George Orwell's '1984' Study Guide

The Cold War warning resonates today

1984 George Orwell
Signet

The novel "1984" by George Orwell is a classic dystopian story and is eerily prescient of the state of modern society, what with our location, searches, and opinions continuously recorded via our phones; voice-controlled, internet-connected "smart speakers"; and computers. Written by a liberal and fair-minded socialist soon after the end of the second world war, "1984" describes the future in a totalitarian state where thoughts and actions are monitored and controlled at all times. Orwell gives us a drab, empty, over-politicized world. With the passionate individualism of the central character, revolt is a very real danger.

Overview

The novel focuses on Winston Smith, an everyman who lives in Oceania, a future state where the ruling authoritarian political party controls everything. Winston is a lower member of the party and works in the Ministry of Truth. He changes historical information to portray the government and Big Brother (the head leader) in a better light. Winston worries about the state, and he keeps a secret diary of his anti-government thoughts.

Winston's dissenting ideas center on his coworker O'Brien, a member of the ruling party. Winston suspects that O'Brien is a member of the Brotherhood (an opposition group).

At the Ministry of Truth, he meets another party member named Julia. She sends him a note telling him that she loves him, and despite Winston's fears, they start a passionate affair. Winston rents a room in a lower-class neighborhood where he and Julia believe they can carry out their affair in private. There they sleep together and discuss their hopes for freedom outside of the oppressive state in which they live.

Winston finally goes to meet O'Brien, who confirms that he is a member of the Brotherhood. O'Brien gives Winston a copy of the Brotherhood's manifesto, written by the group's leader.

The Manifesto

A large part of the book is taken up with a recitation of the Brotherhood's manifesto, which includes a number of social democratic ideas along with one of the most powerful renunciations of fascist thought ever written. But O'Brien is really a spy for the government, and he gave the manifesto to Winston as a test of his loyalty.

The secret police arrive at the bookshop and arrest Winston. They take him to the Ministry of Love to re-indoctrinate him (through torture). Winston refuses to say that he was wrong to disobey the government. Finally, they take him to Room 101, a place where his worst fears are used against him. In the case of Winston, his greatest fear is rats. After O'Brien places a box of hungry rats against Winston's face, he pleads to be released and even asks that Julia take his place instead.

The final pages recount how Winston becomes a valid member of society again. We see a broken man who can no longer resist the government's oppression. He meets Julia but cares nothing for her. Instead, he looks up at a Big Brother poster and feels love for that figure.

Politics and Horror: Themes

The novel "1984" is a horror story and a political treatise. The socialism at the novel's core is integral to Orwell's meaning. Orwell warns against the dangers of authoritarianism. The author's dystopian state offers a devastating view of a society where one is unable to say what one thinks. The population must slavishly believe in a single party and a single ideology, where language is degraded to such a state that it serves only the government.

The silent masses are the backdrop to his work. The "proles" play no part in society other than to do the work of the governing class. They are subjugated to the capitalist system.

The book is brilliantly written with a searing conscience. Orwell’s "1984" is rightly a modern classic of both literature and the social sciences. He combines a thriller narrative with a core political message to demonstrate his brilliance as a thinker and his masterfulness as a literary artist.

Literary Style

The writing style of the book is straightforward, practical, spare, and clear, and can even be described as oppressive, purposefully mimicking the society that the main character is living in. The style in Winston's diary, by contrast, contains emotion and is not always grammatically correct with punctuation and the like, again, purposefully.

The diction of characters changes along social lines, with the party members speaking more formally than the proles, who have a Cockney accent.

The degraded language referred to in the Themes section is the unintelligible Newspeak, which the government desires to take over from standard English (Oldspeak) in order to eliminate independent thought from the masses. People would no longer be able to conceive of rebellion if there was no longer a word for it.

Influence

The book had an impact from the moment it was released, at the start of the Cold War and Red Scare part two in the United States because it turned abstract fears about authoritarian regimes into concrete images: "Big Brother" surveillance, doublespeak, and the Thought Police. The book has seen numerous translations and affected pop culture through influence on music and movies.

It is cited by political parties whenever members of one party want to warn the people about something, from Saddam Hussein to the Patriot Act—both political parties use it, left and right. The British Library says, "Nineteen Eighty-Four is a mirror: it is impossible for the reader not to find their own politics reflected, challenged or distorted in its fiercely polished plain prose."

Quotes

The spare prose makes quotes from 1984 chilling. You don't have to look far to find them, either.

  • “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
  • “War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.”
  • “The best books...are those that tell you what you know already.” 
  • “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
  • “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” 
  • “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”