Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a novel published by George Orwell in 1949. It was his last work, written shortly before his death from a tubercular haemorrhage in 1950. It presents a dystopian view of a world which has been taken over by totalitarianism. The novel’s main protagonist, Winston Smith, briefly attempts small forms of resistance against the Party, which rules with the figurehead of Big Brother.
In the ideological context of the mid-20th-century cold war between American-style capitalism and the communism of the Soviet Union, the novel was frequently co-opted as a propaganda tool. Orwell himself intervened in the press to correct the impression that it was a wholly anti-socialist novel, rather than one which is critical of all forms of totalitarianism.
Indeed due to its vast popularity, Orwell scholars such as Bernard Crick have complained of its widespread misinterpretation; it should, Crick suggested, be read as a satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift. Such an interpretation explains the coexistence of moments of humour with an unremitting bleakness of tone; we are left with a vision of the future as ‘a boot, stamping on a human face – for ever’. Yet this is intended as a warning, rather than a prophecy.
Much of the novel’s phraseology and many of its ideas have passed into general use. These include ‘Newspeak’, a form of language which enforces certain types of thought; the ‘Doublethink’ which can produce phrases such as ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’, and ‘2+2=5’. Independent thinking, by contrast, is characterised as ‘thoughtcrime’, and punished brutally by the Thought Police. The much-abused adjective ‘Orwellian’ stems from the total surveillance established by the Party, partly through ‘telescreens’ which both show propaganda and allow the authorities to watch their audiences through cameras. This has produced the now-ubiquitous phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’.
- Article by:
- Roger Luckhurst
- Visions of the future, Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950
Roger Luckhurst describes the political environment in which George Orwell wrote and published Nineteen Eighty-Four, and analyses its different – and often opposing – interpretations.
- Article by:
- Mike Ashley
- Power and conflict, Visions of the future
Mike Ashley considers how British, Russian and American writers created repressive imaginary worlds and totalitarian regimes in order to explore 20th-century political concerns.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
Professor John Bowen explores truth, fiction, repression and freedom in George Orwell’s iconic 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film is shot at Senate House in London, formerly the Ministry of Information, and the building on which Orwell based the Ministry of Truth. - video