Why does George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’, endure?
The English author George Orwell is most famous for two novels. ‘Animal Farm’ is a fable that critiques the corrupting influence of power and the brutality of the authoritarian state. Sadly, it has been reduced to a simple text for children to read in school when they are in their early teens. Its most successful rendering as a film was as a cartoon.
The plot of 1984 (without too many spoilers)
George Orwell’s other most famous novel, however, ‘1984’, has an entirely different history. Written just after the end of World War 2 in 1948 (hence ‘1984’, the reversal of the last two digits of the date), it is, without giving away too much, the story of Winston Smith. Smith lives in London, but while the city’s name remains the same, the United Kingdom is now known as ‘Airstrip One’ and is part of one of the three dominant global superpowers, Oceania.
Oceania is an authoritarian regime that consists of the Americas, South Africa, Australia and Airstrip One/the UK. The other two powers are Eurasia and Eastasia, which dominate those areas and appear to be equally totalitarian. Oceania is always at war with one of the other states and in a loose ceasefire/alliance with the other: but this is constantly fluid, and in the course of the novel Oceania moves from being at war from one to the other.
Winston is a member of ‘The Party’ and is, in a sense, privileged. He works in the Ministry of Truth (there are Ministries of War, Love and others) and constantly re-edits old newspapers to re-write history. But Winston’s life is a living hell, not just because there is no real privilege, but because everyone is under constant surveillance and constant threat from The Party. This takes the form of the ever-present figure of ‘Big Brother’ and a deep ideology combined with constant propaganda, an extensive network of two-way telescreens (Winston is shouted at by the telescreen when he is not working hard enough during obligatory morning exercise in his apartment), and the ominous presence of a network of informers-cum-spies, the Thought Police. Winston challenges the system both by exploring alternative political systems and having an affair with another member of The Party, Julia (such relationships are prohibited, and ironically Julia is even a member of the Anti Sex League). It does not end well for either of them.
There are plenty of other dark visions of the future: Zamyatin’s ‘We’ predated ‘1984’ by nearly three decades and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ is another, written in 1932. More recently the British TV series, ‘The Prisoner’ and Margaret Atwood’s novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ brought fictional dystopias into the contemporary world. So why does ‘1984’ continue to dominate the genre and prompt so much attention? It’s not an enjoyable read. The language is as spartan as the world which Winston and Julia inhabit and the ending is deeply, deeply depressing.
Teaching 1984 – badly
There are many reasons. From an entirely personal perspective, as a former teacher of English, it is a novel that teaches itself. I was once told by one of my lazier colleagues that a good text for teaching can be summarised in twelve quotations and that there should be a good film. It is impossible to read ‘1984’ without coming out of the experience with at least twelve lines deeply embedded: ‘The clocks were striking thirteen’; ‘Big Brother is watching you’; ‘Room 101’; ‘Do it to Julia’; and ‘He loved Big Brother’ to name but five. There is a very good film, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, made by no coincidence in 1984.
But that is the lazy teacher’s criteria. It would be easy to go through ‘1984’ and ask the question, ‘has it come true?’ But that reduces the novel to a Victorian parlour game, where upper class English folks showed off their intelligence by speculating about the childhood of Othello’s Desdemona or Hamlet’s Denmark under Fortinbrass based on reference to the original texts.
Why 1984 endures
The truly enduring power of ‘1984’ comes in other forms. I read it every decade and have since my first reading when I was 14. At first it was just a strong, if infuriating story. A decade later I focused more on the alternative politics proposed by The Party’s figure of hate, Goldstein. A decade after that I read the appendix on Newspeak, the language the party intends to replace English with in order to limit vocabulary and therefore thought. For example, there is now only good, plus-good and double-plus-good. There are no other ways to express degrees of positivity. How can you dissent when you don’t have the language to dissent? I’m due my next reading in 2026.
Here are two very interesting examples of how ‘1984’ continues to provoke, inspire, challenge not just me, but millions of others.
Recently the UK charity Oxfam, which runs a network of fundraising thrift shops to support its activities, asked donors to stop giving copies of ‘The Da Vinci Code’. (It is a novel that is barely readable even once and doesn’t have a good film version either.) An artist, David Shrigley, collected 6,000 copies of the novel from Oxfam shops and elsewhere and then pulped them (best thing for them) – and reprinted them as a special edition of ‘1984’ to raise funds for Oxfam. Why, of all the novels he could reprint? (‘1984’ is out of copyright, so anyone can print an edition.) Because it remains relevant and it constantly reinvents itself as a novel to meet the needs of the time, the place, the individual. You can read more here.
And then there is Sandra Newman’s ‘Julia’, published a few weeks ago. ‘Julia’ is a re-telling of ‘1984’ from the female perspective. It is already gaining much attention: the hashtags #BigBrotheriswatchingher and #doittowinston are trending. This isn’t a new idea: Jean Rhys responded to Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ from the point of the view of ‘the mad woman in the attic’ in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’; and Marrianne Wiggins responded to William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ by replacing the stranded schoolboys with stranded schoolgirls in ‘John Dollar’. (Ironically, Wiggins thought her novel was going to cause controversy: but it was her husband, Salman Rushdie’s, novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, that invoked an Iranian fatwa which saw him nearly killed by a fanatic in New York in 2022, 44 years after the novel was published and the associated fatwa.)
Big Brother wouldn’t want you to
So, if you haven’t read ‘1984’, you should. If you have but haven’t returned to it for a while, you should probably re-read it. And then maybe read, say, ‘Julia’, or ‘We’, or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, or watch ‘The Prisoner’.
Big Brother wouldn’t want you to.
And that’s the best recommendation you can have.