- 1 Background
- 1.1 Context
- 1.2 Initial Points of Consideration – Fiction and History
- 1.3 Historical Regimes and Conflicts to Read Against Nineteen Eighty-Four
- 1.4 Thematic Concerns to Consider
- 1.5 Quotes on Central Concepts
- 1.6 Central Arguments of the Novel
- 1.7 Conclusion
Nineteen Eighty-Four has enjoyed status as a time-honoured classic studied in schools across the globe. The Texts and Human Experience Module in the revised HSC Syllabus for 2019-2023 invites us to consider the ways in which George Orwell manages effective insights into the experiences that bring people together, particularly under the iron first of authoritarianism. What are some of the ways in the central characters of Nineteen Eighty-Four represent a longing to collectivise, share and feel as a single human race? Moreover, what are some of the ways in which Orwell’s text illuminates the reality that people face shared experiences across time and place?
Anomalies, Paradoxes and Inconsistencies
The Texts and Human Experiences Module requires students to consider the ways in which “anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies” in human behaviour may challenge our preconceptions as readers. Keep in mind that such deviations in patterns of behaviour are to be considered not only among the central figures of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but too the puppeteers of Orwell’s dystopian upper echelons.
Beyond this, we must consider the ways in which “anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies” in human history have shaped Orwell’s construction of the hellish world that is Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as our own understanding of the text as a work of fiction, commentary and critique.
The Role of Storytelling
The Text and Human Conditions Module invites us to consider “the role of storytelling” to depict particular lives and cultures. “storytelling”, here, comes to stand for the deliberate compositional choices that Orwell has chosen to create the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In considering Orwell’s construction of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are called to consider how history has been represented in fiction, and hence it is crucial to have a foundational understanding of the context in which Nineteen Eighty-Four was composed in order to understand how Orwell has reconfigured reality into artistry.
Authoritative Quotes to Map Context
Consider the following critical valorisations of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
- Critiques the ambitious ‘collectivism’ of the inter-war Soviet Union as a precipitator of the WWII ‘war on fascism’
(‘Nineteen Eighty-Four: context and controversy’ – Bernard Crick, 2007)
- Reflects the residual post-war nuclear capacity of the world’s ‘superpowers’, and its implications for ‘global authority’
(‘Afterword: Nineteen Eighty-Four in Nineteen Eighty-Four’ – Raymond Williams, 2007)
- Hyperbolises the post-war division of territories, as implicit to the ‘Tehran Conference’ and its outcomes
(‘Introduction’ to BoS prescribed edition – Thomas Pynchon, 2003)
In this module, students are required to consider the ways in which multiple dimensions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, namely” “context, purpose, structure, stylistic and grammatical features, and form” come together to forge a work of textual integrity. Textual integrity refers to the capacity for a text to withstand time and place by its careful consideration of prose, structure, technique and exploration of universal ideas. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are asked to consider the ways in which power, control and subordination have been explored as central concepts that will permeate time and place to explain the ways in which humans respond to oppression.
Initial Considerations – Context
As mentioned above, it is crucial to have a foundational understanding of the context surrounding Nineteen Eighty-Four before attempting any analysis. In this way, students may gain a heightened appreciation of the ways in which the mode and manner of storytelling has been manipulated to reflect history.
Thematic Concerns and History
The thematic concerns explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four owe themselves to history as much as they owe themselves to the sci-fi genre. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four manages effective insight into the historically deployed mechanisms of oppressive regimes that maintained their grip on society by vessels of propaganda, subtle behavioural controls, and ultimately fear.
Nineteen Eighty-Four from the Onset of 1949
Nineteen Eighty-Four was composed in 1949, after Orwell – and the global community in general – had already already bore witness to the extremities of fascism and totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Nazi Party and Stalin’s regime in Russia. By considering these historical realities, we may begin to realise the ways in which Orwell creates a dystopian society of satirical extremes in which every aspect of an individual’s life – including their thoughts – are the subject of control strategies implemented in the name of an oppressive figurehead known as Big Brother.
Initial Points of Consideration – Fiction and History
‘Big Brother is Watching You’ is a phrase that finds itself echoed throughout much of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is a phrase that has subsequently entered the lexicon of English idioms. The phrase encourages its subjugated victims to ensure that they remain oppressed. Citizens themselves live in a state of perpetual fear of being accused, falsely or otherwise, and executed. It is important to consider the ways in which oppression has been represented in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and how this may guide our understanding of history as deconstructed by the mechanisms of storytelling – particularly by this use of a maxim.
Big Brother consumes much of his time by rewriting historical records to reflect current party policy. The Soviet Regime under Joseph Stalin was no stranger to redrafting history, nor did Nazi Germany hold any qualms about erasing entire generations of communities. How does the process of erasing or ‘rewriting history’ represent one extreme manifestation of totalitarian control?
Ingsoc, the incumbent party of Oceania in the novel, comes to stand for ‘English Socialism.’ This notion demonstrates the reality that – in Orwell’s opinion, at least – no country was immune to socialism, not even England. It is worthy to note, however, that Orwell himself was no critic of socialism, and believed in a form of the political ideology known as ‘Ethical Socialism.’ The text does, however, remain fairly critical of totalitarianism, one mechanism or leadership style that was used as a vessel to enact socialism in certain states through history by repressive means.
Two plus two equals five”
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the political dogma that “two plus two equals five” epitomises the unruly power of the party’s control mechanisms that they might persuade someone to believe the inherently false, in this case that that two plus two does, in fact, equal to five.
Historical Regimes and Conflicts to Read Against Nineteen Eighty-Four
Italian Fascism – Benito Mussolini
Italian Fascism was a Classical Fascist set of right-wing political beliefs which entailed the incorporation a notably strong grip on society and the economy by the state, a powerful role for the military and police and the prevention of political opposition or resistance.
Nazi Germany – Adolf Hitler
Consider the following quote from George Orwell:
“Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.” –George Orwell
Russian Communism – Joseph Stalin
Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the USSR for 40 years between 1950 and 1990. The ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was Marxism–Leninism, a political ideology that incorporated centralised, planned economy and a vanguardist one-party state, which was the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In such a society, the proletariat supposedly has full control over the state of affairs in one’s country. This eventually, in 1959, proved to fall through as a political system. Why?
The Great Purge or Terror was a mechanism of political repression deployed by officials of the USSR which had its main timeline situated somewhere between 1934 to 1935. The campaign involved the large-scale purging of the Communist Party and government officials, the repression of wealthy proles, the purging of any belligerents or resistors, arbitrary and wanton executions and the installation of intense police surveillance. The death toll totaled to over 1 million people.
English Imperialism – Generally
By 1913, the British Empire had under its dominion more than 412 million people, 23% of the world population. and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2, 24% of the Earth’s total land area. It was the “the empire on which the sun never sets” because at least one of its territories was guaranteed to be in sunlight at any given time of day. What are the implications of the social, political and ideological outreach of the English Empire? We may see such dominion explored by the construction of ‘Oceania’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as the linguistic construction of ‘Newspeak.’
World War I
Consider the Aggressive deployment of polices in world War I. Consider especially Germany, and England. How has dystopia been configured to explore global realities that are so recently no longer realities? What is the effect of exploring dystopia of a reality that was just once-tangible? Consider especially the Russian Revolution also known as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
World War II
Orwell’s construction of Big Brother concluded that manipulation, evil and mass-control was not just a concept contained by localised communities anymore and, given the backdrop of WWII, was capable of crossing borders. The Domino Effect of Communism, the ripple effects of Fascism in Italy and Nazi Regime in Germany were all now tangible fears of every state globally.
Spanish Civil War – Personal involvement
Orwell had himself raised his hand to fight against the Fascist government in the Spanish Civil War. At first supportive of the Russian Revolution, Orwell had a change of heart at the realisation that behind the facade of equality was widespread famine, involuntary labor, internal power struggles and coups, as well as overt political repression. While fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became disillusioned by aspects of the resistance forces. He had come to the realisation that such movements sought for the replacement of the Fascist government to deploy an authoritarian regime of its own. These realisations were sourced as much of the political satire of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Thematic Concerns to Consider
The Power of Language
Students in the Texts and Human Experiences Module are invited to “consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.” You are also instructed to “make increasingly informed judgements about how aspects of these texts, for example context, purpose, structure, stylistic and grammatical features, and form shape meaning.” How then, in studying the use of propaganda, false realities, political facades, extinguishment of masses of renegades and opposition throughout history, do you come to view Nineteen Eighty-Four as satire? It is crucial to make note of Orwell’s writing tone and style in creating an argument surrounding the power of storytelling in representing history’s very own use of language and control in propagating ideology.
Orwell makes particularly use of the satirical elements of ‘double think’, ‘the thought police’ and ‘newspeak’ to create the perception of a controlled reality, intertexualising Hitler’s notorious construction and deconstruction of prose in delivery. This is akin to the reality that Ingsoc understands that ‘to control matter is to control the mind.’ We may see this come to fruition in O’Brien’s regurgitation of the rhetoric of the Party, seen by the accretion in ‘Reality is inside the skull…The real power…is not power over things, but power over man.’ In spite of Winston pursuing truth and beauty, even he will fall to an ecstasy of hatred which ‘seemed to flow through the whole group like an electric current’.
George Orwell hyperbolises totalitarianism in a satire that relies on the deconstruction of primal instincts by ‘inflicting pain and humiliation.’ Sympathiser O’Brien understood that ‘in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them back together’, the party could form ‘new shapes of (their) own choosing.’ The ultimate goal of the Party is to destabilise humankind, and render society helpless. The party’s ultimate aim is to ‘squeeze you empty, and then shall fill you with ourselves’.
In Orwell’s post war apocalypse, the human being is seen as a fragmented entity, unable to escape the shackles of totalitarianism. Yet, despite an atmosphere of moral desolation, Orwell draws heavily on the Romantic genre in the characterisation of Winston who acts as a sole embodiment of Christ-like hope. In instinctively choosing to dismiss the oppressive power of Big Brother, he is drawn to, ‘the beautiful creamy paper…(that)deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil,’ proving that in spite of a truly repressive atmosphere, humankind will risk all for some truth. Winston was a martyr who was once willing to be, ‘punished by death, or at least twenty-five years in a forced- labor camp.’ His final fate, however, truly demonstrates the ultimate unruly wrath of Big Brother.
Quotes on Central Concepts
Quotes on ‘Doublethink’(Part I, Chapter III)
- Winston reflects on family and then dreams of the ‘Golden Country’ – and the girl that “tore off her clothes and flung them aside disdainfully” (34)
- “With its grace and carelessness [her gesture] seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought…” – indicative of the more intuitive, reflective tone of Winston’s narration in these earlier stages, as opposed to the invasive sterility that otherwise pervades the narrative
- Subjugation of intuition – “Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.”
- Reflects on ‘doublethink’ – “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies…consciously to induce unconsciousness…” (40-41)
Quotes on the Role of the Proles
‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles’ (Part I, Chapter VII)
- Winston offers due recognition to the ‘proles’ – “if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, [they] would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies.” (50)
- Identifies their paradox: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (51)
- The ‘Party textbooks’ – “The Party claimed to have liberated the proles from [being] hideously oppressed by the capitalists…”
- A children’s history textbook: “before the glorious Revolution…[the] capitalists owned everything in the world and everyone else was their slave…They were fat ugly men with wicked faces…” (53-54); one of the many forms of (Orwellian) ‘treatise’ that punctuates the narrative (most notably, the Goldstein ‘treatise’ of Part II)
Quotes on the Might of Big Brother
- Reclaimed by the Party, Winston sits at the ‘Chestnut Tree’ café anticipating a “special bulletin from the Ministry of Peace” (331) – his resistance seemingly exorcised by the horrors of ‘Room 101’ [“burnt out, cauterised out” by O’Brien]
- A perfunctory exchange with co-conspirator and former ‘lover’ Julia confirms the crushing defeat of the Party – “Sometimes…they threaten you with something…And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to…so-and-so’…And perhaps you might pretend… that you…didn’t really mean it…But that isn’t true.” (334)
- “All you care about is yourself,’ he echoed – the inexorable weight of ‘Big Brother’ vanquishes the spirit of resistance
- The bleak (post-war) inevitability of the final chapter – “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” (342)
Central Arguments of the Novel
Below, we will consider some of the fundamental concepts upon which ‘Oceania’ has been constructed in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Concept 1 – War is Good
War is a required dimension of human livelihood and is necessary to maintain the products of human labour. If this work were be used to increase the standard of living, the control of the party over the people would decrease. War is the therefore the economic basis of a hierarchical society. In becoming continuous, war has ceased to exist. The continuity of the war guarantees the permanence of the current order. In other words, “War is Peace”.
War has been a catalyst for economic stimulation throughout human history, particularly on the heels of the Second World War. What kind of critique does Nineteen Eighty-Four offer regarding history?
Concept 2 – Faith to the State
There is an emotional need to believe in the ultimate victory of Big Brother to maintain the stability of society. Big Brother is nothing without his ‘younger siblings’ looking up to him; but are his subjects truly admiring their omnipotent ruler, and is their forced participation so artificial that we may call this reality a living hell?
Why does a head of state needs its people’s allegiance? Is a state anything without its people?
Concept 3 – Class Struggle
There have always been three main strata of society; the Upper, the Middle and the Lower, and no change has brought human equality one inch nearer. Collectivism doesn’t lead to socialism. In the event, the wealth now belongs to the new “upper-class”, the bureaucrats and administrators. Collectivism has ensured the permanence of economic inequality. Wealth is not inherited from person to person, but it is kept within the ruling group.
This fundamental belief explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four manages an effective look into the ways in which humanity has strived to achieve equality throughout human history. Is this an attainable goal? According to Orwell, ‘ethical socialism’ was on way in which which this utopia could be achieved, but inherently, the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four explores socialism brought by the iron first of totalitarianism.
Proles – The Role of the Underling
A prole is simply a remember of the working-class, a truncation of the term ‘proletariat’ which was a term that dominated much historical literature surrounding socialism and communism in history. The masses (proles) are given freedom of thought, because they are seen as incapable of free thought. A Party member is not allowed the slightest deviation of thought, and there is an elaborate mental training to ensure this, a training that can be summarized in the concept of doublethink.
Who do the proles represent in history, particularly when we think of the varying regimes in place in the immediate history prior to the conception of Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The Texts and Human Experience Module invites students to contemplate the ways in which classic texts have shaped out understanding of shared human experiences, while considering the ways in which shared human experiences have shaped the construction of these very same texts. Nineteen Eighty-Four manages effective insight into the ways in which power may ultimately make or break us as people. It is important to appreciate George Orwell’s careful construction of thematic concerns, language, tone, structure and characterisation for creating a fortified work of fiction that will indubitably stand the test of time.