The overwhelming spread of military literature in the 20th century gave the readers a great abundance of books to read on these topics. Some authors take both pro and con sides of the military states and actions in discussing the political realities of their times. Among them, George Orwell wrote a novel that depicted the future that is relevant for all centuries and all political powers. The book 1984 (published in 1949 right after World War II) talks about a personality that has to survive under the pressures of an oppressive government.
Throughout the whole story, Orwell depicts an invisible fight between the individual and the system. The book is pretty dark, heavy and depressing. Under enormous pressure, the protagonist of the story betrays his love, admits that 2+2 is 5 and glorifies his oppressors. He can’t afford an extra move, step or look – Big Brother is watching him. The reader can get scared reading the book – but not reading it will leave all of us blind to the potential dangers of this world.
It would be mistaken to assume that 1984 makes a specific reference towards one well-known social totalitarian state that no longer exists. The resistance for oppression was relevant before USSR appeared, it is still relevant in many situations today and will still be relevant no matter how democratic and liberal our societies claim to be. That’s why 1984 was, is and will be the desk companion for many readers throughout the world.
Main Characters and Roles of 1984
The characters of the book each serve very specific roles and purposes in the text, so let’s first briefly explore what the 1984 book is about. The book talks about a possible scenario for the development of the world. After several sanguinary wars and revolutions, the Earth was divided into 3 super states named Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Their alfa governments are in constant conflict with each other. Such never-ending conflicts are needed to distract the attention of the population from poor internal public management, terrible living conditions of the counties. More importantly, the existence of the conflict allows the government to fully control the inhabitants of the states.
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In one of such “superstates”, namely Oceania, lives the protagonist of the book. He is 39, he is thin and has a somewhat unhealthy look on his face. An employee of the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith serves the government institution that works day and night to rewrite the past and destroy the facts that are unwanted by the government. Every day Winston changes the past with his own hands and makes it conform to the new standards devised by the ruling party.
In addition to changing the past, the Ministry of Truth also works tirelessly to promulgate the values and mantras of the county’s political elite. Seeing such truth tailoring and past elimination on a daily basis, Mr. Smith can’t help but wonder whether what is happening is right.
His soul grows a seed of suspicion and doubt and that induces him to start writing a diary. This diary is the only thing that hears what Winston thinks about his job, his life and his government, it marks the beginning of his protest.
The protagonist has to be very careful and do the writing in complete secrecy, hiding from other people and devices. As mentioned in Part 1 Chapter 1, his TV is not only a tool to feed him proper information, it also spies on him:
“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard”.
Whatever he writes in his diary is a crime of through and qualifies for the death penalty.
Big Brother is the supreme ruler of Oceania. He has zero tolerance for individualism or diversity and absolutely no need for pluralism of opinion. He also has a network of Spies and tools set up in the country to make sure that every move of his citizens is observed, controlled and can be contained, if necessary. The Spies adore him and the Party:
“The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother — it was all a sort of glorious game to them.” (Part 1, Chapter 2)
It’s impossible to do something privately in Oceania: all the houses are made of glass, all walls have surveillance and wiretapping, the Thought Police watches every move of every citizen. However, there is a difference in how Big Brother treats certain classes of its citizens. For example, for their love affair, Winston and Julia often choose secret places for dating, such as the countryside or other places where normally low-class labor workers hang out because the state doesn’t have that much security there. Low worker class is considered to have less tendency for thinking thus is treated as a lower-risk population.
Big Brother is an ultimate leader of Oceania, he is like a God and the ultimate goal is to please him. All the mistakes and loopholes of Big Brother or the Party are simply rewritten just like the newspapers. His pictures are everywhere, all the slogans are signed by his name. He is the only source of information, faith and worship in Oceania.
O’Brien is an undercover agent of the party. He secretly works for the Thought Police trying to find people who are thinking about rebellion. He is well-behaved, reserved, has a strong body. He deliberately pretends to oppose the party and Big Brother. His role is similar to that of Mephistopheles in Faust, he is the agent of the devil.
O’Brien is both a character and a concept in the book. He invades the dreams and provokes Smith to think that he doesn’t share Party ideas, he constantly pushes Smith to give birth to his unspoken internal conflict. Finally, when Smith and Julia are ready, he offers them to join the rebel movement. Later O’Brien will personally supervise the torture of his capturers, slowly killing any traces of personalities or thinking in them.
Emmanuel Goldstein was once a leader of the Party that brought it to power. He is now in exile and represents the only opposition available. He established an organization “Brotherhood” that is proclaimed by the Party to be the Enemy of the People. In fact, nobody knows for sure whether the organization really exists and what it does. Goldstein is an imaginary magnet for potential opposition, he serves the purpose of bringing all those who are against the Party under one roof to be destroyed then.
The Party spends a great deal of effort to publicly broadcast the hate clips about Goldstein and the Brotherhood just to give a bait for those who are seeking allies to create a rebellion.
The Party spends a great deal of effort to publicly broadcast the hate clips about Goldstein and the Brotherhood just to give a bait for those who are seeking allies to create a rebellion.
Tom Parsons and his wife Mrs. Parsons live next door to Winston. Tom is a complete opposite of Smith, he follows the Party blindly and never doubts Oceania for a second. He is devoted to the war against other states and will do whatever he can to contribute to Oceania’s victory.
Ironically, he brought up a daughter who is just as fierce and loyal to Oceania as her parents are. One day she betrays her father by reporting to the Thought Police that Parsons spoke badly of Big Brother in his sleep. To aggravate the irony even more, Orwell makes Tome immensely proud of his daughter for “doing the right thing”.
Julia is another protagonist of 1984. She is 26, she also works for the Ministry of Truth in the Fiction Department. She writes novels depicting the greatness of her country and its ruler. She is quite experienced sexually and is known to seduce Party members. She is instinctive, not very logical, irrational, with lots of untamed desire and energy. She is courageous and much more adventurous than her lover Smith. In fact, she is the one who tells about her feelings to Winston and takes him outside of town.
It’s difficult to elaborate on the nature of Julia’s and Winston’s relationship since they are the only creatures with a soul portrayed in this book. So it makes sense that they found each other and grew fond of each other. Would they have felt just as fond of each other if there were other options available – who knows? But the main point Orwell makes is that in such an authoritarian government as Oceania, finding people who think and have their own opinion is an extremely rare thing.
Julia’s sexual and emotional freedom is her way to protest against the strict order of her country. She wants to put her energy into love, emotions, memories and enjoyment, not for the glorification of Big Brother and Oceania. And it only makes the reader even more upset when in the end she breaks under the tortures of O’Brien and says in Part 3 Chapter 6:
“You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself”.
Mr. Charrington is the owner of a thrift shop in a parole district. Proles are the majority of Oceania population who are not part of the Inner Party (those who rule) or Outer Party (those who serve the rulers) and are deemed incapable of thinking or posing a threat to the government. However, in Part 1 Chapter 7 Winston expressed his opinion in the diary that proles might rebel one day and take the Party down:
“If there is hope, it lies in the proles”.
Winston buys his diary from Mr. Charrington and that marks the beginning of Winston’s journey into critical thinking and rebellion. Later, Winston will rent a bedroom upstairs above the shop to meet with Julia there.
Winston trusts Mr. Charrington because he holds on to the past (second-hand items) and thus keeps the past intact when Oceania is doing everything it can to change or destroy the past. At some point, Winston even thinks that Mr. Charrington is a member of the Brotherhood. But as it turns out, he is an informant of the Police and spies on everything Winston and Julia do in his shop.
After the Second World War, the civil war broke down in Great Britain, which lead to it being occupied by a new superstate – Oceania. The citizens of Oceania live under the rule of an ideology of one Party. The ruler and impersonification of that Party is a leader called Big Brother.
The Party is divided into Inner Party (the 2% of the ruling population), Outer Party (the 13% who implement their policies) and the others, who are called proles and don’t have any opinion or importance whatsoever. But not all members of the Outer Party are in unanimous agreement with the Party ideology. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth and is starting to question the Party’s right to rule and tell him what to do. But he understands that there’s nobody with whom he can share his concerns. So he shares his thoughts in a diary, which is also quite a dangerous thing to do.
One day Smith notices that his colleague Julia is paying a lot of attention to him. At first, he is afraid that she busted him and will give him up for the Thought Police. But after some time he finds a love note from her. They start a secret relationship that is prohibited by the government. They hide and dream about a revolution. Smith believes that their relationship will not end well – such encounters between men and women are strictly prohibited in Oceania.
Eventually, they meet a representative of a real revolutionary movement, O’Brien, who gives them a book on the philosophy of the upcoming rebellion. While reading the book in the room they rented for dating, the couple is busted by the Through Police – the so-called revolution movement representative was nothing but a set-up of Big Brother to find and eliminate potential rebels.
The government imprisons Julia and Winston and tortures them cruelly. They break under the tortures and betray each other. In the end, both Winston and his ex-beloved Julia praise the majesty and powerfulness of Big Brother and sincerely believe that their country is doing great. The Through Police manages to “cure” Winston from his revolutionary thoughts. At first, Smith thinks that he gave up Julia and his freedom just to evade the torture, but once he is released, he realizes that he is now the right man who sincerely believes in Big Brother and the Party.
1984 Theme 1: War. The author wrote his dystopian classic in 1948 and he simply changes the last two digits of the year when naming his book. The first theme that is present in the text is the war – 1948 is the time after one of the biggest tragedies in human history, Second World War, and the time when the world watched in terror the emergence of two huge military powers – USA and USSR. Despite the victory and defeat of the fascist movement, people, tired of the loss and tragedy the WW2 brought about, felt helpless when it came to the conception of potential World War Three. The danger was in the air, the fatigue was in the minds, the fear was in the nightmares lived by almost everybody around the world. 1984 was just one of the many military literature pieces heavily exploring one of the possible scenarios that were about to happen.
In 1984 there are three states — two of which are allied, while the third is an enemy. The alliances change regularly and yesterday’s ally can turn into an enemy tomorrow. The war and conflict give Oceania a powerful excuse to disregard the shortages of food, ever-present surveillance and other social problems. The war is a guarantee of internal order in Oceania – how can a loyal citizen undermine his own country when they are at war with an external enemy?
1984 theme 2: Control. Dictatorship and the right of any institution or any given personality to exercise control over people was a hot topic for discussion towards the end of the 20th century. The thing is that there are people who don’t like making decisions because with decisions comes responsibility. So they welcome others to make decisions for them and society accepts it as their right to use predefined solutions. But step by step such willingness to let others make your choices can turn into a dangerous overcontrolling net. Oceania didn’t appear in one day, some processes led to it being like we know it. In 1984 Orwell elaborates what consequences can the war between authoritarian states have and how easy it is to turn to tyranny “for the greater good of the society”.
The citizens of Oceania are in the absolute unity with their state: if they are following the state, they have nothing to worry about, nothing to hide, nothing to think about. They are the state, and the state is at war – so when Oceania wins the war, they will win as well. The control chain is eternal.
1984 theme 3: Mind Control through Newspeak language. The overwhelming control over social life was enhanced through another theme heavily explored by Orwell – the creation of a new language for Oceania called Newspeak. The new English Socialism ideology developed by the ruling party was imposed through the invention of its own language, where each word and grammatical rule were carefully handpicked. When the events in the book took place, the new language was in the process of being introduced: it appeared in the newspapers and party members wouldn’t miss an opportunity to insert a phrase or two in their speeches. The Newspeak was supposed to have completely replaced the Oldspeak (regular English language known and spoken today and in 1980s) by 2050. That would mean yet another victory of Oceania over people’s minds and freedoms.
1984 theme 4: New and improved truth. To keep the society in place and make sure the country is not disturbed and remains focused on the war with another state, the employees of the Ministry of Truth change the news. Every day they rewrite the newspapers of yesterday, backdate them and put them back into circulation.
The altered truth concept is also revealed in the fact that Winston is not actually that good of a character. He wants to be able to think and to love, but the truth is that he is also a wicked personality: he used to steal food from his mother and sisters, he ran away from home. And the readers aren’t sure whether he regrets doing it or not.
Symbolism in 1984
Absurdness and Сontradictions
The symbolism in 1984 rejects and mocks all the typical concepts in life. Everything is on the opposite in Oceania: the Ministry of Love tortures Winston and eventually makes him betray Julia, the Ministry of Truth lies to the citizens of Oceania on a daily basis. The war is freedom, the freedom is slavery, ignorance is bliss – Oceania achieved such a high standing in the society that it could decide what people will believe. There is no place for a reason or critical thinking, war is peace and two times two is five. The utmost freedom for Orwell characters is being able to feel safe (on the condition that no reason or thinking is involved) and that there is nothing to hide, everything is public.
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TV is portrayed in the novel as a “smart” device that was spying on all Oceania citizens. It was a device that combined both functions: television that shows pictures and video camera that records and sends images to the Thought Police. In 1984 telescreen becomes a symbol of absolute propaganda and total control, absence of privacy. Interestingly, very few proles had a telescreen (since they pose a lower rebellion risk), and the party members had a switch that could turn off the screen for no more than 30 minutes per day.
The Memory Hole
Winston’s job was about changing the news so that it matched the reality that Oceania wanted its citizens to see. In his office there were three holes in the wall: for notes on changes that had to be made, for newspapers that had to be edited and for recycling of all the materials. They were called “memory holes” as symbols of ways to destroy and alter memories of thousands of people. Memory holes are also symbols for distorted communication channels Oceania used to brainwash its citizens.
There was one recognizable face that appeared on numerous propaganda materials (posters, TV clips, newspapers and etc.). These materials persuaded citizens how great Oceania was and also delivered a message that “he is watching” everybody at all times. It’s a message of hope (the country will be great one day) and desperation (you are watched 24/7). Big Brother is a symbol of Oceania’s national agenda, he is an idol, a person who gained enormous power not due to his leadership potential, but because of Oceania’s inhumate treatment of its citizens.
Winston had to admit to this famous calculation when he was tortured by the Though Police. This is the symbol of a vivid false statement that is accepted socially in the society governed by a totalitarian ideology.
Winston’s Varicose Ulcer
The medical condition that bothers Winston represents his oppressed feelings and desires. It is an external expression of his internal pains. From one point of view, varicose ulcer is a symbol of Smith sexual desire that is prohibited to exhibit in Oceania. On another hand, it’s a mark of Winston’s dissatisfaction with what is going on around him, it’s a visible physical repercussion of living under total control.
The Red-armed Singing Prole Woman
The woman from a lower worker class (prole) is a symbol of potential rebellion. Winston believed that proles would rebel one day and that the hope for Oceania to regain its civic freedoms lies with proles. Her female capacity to give birth is a symbol that a thought can be born within proles’ minds and new generations can see the world without total control of Big Brother.
1984 is a book that will live forever. It will resonate with readers from different countries, backgrounds, and political views. It is an instruction for government managers on how to compel obedience from its citizens. It’s also a vivid demonstration for citizens how the government can make them do whatever. It’s a scary but real story, cruel but eye-opening, it changes the way we treat our fundamental freedom rights. This book helps us appreciate what we have – the possibility to choose friends, love the people we find attractive, do what we like doing, think, speak, and make decisions in our lives.