Critical Essay On 1984

         “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.” Bob Dylan said this probably not knowing its profound connection with George Orwell’s novel “1984”, but the as well could be in “1984”. Orwell depicts a totalitarian dystopian world where there is no freedom and citizens are being brainwashed constantly. Without any sense of individual fairness, people work for the party just like the gear wheels in a machine. In order to achieve this, the politicians in “1984” suppress people’s thinking and eliminate their freedom by creating fear through propaganda, strict laws and incessant surveillances.

In “1984”, lies, myths and false information controls the thinking of the citizens. The Party uses propaganda as the deadliest weapon of control. Propaganda increases the citizens’ morale and makes them think that what the party tells them to do is always right. There are mainly two types of propaganda, one changes truth, so-called doublethink, and another creates fear. “Doublespeak” can be seen frequently in the world of 1984. The party’s big slogan “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” (George Orwell, 4) is an good example. The idea of the slogan is to convince the citizens that what they want, is what they already have. Only war can make peace and harmony, so peace is no longer peace, it becomes war; anyone who is slaved and wants freedom, he already has freedom; you can only strengthen yourself by not knowing things and being ignorant. The slogan changes truth and make the citizens believe that anything they want other than what their government wants can only make them unhappy, therefore, no one will consider rebellion because they believe the Party’s way of governing is the best and only way. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (George Orwell, 3) is another core slogan. It is nearly everywhere in the country and usually presented beneath the picture of Big Brother on a poster. It creates fear of obliterated privacy among citizens by alerting them that they are watched all the time. At the same time, the slogan also emphasizes Big Brother’s power to tells the citizens that they are indeed safe and protected. The party uses this to make them believe that within the party nothing can go wrong, and without Big Brother they will not have such lives. Everyone thinks he is safe in Oceania because of the Big Brother, but they are in fact in danger, all the time.

         The laws is another powerful tool for politicians in “1984” to limit citizens freedom. No parties, no dates, no love, no citizens walk on street after curfew, laws are everywhere in Oceania. Although these are strictly implemented, they cannot be called laws theoretically because they are not written in a system. There is no written laws in 1984, there is no such thing as constitution or court, but that is exactly how fear is created, as citizens are always living in uncertainty. For example, “And yet it was a fact that if Syme grasped, even for three seconds, the nature of his, Winston’s, secret opinions, he would betray him instantly to the Thought Police” (George Orwell, 30). There is no law that defines thoughtcrime However, Winston could be arrested any time for committing thoughtcrime by even a tiny facial twitch suggesting struggle, and his nervous system literally becomes his biggest enemy. Since there is no written law, the Party can change and adjust the strictness of laws freely as it wants, citizens never know if they have committed any crime, therefore no one is brave enough to defy the Party by any level, so fear is created. In addition, “Newspeak” is another law that is enforced to solidify the Party’s control. Humans use language to express their ideas, by eliminating words and replacing emotional words such as “excellent”, “wonderful” and “fantastic” by a single word “good” and its comparative degrees “plusgood” and “plusplusgood”. Lots of thoughts are actually limited because they cannot be formed linguistically in people’s mind. Citizens then cannot have their own critical thinking, and only do what they are told to do, they work just as computers, which surprisingly only have two words.*

         Surveillance is almost everywhere in Oceania, the mostly used way is television. There is a two-way screen, so-called television in every apartment and on street but they only serve the purpose of monitoring and propaganda, the Party gets simultaneous image of what its people are doing. Even facial expression can be detected. Only senior members of the Inner Party have the power to turn them off for a short period. Children are also used to keep track of their parents, “The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations” (76). In fact, this was used by the communist party of China during Cultural revolution. With extremely mighty surveillance, citizens cannot express their ideas towards the negative side of the Party at all, and even thoughts are controlled because the Party can “reeducate” people for an incorrect facial expression

         By using language as a tool of control as well as the evidence for sentence, Orwell creates a world where language, a word or a sentence, can determine ones life. Through language plays the key role in the Party’s propaganda, strict laws and surveillance, total physical control as well as phycological manipulation is achieved. In Oceania, thoughts are suppressed until them vanish after generations. In this world, nothing is free, even a bird.

*0 and 1, Binary numeral system

Bibliography: Orwell, George. 1984. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print.

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George Orwell


Critical Commentary

There are relatively few good essays concerning 1984 specifically, and to date there has, at least in the opinion of the author of the present study, been no definitive critical biography or critical study of George Orwell. The material on the relation of James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution to 1984 is of major significance, and the reader should consult the note on this subject above.




The most elaborate studies of Orwell available, each of which has a chapter on 1984, are the books by John Atkins, Christopher Hollis, and Richard Rees. The latter two writers were personal acquaintances of George Orwell, and their books contain first hand reminiscences of some value which no doubt will assist in the writing of a definitive study some day. Perhaps we have been too close to Orwell, since his death a decade and a half ago, to have the kind of perspective which leads to a major work of criticism being written about him. So far the criticism is potential, not actual. Yet he is an important writer; perhaps the major English writer of the 1940s and early 1950s, though this is an extreme claim to make. His place in literary history today is by no means settled, and there are good reasons why this should be so. For in considering the ultimate reputation and relative worth of a man of letters, the local and topical is inevitably separated out from that which is more universal, more appealing to all ages and conditions of men. Were Animal Farm and 1984 the great successes they were because of the immediacy of their appeal, for they were published just at the point where the full chaos and danger of the postwar world, with its confrontation between former allies of East and West, was becoming clear? Or do these books have a more timeless appeal? Just as Swift's Gulliver's Travels contains much local satire of English political and religious controversy of the early part of the eighteenth century, so Orwell's writing contains similar material. But what of its universality? This is the question which a critic must answer at some point when dealing with Orwell. Put another way, was Orwell a brilliant but ephemeral journalist, or did the body of his work have more solidity than is represented by even brilliant journalism, which after all, by definition appeals to the moment and not to the long view of history?



Orwell was written about during his lifetime, and John Atkins attempted to summarize some of the views expressed about him in his book, George Orwell: A Literary and Biographical Study, which is a rather ambitious work, and this may be consulted. Lionel Trilling, in his well-known essay, "George Orwell and the Politics of Truth," said with economy and restraint what many have said about Orwell: that he was an honest and honorable man as well as an honest man of letters. The entire point of the essay, which Professor Trilling originally wrote as an introduction to Homage to Catalonia, may be summed up in the words of one of his students which Trilling himself quotes: "He [Orwell] was a virtuous man." For Professor Trilling, Orwell was not a genius. He was committed man, in the sense that he lived his vision, as have Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and perhaps Henry James, among major American writers of the past century. Orwell, in fact, was more modern than these; he was "engaged" in the sense that some of the Existentialists have been engaged and committed to political thought and action for the betterment of human life, whether or not they believed at the time that betterment was possible.



All of Orwell's writing, as Professor Trilling and others have indicated, was directed to political ends which would have as their final result the promotion of human decency. Perhaps there is a lack of really enlightening critical writing about 1984 and other works of Orwell because he was so clear and precise as a writer. Valuing clarity, simplicity, and precision of expression over anything else in the technical craft of writing, Orwell may have said what he had to say in such a forceful way that interpretation was not as necessary as it might be in dealing with more complicated, allegorical, "literary" writers. Sir Richard Rees was a close friend of George Orwell, and it has been said that he is one of the characters, Ravelston, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, though this has not been proved.



It is significant that the title of Sir Richard's book is George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory. For Orwell, the just man would not be found in the camp of victory, perhaps because in a state of perfect justice (the opposite of 1984, which is a state of perfect injustice), there would be no camps of strong and weak. Thus, the interpretation of Orwell by Sir Richard involves his always standing up for the weak against the strong, which has occasionally led to the misrepresentation of his real political position.



Special Interpretive Problems


Special problems in the interpretation of 1984 have been dealt with in appropriate sections of this study. But the critical axioms with which the reader should approach Orwell seem reducible to the following: Orwell's biography is very important, as he was above all a writer who lived his work. Second, Orwell's work is a "seamless garment" in which every part of it has a bearing on every other part, and all of his work leads up to 1984 and serves as the best background we have for the interpretation of that great political satire. And third, Orwell's purpose in writing was not only to record what was happening in the world and to project ahead in order to make men realize what was likely to happen; it was as much or more his purpose to change the world. He hoped that if he painted political evil vividly enough, men would turn from that evil.



Animal Farm, as a political allegory, of course needs more interpretation than does 1984 in terms of the historical meanings of particular characters and events. The difference between the two best-known and most powerful works of Orwell is that they are not only of different literary kinds, - the beast fable and the anti-Utopian fiction - but also 1984 seems to have more universal satirical meanings. Both books deal with what Orwell called "the central question - how to prevent power from being abused." Orwell has no easy answers to this overwhelming question. But he could at least ask it in such a way that his contemporaries could see the absolute importance of the question, and this he did, in language too clear for conventional criticism.



A Selection of Views on 1984


John Atkins: In his work, George Orwell, cited below in the Bibliography, Mr. Atkins correctly assesses all of Orwell's previous work as preparation for 1984, which book is considered to be Orwell's masterpiece. Mr. Atkins, like Sir Richard Rees and others, attributes the gloom of the ending of 1984 less to ideology than to the fact that Orwell's health had markedly deteriorated as he was writing 1984.


The point which Atkins makes is that the best analysis of the basis of society in Oceania and indeed the best critique of 1984 may be found in the work itself, in Goldstein's book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Atkins accepts the thesis of Goldstein's book as one held by Orwell himself: that the end of power is power, that revolutions corrupt those who lead them, that the perpetual state of war which is maintained by the Party is really Peace, as it leads to a sort of bizarre social stability. While much of what Atkins says about 1984 is really summary of the work's contents, the point that Orwell himself believed what he embodied in Goldstein's book as far as politics were concerned is a well-taken one, probably correct. Atkins sees the Party's great secret as its discovery that the sense of reality of most human beings could be dislocated by skillful propaganda, by the process which Orwell called Doublethink.



Atkins also gives examples both from Orwell's previous writing and from contemporary political and social history about the dislocation of reality and the deliberate falsification of the past. Atkins pays especial attention to the Party's debasing of human sexuality in 1984. Finally Atkins makes what seems to the author of the present study the perfectly valid point that Orwell wrote 1984 not as a prediction of things to come so much as a warning to his contemporaries and immediate successors in Western society that these things - the horrors he described in 1984 - were probabilities if men did not become aware and seek to reverse the trend toward totalitarianism.



Christopher Hollis, in A Study of George Orwell, includes a chapter on 1984 which, while it makes essentially the same point as does Atkins about the importance of Goldstein's Book in the understanding of the structure of the work, has a slightly different emphasis than does Atkins. He seems correct in his analysis of Julia's character: she has no metaphysical notion of freedom, and no center to her life other than the physical revolt which she engages in with Winston and others-so nothing else can be expected, given her character, than the quick betrayal of Winston which she does under torture. Mr. Hollis also observes that 1984 is not meant as a definite prophecy; Orwell expected and hoped that the book would be a warning so that the society ruled by Big Brother could not come about. Hollis sees that the Party has destroyed virtue and a sense of honor in the men of the society of Oceania, and done its work so well that even if the Party collapsed the system would continue. If the materialism of the Party is true - and Hollis in his interpretation denies that it can be true, on theological and philosophical grounds - then O'Brien is right and Winston Smith is mad: "a flaw in the pattern." O'Brien's premises are thoroughly materialistic. Materialism is a philosophy with a history at least extending back to the pre-Christian, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Democritus; thus it is nothing new, and it should be obvious that it can only be opposed on philosophical and religious grounds. This Orwell did, indirectly, in the view of Mr. Hollis; satire, of course, is indirect but nevertheless can be effective, as 1984 was enormously effective and influential, at least in alerting people to certain political dangers.



Hollis makes another important point; that 1984 has as one of its chief literary ancestors an anti-Utopia written by a Russian writer, Eugene Zamyatin. The name of Zamyatin's book is We, and it was published just after the Second World War. Zamyatin wrote his book in Paris after the Russian Revolution, being disgusted with what he saw as the excesses of the extremists among the Russian revolutionaries, the Bolshevists. We purports to be a picture of society as it exists in 2600 A.D. Not only are there parallels between We and 1984, but, as Mr. Hollis points out, Orwell wrote an essay in January, 1946 [See Tribune, January 4, 1946] in which Orwell praised Zamyatin and demonstrated his familiarity with We. This was relatively close to the time when he began to compose 1984. Hollis observes that Orwell was indeed familiar with Zamyatin, but that he adapted the philosophy and world-picture of We to the depiction of English society. Hollis ends with a point consistent with the outlook of his book; he, like Orwell, perceives the decay of religious belief and religious values in twentieth-century Western society, but he makes it clear that he does not accept the unreligious or anti-religious attitudes which Orwell in his view seems to have embraced.



Sir Richard Rees sees Animal Farm as more obviously a masterpiece than was 1984. His interpretation of 1984 does not differ in too many particulars from those of Atkins and Hollis, because, as previously observed, the book is so lucid in its satire that wide divergence in interpretation is difficult if not impossible. However, Sir Richard has a slightly different view of Julia's character; he does not see it as totally shallow, and he is probably correct in describing her as intelligent but not intellectual. But Julia does not seem a particularly sympathetic character as Orwell drew her; it would be more correct to say that Julia represents life lived only for itself on a physical level which, lacking a philosophy, must fall prey to those who at least hold to some consistent set of beliefs, good or bad.



Sir Richard stresses in his interpretation the ways in which the Party hierarchy is made adoptive and non-hereditary; he also indicates that it was difficult for Orwell to draw characters from the lower classes, in view of his own training and background so that the message of Goldstein's Book, and of Orwell himself: "If there is hope, it lies in the Proles," is not entirely convincing in terms of 1984. Implied in the interpretation of Rees is the thought that Winston Smith is George Orwell-also a fugitive, ridden by guilt. And this is a valid point. As pointed out in the present study, Winston's dreams are heavily tinged by feelings of guilt, and it may be that the psychological roots of his revolt involve his wishing to be caught, so that his feelings of guilt especially toward his mother may receive their proper punishment.



The idea of Orwell as a "fugitive from the camp of victory" - e.g. from the privileged classes in England, which is advanced by Sir Richard Rees, should be treated with caution; it is by no means the whole explanation of 1984, and ought not to be taken as such, though it does explain something about the source of many of Orwell's ideas and interests.


Lionel Trilling's well-known essay, "George Orwell and the Politics of Truth," is really part of an introduction to Homage to Catalonia, and thus deals with 1984 only indirectly. The suggestion of Professor Trilling is really that Orwell was a very unusual man in his political outlook and in his essential decency-in fact, that he was a sort of modern-day saint, who not only wrote of his vision, but lived it, like Mark Twain, Thoreau, Whitman, Henry Adams, and Henry James.



Orwell was not a genius, said Trilling, but what genius is - the sense in which he used the term, he does not say. He does credit Orwell not only with great imagination and decency, but with a sense of actual participation in the world of affairs so that, unlike many liberal intellectuals in Trilling's view, Orwell knew what he was doing when he wrote of government and administration, of Communism, Nazism, and other political forms. Trilling establishes Orwell's relation to Communism and his disillusion with it - this is also important as one considers what precisely Orwell was satirizing in 1984. In his final estimation of Orwell as a decent man, and an honest one, Trilling echoes the view held by most who have written about Orwell or known him-indeed, his essay helped to formulate this view.



The Relation Of Other Works Of Orwell To 1984


As has been pointed out by at least one critic, everything which Orwell ever wrote was preparation for 1984. However, in addition to certain essays which have been mentioned in the biographical or the critical commentary sections of this study, two of Orwell's books stand out as worthy of consideration in this context: Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and Coming up for Air (1939). These books are rather different in purpose and in kind, the first being a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, and the second a novel. But we will discuss each in turn.



Down and Out in Paris and London was written out of impressions Orwell gained during the period from 1927, when he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police while on leave in England, and 1933, when he re-emerged from the state of deprivation that he had evidently volunteered for. It would take as much closer study of this period of Orwell's life than has previously been done to account for it fully. The most convincing explanation seems to be that Orwell wished at least temporarily to sink to the level of the poor and find out what they were really like and what the quality of their daily life might be. His theory was that very little is known about lower-class life; as he says of the Proles in 1984, "nobody knew much about the way they lived." Orwell seems to have undergone feelings of guilt at his privileged position as a white sahib in the British Government Service in Burma, and the guilt feelings may have given rise to a desire to be punished by suffering what the lower classes suffer. But all this is speculation.



Orwell said that everything in this remarkable book actually happened to him, beginning in Paris when he ran out of money, but that he took certain liberties with the order of the events. In the book he describes his work as a Paris plongeur or dish washer, working at least six twelve-hour working days a week (and sometimes seven) in the kitchen of a fasionable Paris hotel, at wages of five hundred francs a month, a mere pittance. The unsatisfying, and indeed stupefying quality of this life, and the reasons why men do such work, undergo close analysis by Orwell. It is a description of the sordid. Still, he has not touched bottom, for he is at least employed and as the hotel provides food and drink free, he is able to live, though he has no time to read, to travel, or to do anything except eat, sleep, drink, and work - the drink being a fortification against the dulling fatigue of such work. "A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world," he wrote, and one is utterly convinced of the truth of this statement by the time that the section of the book comes to an end.



Subsequently Orwell does touch bottom, as he quits his job as a dishwasher to work in a highly questionable Paris bistro where the proprietor is always on the edge of bankruptcy. Leaving this for his return to England, he runs completely out of funds; the job he had signed up for, as he says, "to take care of an idiot," had been postponed, and he has nothing to live on. Orwell therefore becomes a tramp, and walks across England from one "spike" to another ("spike" being a slang term for "poorhouse," where men who were not residents of the parish in which the poorhouses were located could spend only one might in each and then had to move on). He also spent time on the Embankment in London, where men and women who were literally homeless would spend the night attempting to sleep out of doors, as the Embankment-dwellers did not have the price of a bed. Finally, Orwell is rescued from this situation by a friend, and sets out to write about it.



This book contains some of the most graphic descriptions of poverty written in the twentieth century. One assumes that Orwell could have contacted school friends and acquaintances to obtain employment, even during a Depression. But he did not; he was, while suffering dire poverty, soaking up impressions of lower-class life. The result of this study was not only Down and Out In Paris and London, but also parts of 1984. The account of the lives of the Proles, the description of the smelly close quarters in which most people are forced to live by the Party's deliberate edict - these were dividends from his years among the poor, and 1984 may profitably be read with this book as background. Orwell attempted to describe the life of the poor honestly, and because he went to such great lengths to study his subject, he succeeded to an unsual extent. The sympathies of most educated people, Orwell said, are not with the poor; they do not understand them. He at least attempted to understand, though he was not and never became a member of the submerged classes in terms of his outlook; his education and family background made this impossible.



Coming Up for Air (1939) is that novel of Orwell which most resembles 1984. Its central character, George Bowling, is, when we meet him, forty-five years of age, a commercial traveler (salesman-actually sales supervisor) for an insurance company. He is intended by Orwell to be the epitome of the English lower middle class.


But George Bowling is, in a way, Winston Smith, in that he is the man who is just a little bit more perceptive and intelligent than is called for by his environment. George Bowling is a shopkeeper's son who is drafted into the British Army at the start of the First World War, and who becomes an officer and finds his life spared through several rather absurd coincidences. He has an opportunity to read, and he is naturally quick with his wits, so that he has in a sense moved somewhat apart from his class and environment and can therefore see these more clearly while remaining a part of them. The book is set in 1939, and Mr. Bowling is aware of the kind of world that is coming: "Fear! We swim in it. It's our element." This is a prediction of things to come; there is the sub-world of hatred and fear to which Bowling and all of his contemporaries are heading.



This novel, like 1984, was more a warning than a prediction. This is the chronicle of the slightly ordinary extraordinary man in a society which is changing, probably for the worse, who is self-aware and who knows that things will never be the same. George Bowling is a fat man, in contrast to Winston Smith, who seems almost emaciated. But the two are one in their outlook on many things, especially in their pursuit of the Golden Country. Both George and Winston (note the heroic first names and the ordinary last names) are constantly seeking what they call the Golden Country. This appears to be a state before the Fall; a state of innocence into which they can retreat but which is an illusion. For Winston the Golden Country is the rural scene, akin to the Garden of Eden, in which he meets Julia. For George Bowling, when he returns to Lower Binfield, his home town, is also seeking this state of innocence. Thus, Coming Up for Air is also valuable background for a further understanding of 1984 in general and of Winston Smith in particular.


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