I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. I read it at age nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book – the child's version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead. To say that I was horrified by this book would be an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs were so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep were so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust.
The whole experience was deeply disturbing, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.
Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular emperor-has-no-clothes books of the 20th century, and it got Orwell into trouble accordingly. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course – not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.
Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. I read it in paperback (the copy of which is pictured here) a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again. It struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me, a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions – a feature of my school – and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent; most adolescents feel like that.) I sympathised particularly with his desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a secret blank book. I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it's this scribbling of his – along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 1950s – that gets Winston into such a mess.
Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale. By that time I was 44, and I'd learned enough about real despotisms that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone. The majority of dystopias – Orwell's included – have been written by men and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who've defied the sex rules of the regime. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were.
In writing 1984, Orwell's main goal was to warn of the serious danger totalitarianism poses to society. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate the terrifying degree of power and control a totalitarian regime can acquire and maintain. In such regimes, notions of personal rights and freedoms and individual thought are pulverized under the all-powerful hand of the government. Orwell was a Socialist and believed strongly in the potential for rebellion to advance society, yet too often he witnessed such rebellions go wrong and develop into totalitarian rule. Specifically, Orwell saw such developments during his time in Spain and in Russia, where he witnessed the rise of communism and the accompanying destruction of civil liberties, honest government, and economic strength.
During a time when much of the Western world was lauding communism as a step towards human progress in the development of equality in government, Orwell clearly and definitively spoke out against the practice. In 1984, Orwell presents a dystopia, or in other words, the perfect totalitarian state. In composing this novel, Orwell gave the world a glimpse of what the embrace of communism might lead to if allowed to proceed unchecked. The Party is unflawed in its universal control over society, as evidenced by its ability to break even an independent thinker such as Winston, and has mastered every aspect of psychological control, largely through utilizing technological developments (allowing for inventions such as the telescreen) to their advantage. In ending the novel with Winston defeated in every sense of the term, Orwell clearly suggests that there is no hope for quelling the expansion or growth of such a perfectly established regime. And, more importantly, Orwell warns that at the time, this outcome was within the realm of possibility as long as the world supported and embraced communism.
A major factor in the Party's rule over Oceania lies in its extremely well organized and effective propaganda machine. The Ministry of Truth, which is ironically where Winston works, is responsible for disseminating all Party publications and information. All figures and facts come from the Ministry of Truth, and all are dictated by the Party. In other words, the Party chooses exactly what to tell the public, regardless of what is accurate. The effectiveness of this propaganda machine, which constantly corrects old material to reflect the Party's current position on any subject ranging from chocolate rations to the loyalty of a specific individual, allows the Party to completely dominate the range of information disseminated to the public. Therefore, as O'Brien notes, the machine determines what constitutes reality.
In addition to the massive amounts of doctored information the Party disseminates to the public, there are also basic forms of propaganda, such as the Two Minutes Hate, Hate Week, posters of Big Brother, and required daily participation in the Physical Jerks. The Party uses literally every waking opportunity to instill its ideals into its citizens, and is strikingly successful in achieving its goal of total loyalty. In 1984 we see the vigor and loyalty such propaganda inspires in the citizens. The citizens of Oceania are filled with hatred for the country's stated enemies, but this hatred is easily re-directed if the enemy happens to change. This efficiency is quite disturbing. Orwell's presentation of the power of propaganda significantly supports his warning against totalitarianism. If propaganda rules all information, it is impossible to have any grasp on reality. The world is as the Party defines it.
The Party works to quell all physical sensations of love, and depersonalizes sex to the point where it is referred to as a "duty to the Party" (for the purposes of procreation). Some Party organizations even advocate complete abstinence and procreation only through artificial insemination. Winston suffers the Party's removal of personal fulfillment or enjoyment in relationships in his failed marriage with Katharine. Later, when he finds Julia, Winston relishes the freedom of being able to love someone in a physical and emotional way. So much of Winston's seeming rebellion turns out to be guided and influenced by the Party (Mr. Charrington, O'Brien, the Brotherhood), but his relationship with Julia is not. Winston is only able to rebel against the Party through his affair with Julia, even though this love is destroyed in the end.
Orwell's discussion of love is not only relegated to romantic love. Through Winston's memories of his mother and the contrast between how she cared for him and his sister and the average Party family is striking. Winston's mother deeply loved her children and did all she could to protect them during the aftermath of the Revolution and the Party's rise to power. In Winston's time, the Party has removed such interfamilial loyalty, demanding that all love and loyalty be reserved for Big Brother and the Party. In this way, the bonds between parents and children are broken. Even worse, children commonly report their parents to the Thought Police, placing the Party above the lives of their mother and father. The Party's eventual goal is to destroy the family unit entirely and have all children raised in Party facilities. The Party has no room for love, unless that love is directed with full force at Big Brother and Oceania.
Through its effective psychological manipulation tactics, the Party destroys all sense of independence and individuality. Everyone wears the same clothes, eats the same food, and lives in the same grungy apartments. Life is uniform and orderly. No one can stand out, and no one can be unique. To have an independent thought borders on the criminal. For this reason, writing such as Winston does in his diary has been outlawed. People are only permitted to think what the Party tells them to think, which leads to what Syme refers to as "duckspeak." Independent thought can be dangerous, as it might lead to rebellion.
This theme comes to a head during Winston's torture, when Winston argues that he is a man, and because he is a man O'Brien cannot tell him what he thinks. O'Brien counters that if Winston is a man, he is the last man on earth. Moreover, O'Brien suggests that this independence is evidence of insanity. O'Brien's view represents the purity of a totalitarian regime, in that independent thought must be destroyed to promote the needs and goals of the Party. Winston and Julia's downfall occurs because they believe they are special. Their arrest and torture, however, breaks this spirit. Once again, through this ultimate loss of individual thought, we witness Orwell's warning against embracing any version of totalitarian rule.
Songs appear throughout the novel, most often when Winston is reflecting on the state of the world. Music appears to inspire Winston and allows him to see beauty and simplicity in an otherwise violent, ugly, and frightening world. He sees a powerful sense of tragedy in "Under the spreading Chestnut Tree," hope for a brighter future in the beautiful thrush song, respect for the true, untouchable past in the "St. Clement's Dane" rhyme, and freedom and hope in the passion with which the prole woman sings while hanging her laundry. Below, listed in chronological order are the musical events that occur in the novel.
Winston describes sitting in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, observing the clearly beaten, defeated, and tragically sad Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, while the song "Under the spreading Chestnut Tree, I sold you and you sold me" plays over the telescreen. The song seems to reflect the broken spirits of these three men, who were once Inner Party members and now have lost everything.
Mr. Charrington teaches Winston the rhyme that begins "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement's," which is a vestige of the past. Throughout the novel, Winston holds on to this rhyme and tries to discover its entirety. He succeeds, with the help of Julia, who remembers a few more lines than Mr. Charrington, and O'Brien, who finishes the poem for Winston.
Julia and Winston are in the Golden Country, beginning their affair. As they stand next to each other surveying the landscape, a small thrush begins to sing next to them. Winston is taken in by the bird's boundless freedom and wonders what makes him sing so beautifully. To Winston, the bird's song represents all he longs for in life. It is the exact opposite of the Party.
Winston hears the prole woman in the yard behind Mr. Charrington's house sing while she works. She belts out the tune without any hesitation, throwing herself into the simple music with a passion Winston reveres.
Winston tells Julia of the poem Mr. Charrington taught him, and she adds two verses. Her grandfather taught her the rhyme when she was young, and Winston is elated to learn the next few lines of the piece. This cooperation reveals a strong bond between Winston and Julia.
Winston discusses the Hate Song the Party created solely for the Hate Week celebration. This is the only time we hear of a song created purely for negative means. Winston notes that the Hate Song is not as popular among the proles as some of the more simple tunes the Ministry of Truth has produced for them.
O'Brien completes Mr. Charrington's rhyme, and Winston is immensely satisfied to finally know the complete piece. He feels that gaining the last puzzle piece from O'Brien symbolically represents their bond in rebelling against the Party and pursuing a future steeped in freedom.
Winston again hears the prole woman singing passionately while doing her wash and reflects on the primitivism in song. Winston thinks about the millions of people around the world, just like this woman, who find such pleasure, power and freedom in music and are able to embrace it in their lives. He is arrested immediately after this brief scene, which fulfills the last line of the "St. Clement's Dane" song, "Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!"
Winston sits in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, just as Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford once did. He hears the same song he heard when watching those three men, "Under the spreading Chestnut Tree, I sold you and you sold me." Here, the song speaks to the destruction of Winston's independence, and his newly discovered love for Big Brother.
The Party is fueled by loyalty, and thus demands that its citizens support any and all actions it takes in pursuing a greater Oceania. For the Party, loyalty means accepting without question or hesitation. Ironically, when Winston pledges his loyalty to the Brotherhood, he also agrees to accept the goals and requirements of the Brotherhood without question or hesitation. Winston agrees to do anything the Brotherhood requires, even if that means murdering innocents. However, Winston is also loyal to Julia, and refuses to be separated from her forever. This split loyalty is what separates Winston from the other Party members. Party members are loyal to the Party, Big Brother, and Oceania alone. Personal relationships are of no importance.
While in the Ministry of Love, O'Brien notes this weakness in Winston's mind and effectively removes it. Through painful physical torture, O'Brien first teaches Winston that the Party's perspective is the accurate perspective. Next, by threatening him with carnivorous rats, O'Brien breaks Winston's loyalty to Julia. In the last scene of the novel, Winston finally comes to love Big Brother, and his transition from split loyalties to a greater single loyalty to the Party is complete.
Oceanian society presents a clear dichotomy in living conditions. The small Inner Party lives luxuriously, with servants and lush, well-furnished apartments. Party members, on the other hand, live in run-down single-room apartments with no amenities and low-quality, tasteless food. The proles live in absolute poverty. The chasm between poverty and wealth in the novel is striking, and is most noticeable during Winston's forays into prole society. The buildings the proles live in are decaying, and the city of London is filled with bombed-out ruins. While the Inner Party comforts itself with luxury, the citizens of Oceania suffer, getting by with the bare minimum in a dying city.
Orwell presents this dichotomy to demonstrate how totalitarian societies promote the wealth of the ruling regime while decreasing the quality of life for all other members of society. Such governments often tout their hopes for establishing an equal society when in reality the separation between their living conditions and those of the citizens is vast. Winston looks out on the city of London and sees a dying world. Meanwhile, O'Brien looks out on the city of London and sees a society trapped in a single moment in time, defined and controlled by the Party.
As previously noted, technology is an extremely important tool that the Party uses to maintain control over its citizens. Without telescreens, the Thought Police would not be nearly as effective, and propaganda would not be so widespread. The constant supervision of the telescreen effectively imprisons citizens of Oceania in their daily lives: they are always under observation.
Ironically, other areas of technological development are strikingly stagnant. For example, the printing machines in the Ministry of Truth are still quite basic, and each superstate continues to build the same bombs that were used decades before. Scientific progress has halted, except where it serves the Party's goals (such as in artificial insemination or new methods for psychological manipulation). In the world of Oceania there is no such as thing as progress for the sake of progress; there is only power for the sake of power. When technological developments serve this power, they are encouraged. When they do not, they are stopped.
Newspeak plays an extremely important role in Oceanian society and in the Party's control over its population. As Syme says, Newspeak reduces and limits the number of words in the English language, and removes words used to describe rebellion or independence (with the ultimate goal being to remove citizens' ability to think anti-Party thoughts). Interestingly, the Party works to form a language around itself rather than naturally accepting and assuming the language of the people that make up the country. In this way, language is used as yet another mechanism of mind control.
Removing a nation's original language serves to reduce the importance of a nation's past. Languages develop over centuries, and are deeply intertwined with culture and history. Redefining and forcing a language on a population, as was often done in the postcolonial era, denies that society its individuality. The Party meets this goal with great efficiency.