Nineteen Eighty-Four. Understanding the characters, themes, context and ideas presented in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Background Understanding. George Orwell The Spanish Civil War The Russian Revolution English Socialism Publication and reception context The world of 1984.
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Understanding the characters, themes, context and ideas presented in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell and the formation of his beliefs
The Spanish Civil War
George Orwell volunteered and fought on the side of the P.O.U.M. (Party of Marxist Unity) during the Spanish Civil War
In Republican Spain he fleetingly experienced a world where "the working class was in the saddle". This was the kind of world in which Orwell wanted to live. His great Russian Revolution fable, Animal Farm, is essentially the story of the hope for equality cruelly betrayed.
Orwell fought on the republican side, which was a loose grouping of left wing factions.
He witnessed the brutal suppression by the pro-communist forces of the more equality minded factions he was involved with.
He was not only dismayed by this, but was disturbed that none of this was faithfully reported in the British press. This caused him to loose faith in the media.
He was further disturbed that British left wing intellectuals still slavishly supported the Soviet Union and failed to see Stalin’s handiwork in Spain.
Orwell's fleeting experience of the suppression behind Republican lines in Spain led him to an understanding of the atmosphere of the totalitarian state.
On the basis of the astonishing dishonesty of the ideologues and the press concerning what was happening in Spain, Orwell came to fear a future world from which the ideal of objective truth had vanished and where those who held power were able to control the future through their control over the past. It was in Spain, moreover, that Orwell first saw the peculiar corruption to which those intellectuals who attached themselves to a country or a cause were prone.
For Orwell the essence of totalitarianism was the attack it waged against freedom. After Spain he lived with a permanent dread that the liberal civilisation into which he had been born was gradually being destroyed. This was the source of 1984, the most important warning he wrote about the abuse of absolute state power in the technological age.
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Orwell explained that he set the book in Britain to emphasise“that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere” .
Commenting on 1984, Orwell wrote, “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive.”
''Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.''
Originally titled Last Man in Europe it was renamed Nineteen Eighty-Four for unknown reasons, possibly a mere reversal of the last two digits of the year it was written. It was first met with conflicting criticisms and acclaim; some reviewers disliked its dystopian satire of totalitarian regimes, nationalism, the class system, bureaucracy, and world leaders’ power struggles, while others panned it as nihilistic prophesy on the downfall of humankind. Some still see it as anti-Catholic with Big Brother replacing God and church.
In the late 19th century British philosophers coined the term ‘dystopia’. The term indicates an indefinite world in which the contradictions of the author’s society creates a pessimistic (not optimistic) vision of the future. Dystopian texts are written to stimulate reflection from the reader about the differences between reality and fiction with the final purpose of improving reality itself. Ultimately dystopian texts show what the possible impact of today’s values, behaviour and attitude may lead to.
Dystopian texts usually have common elements:
Winston Smith -The main protagonist of Orwell’s 1984. He resents the authoritarian regime of the Party and tries to rebel, but is finally crushed in body and soul.
Julia -Winston’s girlfriend. She also starts out with a strident anti-party stand and is suppressed in the same way as Winston is.
O’Brien -a prominent member of the Inner Circle of the Party. He traps Winston into betraying his unorthodox views and presides over his torture and degradation.
Mr. Charrington -a member of the powerful thought police, who disguises himself as a “prole” and entraps Winston.
Ampleforth -One of Winston’s colleagues at the Ministry of Truth, whose job is to “rewrite” old poems in keeping with Party ideology. He is arrested for thought crimes.
Parsons -Another colleague of Winston’s who despite his stupid and unquestioning adherence to the Party line, is still arrested. His children are such zealot pupils of the Party that they are prepared to ‘turn in’ any ‘thought criminal’, even their father
Symes–Winston’s colleague who is executed. He illustrates the truth that a high level of intelligence is not guarantee of humane thought or behaviour. He is a sadistic zealot.
Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford -three original leaders of the Party who were later denounced as traitors and executed.
Emmanuel Goldstein -The number one ‘Enemy of the People’ according to the Party. He is believed to have written a subversive book and to head a mysterious anti-party organization called The Brotherhood.
Big Brother -the omnipresent symbol of Party dominance. Big Brother’s presence is everywhere on posters, on cigarette covers, on coins and on telescreens.
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone-to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone. From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink-greetings! (p 32)
“We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little.”
O’Brien to Winston and Julia (p 204)
Orwell provides compelling reasons for the people of the 21st century to, much as we did in the 60's, question authority. Winston holds these thoughts dear but because of how society has been allowed to evolve he must be careful with even his own thoughts. You'll go with him as he meets Julia and as, against all odds, develops a relationship. Surprises abound in this unique and, at the time it was written, futuristic look at a world that has allowed itself to be taken over by an entity that we know even today as Big Brother. You'll find yourself asking how this man who wrote the novel in 1948 could possibly have such foresight into what would evolve into the world as we know it today. Similarities between life as we know it and life as Orwell foresaw abound. The book will cause you to look around yourself and question the policies of our government and the policies of global governments and how they impact our daily life. Definitely a compelling read.
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