Author: George Orwell
Country (language): UK (English)
Published: 1949

Summary

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel, meaning that it looks at a horrible but very possible world.

The book takes place after an atomic war has resulted in the world becoming three large superstates.

The plot follows Winston Smith, a worker in the Outer Party, a secondary level of government (below the Inner Party and the mysterious ‘Big Brother’). Winston’s job is in the Minitrue Department, where he rewrites history to suit the party’s current thinking. Although Winston follows the party line, and believes much that it says, he also has doubts and secretly hates it (keeping a book of thoughts that, if found, would result in him being executed).

As the story progresses, Winston hates and then falls in love with a free-spirited girl named Julia, whose attitude towards life makes him question Big Brother and authority. He meets others that also disagree with the Party. However, he and Julia are eventually captured by the ‘Thought Police’, who have been watching him for some time. Winston and Julia are then taken to be re-educated, a process of torture devised to make people faithful to Big Brother.

Notes

Orwell wrote the book as a satire on the Soviet Union’s propaganda machine, but it is often compared to other countries that have taken propaganda-led Totalitarianism, including China, and the dirtier methods used by any controlling authority.

Many of Orwell’s names for the tyranical governmental departments and their practices are still used in common language today:

Big Brother = the top of the government that watches it citizens
The Thought Police = the police department whose job is to crush protest and keep people believing Big Brother’s ideas
Thought Crime = Thinking thoughts that go against those of authority, and being punished for it
The Ministry of Truth = the propaganda department that rewrites history
Room 101 = a place the Thought Police send people to face all their nightmares, thus helping them realise how great Big Brother is
Newspeak = a new language structure that has less vocabulary, meaning less chance for free thought
Doublethink = to be totally hypocritical, but to do so to protect the state, and then to accept the lies as the new truth (forgetting the original truth ever existed)

Other well-known ideas arising from the book are that of ‘Perpetual War’ (Big Brother’s idea of always having its people angry at a neighbouring country rather than Big Brother itself), the clocks striking thirteen (suggesting that Big Brother has even changed time to suit its needs), and the ability of Big Brother to make people and moments disappear from history.

The US Supreme Court has referenced Nineteen Eighty-Four in refusing a US government plan to survey GPS systems without warrants, stating that to agree to such a plan would move the country closer to Orwell’s dystopian world.

Sample

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Reviews

Nineteen Eighty-Four is consistently voted amongst the top books in the west.

The ability of the book not only to satirise the nations at its time of publication, but to still show up the controlling practices of modern governments, one-party states and totalitarian regimes, has ensured it continues to be very popular and widely read.