inconvenient' to you; be it photos, letters, textbooks etc. In the modern age, it is also in electronic medium too, such as trying to erase your 'embarrassing' social media history and evidence of past transgressions.
  • Oldthink are the views or ideals that predated the revolution[note 14], now considered dangerous (such are objectivity, religion, notions of privacy etc). This is close to the Stalinist mantra of 'continuation of [the] class struggle' which was used to justify the series of bloody purges which ultimately claimed almost all the Old Bolsheviks[note 15] themselves.
  • Ownlife is the activity/ies of a Party member which is not organised and communal[note 16] - it suggests individualism and eccentricity (both of which suggest a habitual thought-criminal) and simply makes the target harder to monitor. The clearest analogy is the 'asocial' category used in Nazi Germany; a catch-all for folks who cannot be booked otherwise but were still viewed as 'undesirable' to the volk and thrown into the camps[21].
  • Thoughtcrime are beliefs which run counter to the Party's teachings, or a simply lack of genuine belief in said teachings. That unlike in most authoritarian systems – where surface orthodoxy is sufficient – the Party demands intellectual and emotional orthodoxy too. The nearest analogy for this is the 'sins of the heart' dogma in some Christian sects; where merely wanting to commit a sin (even if unfulfilled) is in fact the sin.
  • Unperson is when a person is not only removed from the present (ie death), but also past historical records – that they never existed. Prior achievements are attributed to others, photographs doctored or destroyed, nobody ever mentions them etc. While this has been done on/off throughout history, Orwell was quite clearly inspired about how former leading figures such as Leon Trotsky and Ernst RöhmWikipedia were erased from the appropriate Party's histories after their fall[22]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Except the main character admits he's not sure of the date. This is one of the main 'running themes' of the work; Winston Smith is unsure of almost anything, and what few things he is are psychologically assaulted later on.
  2. Sometimes assisted by Western intellgence services.
  3. Meaning that Goldstein's book is now samizdat within samizdat.
  4. Some schools choose their lists on the pragmatic criteria of 'what we have in sufficient stock', which means if someone donates to each school a couple of hundred copies, it's more likely to be studied.
  5. At least for the vast majority in the advanced world.
  6. Yes, 1984, filmed in 1984.
  7. Partly as they are both derivatives of We
  8. Then titled 'Last Man in Europe'
  9. Getting away from London's chronic damp and coal-created smogs clearly a good idea for a man with chronic bronchitis and reoccurring tuberculosis, but Jura clearly a 'heart' move for a man who knew he was at best a 'semi-invalid'.
  10. However, this meant he avoided Jura during the terrible winter of 1946-47 in the United KingdomWikipedia which would have killed him.
  11. Yes, funded by Tufton Street, so turf of the astro type shall be involved.
  12. Supposed to be in general use by 2050, but as of 1984 it is in no real use past tour de force applications such as The Times front pages which (according to the expert Smythe) were 'merely translations'.
  13. If people cannot discuss things with each other, they cannot conspire or 'lead' others into thoughtcrime by accident.
  14. Presumed to be some time in the 1950s.
  15. Members of the Communist Party before 1917, and thus riddled with 'oldthink'.
  16. With the exception of a very few activities which neither is realistically possible, for example shopping.

References[edit]

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 3, Chapter 3
  2. British Wartime Food Cook's Info, 3 May 2011
  3. Artist collecting 1,984 copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for display The Independent, 23 December 2023
  4. Copyright, Public Domain And George Orwell Irwin Mitchell, 1 January 2021
  5. 1984 thoughtcrime? Does it matter that George Orwell pinched the plot? The Guardian, 8 June 2008
  6. Second Thoughts on James Burnham The Orwell Foundation
  7. Arthur Koestler The Orwell Foundation
  8. The untouched legacy of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell Wales Arts Review, 24 February 2016
  9. Aldous Huxley was George Orwell’s French teacher at Eton College Vintage News, 30 January 2017
  10. Freedom and Happiness (Review of ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin) The Orwell Foundation
  11. Politics and the English Language The Orwell Foundation
  12. Orwell’s Notes on 1984: Mapping the Inspiration of a Modern Classic LitHub, 18 October 2019
  13. Plaque unveiled where George Orwell’s Animal Farm almost went up in flames Ham & High, 12 September 2012
  14. The tiny village in Hertfordshire which was home to George Orwell and inspired Animal Farm Hertfordshire Mercury, 20 April 2022
  15. “You Can’t Get to Barnhill from Here” Orwell Society, 8 April 2012
  16. George Orwell's determination to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four on island of Jura 'responsible for his premature death' The Scotsman, 26 January 2020
  17. Big Brother Watch UK
  18. Do you really know what ‘Orwellian’ means? The Guardian, 11 November 2014
  19. The word “Orwellian” has lost all meaning Vox, 16 January 2021
  20. The golden era of the pneumatic tube — when it carried fast food, people, and cats Vox, 24 June 2015
  21. Stigmatized their whole lives long Arolsen Archives
  22. The Photo Book That Captured How the Soviet Regime Made the Truth Disappear The New Yorker, 15 July 2018