Michael Amey

With this post I’m commencing a three part discussion of 1984.  This first post will briefly introduce you to George Orwell and to 1984, and will focus on the role of history in creating the present.  The concepts of epistemology, ideology and “Truth” will play a critical role in this first discussion.  The next post will focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  The final post on 1984 will ask us to examine the role of sexuality as an instrument of power and control.

The Man Who Knew Big Brother

OrwellEric Blair, better known to most of us as George Orwell, wrote books and essays, many of which were social and political commentaries.  His two best known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, exemplify these social and political themes.

Orwell’s prescient depiction of totalitarianism in 1984 arose out of the historical conditions surrounding his life, as well as from his own store of personal experiences and ideas.  Orwell emphasized the value of understanding this background in his essay, “Why I Write” by noting:

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”

Orwell was unquestionably shaped by the age in which he lived.  His earliest inspiration for the totalitarian regime represented by Big Brother may well have come as a consequence of serving with the Imperial Police Force in Burma and India.  As a member of the privileged English race, he witnessed first-hand the inhumanity of an oppressive regime and the injustice inherent in imperialism; themes which he touched upon in his novel, Burmese Days and in his essay, “A Hanging”.  His experiences working to expand and maintain imperialism, combined with the rise of totalitarianism in both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, provided him with a pessimistic view of authority.  He explained in “Why I Write” that,

First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

The real transformative moment, however, came for him, when, in 1936, he went to Spain to fight in the civil war against fascism.  That period in his life was the catalyst for his writing:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.  (“Why I Write”)


Indeed, in reflecting on his motives for writing in general, Orwell produced two that are specifically relevant to the shape of 1984:

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.  (“Why I Write)

1984 is very clearly a text created with a political purpose.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is keenly aware of the political nature of all acts, including, as I will discuss in the last post, the sexual act.  In this post, however, I will focus more on the combination of the historical impulse, the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” and the relationship of this impulse to politics.   

In describing the writing process, Orwell explains that,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.  (“Why I Write”)

In the case of 1984, the source of injustice that inspired Orwell was Stalin’s repressive Communist regime.  His critique of Stalinism was essential for two reasons.   First, while awareness of Stalin’s ruthless acts was infiltrating Western consciousness, many leftist intellectuals still either sympathized with or supported Stalinism.  As a leftist intellectual, Orwell saw the importance of separating the foundations of socialist idealism from the excesses of Stalinism. Secondly, in 1948, as Orwell was composing 1984, there was no reason to believe that the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, or, for that matter, that the war would remain cold.  Orwell’s novel helped explain in this uncertain time why it was important that Stalinism not succeed.  1984 remains, however, a valuable book because while it is rooted in the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, it provides a critique of power that is not limited to one historical point in time.


The Benefactor and Big Brother

As you read 1984, you may have started noticing similarities to We.  Orwell had read We and acknowledged his indebtedness to Zamyatin’s novel.  The following similarities are particularly worth noting:

  • At the beginning of 1984, Winston starts keeping a journal.  In We, D-503 keeps a journal.
  • Oceania, the nation in which Winston lives, is policed by the “Thought Police”.  In The One State, the police force are called the Guardians.  Both groups operate through surveillance and by gathering information from “concerned” citizens.
  • Oceania is governed by Big Brother, while The One State is governed by the Benefactor.  Both leaders are probably fictitious constructs meant to maintain the power structures of each society.  For a similar example, watch the role of Father in the movie Equilibrium.
  • The states in both novels carefully regulate and monitor sexual activity.  In 1984 citizens have to apply to a committee for permission to get married.  Sex is discouraged by the “Junior Anti-Sex League”.  The purpose of this control, in part, was “to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which [the Party] might not be able to control” (65).  In We, marriage has been outlawed for similar reasons, and the frequency of sexual activity is “scientifically determined”.
  • Both Winston and D-503 begin to actively resist their respective regimes in part because of the elicit affairs they have.
  • In 1984, the proles are predominantly excluded from the working of the Party.  In We, the Mephi, or those outside the Green Wall are excluded from The One State.
  • In 1984, Winston develops a deadly relationship with a government agent, O’Brien.  In We, D-503 develops a relationship with the Guardian, S.
  • In both states, control is extended to everyday activities.  Winston, for example, if forced, along with everyone else, to do calisthenics, while the number of time that D-503 chews his food is prescribed.
  • In 1984, Winston finds a place where he and Julia can meet in the Prole section of town.  This house, with its old furnishings, is like a museum of the past.  Similarly, D-503 meets with I-330 at the “Old House”, a museum from a previous time.
  • In We, D-503 comments on the absurdity of the human head and how it conceals ideas.  Likewise, Winston notes that “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (26).
  • Winston and D-503 are both eventually broken by the state and come to “love” their oppressors.

There are undoubted more similarities than these.  Feel free to post them as you find them!


History and the Present

A critical component of the Party’s power structure is its ability to control the present by continually changing the past.  Significantly, the present has no enduring quality.  As we move through time, each second of now slips into the past.  The Party’s control of the past extends, as Winston explains, to the immediate past:  “Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? …  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (155).  It is unsurprising then that Julia, Winston’s young lover, cannot remember the fact that a mere four years ago Oceania was at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia (154).  She, as a product of the Party, has been taught to forget the past and to engage in the “doublethink” that allows for two contradictory facts to both be true.

Furthermore, unlike the unreformed Winston, Julia sees no reason to worry about the fact that she can’t remember the past.  Her concerns are located in the present and in her immediate personal interests:  “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life.  Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her” (153).

Given that her memory does not extend past four years, we have to even question how extensively she rebels against the teachings of the Party that touch upon her own life.  After all, imagining that she was forcibly separated from Winston, four years later, would she remember that she had ever been with him?   Early in her relationship she tells Winston that she has had sex “[hundreds] of times—well, scores of times, anyway” (125).  Is her uncertainty about her sexual activities a consequence of the numerous times she has had sex, her desire to impress Winston with her rebellious behavior, or, possibly, her actual inability to remember her own past?  Significantly, Orwell tells us nothing tangible about Julia’s past.  We are left to imagine the nature of her sexual relationships.  Were they all acts of rebellion?  Has she known other men like Winston?  It would seem that Winston might want to know the answer to this last question if only to locate other potential subversives, but he does not probe her vague statement of promiscuity.

As for Julia’s disregard for the past, this disregard is the logical consequence of the Party’s control.  In Oceania, “the past not only changed, but changed continuously” (79).  Any attempt to follow the oscillating changes of the past would lead to insanity.  As Winston comes to realize,

In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.  By lack of understanding they remained sane.  (156)

Winston is, of course, partially wrong in suggesting that the Party has instituted an endless present.  The present, even more than the past, is unstable and open to reconstruction because it continually slides into the past.  Indeed, past, present and future are, from one perspective, concurrent events.  From this perspective, the Party Slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past” (35), is absolutely correct.  Orwell provides the basic outline by which this control is exercised:  “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (75).  This control of time, through the efficient erasure of past thoughts and the forgetting of that erasure, guarantees a form of control over not merely time but all reality, or as the Party calls it “Reality Control”.  The paradox of reality control is explained, in part, by Winston’s realization:  “If both the past and the external world exist only in the Mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” (80).

The possibility that the external world merely exists in the mind is one that cannot be completely ignored.  The philosopher Descartes realized that he could not trust any of his senses to correctly inform him about the external world.  Think of it this way—we usually take for granted that the things we see and feel are “real”.  Descartes, however, knew that he saw things in dreams, but he was sure that either the reality in what he called dreams or in what he waking must be false.  In his opinion, both the dream world and the waking world couldn’t mutually be real.  He also recognized that the use of drugs, say opium, could also change an individual’s perception of reality.  Simply put we receive conflicting messages from our senses.  Even when we are awake and not “hallucinating” our senses trick us into seeing things like mirages.  The problem was that while each of these states of reality appeared to be mutually exclusive, for a person undergoing a dream or a hallucination, the perceived reality seems as real or more real than what we typically consider reality.  Descartes also thought that it was possible that mathematics and logic, things which apparently don’t rely on senses but on reason, were tricks.  We assume, like Winston, that 2 + 2 = 4.  By contrast, Descartes points out that “We may think that mathematics is self-regulating and testable, but there might just be an invisible demon who continuously hypnotizes us into thinking that our mathematics is correct” (Robinson & Garratt, 46).  What this means is that essentially all of what we accept as “Truth” and “reality” is vulnerable and open to debate and negotiation.

There is a difference, of course, between Descartes’ dilemma and Orwell’s description of reality in 1984.  The primary difference is that where Descartes suspects his senses and believes that they could be inaccurate (they could also be, of course, entirely accurate), Winston knows for a certainty that the reality he lives in is a construct.  Descartes speculates that an “invisible demon” could be toying with his perceptions of logic and mathematics.  Winston, by contrast, knows that the Party is deliberately manipulating his logic.  He is aware that:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.  It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later:  the logic of their position demanded it.  Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.  The heresy of heresies was common sense. (80)

The suggestion that a control of the past also dictates a control of reality seems at first glance nonsensical.  How can the past control what we take to be real?  The only way to understand this is by returning to what we learned about Marxism in our last lecture.  Marx, as you will recall stated in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”  As I noted, Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.  If our society could be restructured without our awareness of it, and then that restructuring erased from our minds, what we would “see” in the world, would differ radically from what we now see.

And, of course, such restructuring of society actually do occur.  Michel Foucault notes, for example, that prior to the 19th century, the word and the concept “homosexual” did not exist.  Of course there were men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women prior to the 19th century, but these individuals were not seen as belonging to a different category than any other individual.  Their sexual practices did not define their identities.  Because the concept of homosexual didn’t exist, it follows that the concept of the heterosexual also did not exist prior to the 19th century.  In our own society, however, we have these terms and we tend to define people by these terms.  Not only do we define our contemporaries by their sexual preferences, we assign those labels posthumously to individuals of the past.  Thus, a favorite pastime of some supporters of homosexuality has been to identify and “out” famous people, like Leonardo da Vinci, as homosexuals.  The problem with this approach to history is that it takes our world view and applies it indiscriminately to people who did not possess our mental framework.

As a final note, I want to return us again to the idea of “Truth” being vulnerable.  Most of us probably assume that reality and the “Truth” are fixed entities—that reality is what is real and that the “Truth” is what is true.  While it is possible that these exist, as Descartes makes clear, being certain about these forms of knowledge is impossible.  Added to that, our favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault, points out that reality and “Truth” will always be highly contested areas because of the fact that they serve to create power.  He goes on to state:

There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’—it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political roles it plays. (132)

Winston is a phenomenal character precisely because he is aware of this battle.  Arguably, this makes him a far greater risk to the Party than Julia or, for that matter, most anyone else referenced in the novel.

Works Cited

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984: A Novel.

Orwell, George.  “Why I Write.”     Accessed 28 June 2017.

Foucault, Michel.  1980.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Robinson, Dave and Chris Garratt.  1999.  Introducing Descartes.  Cambridge:  Icon Books










Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

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