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1984--Great Books Symposium: Background Information

Recommended Databases for Background Information

Totalitarianism as a Theme in Literature

Literary Theme
The Dangers of an All-Powerful, Totalitarian State 

Work Examined: George Orwell's 1984

Typically, literature which deals with the theme of the dangers of totalitarianism involves a protagonist who recognizes and rebels against a repressive society. This theme is clearly demonstrated in George Orwell's 1984. Orwell witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War and lived during the rise to power of dictators such as Hitler and Stalin. These events likely inspired and informed his politically focused novels and hatred of totalitarianism. In 1984, the government is a pervasive entity both literally and symbolically.

The world of 1984 is headed by "Big Brother." "Big Brother" is widely depicted on posters with the caption "Big Brother Is Watching You" and is "… so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move…" (2). The posters are "plastered everywhere… The black-mustachioed face gaz[ing] down from every commanding corner" (2). Although the posters are a symbol of a constant invasion of privacy, their reality is carried out by the Thought Police. The telescreens in every home not only give news, but also record and transmit all that the occupants say or do to the Thought Police. If an individual is suspected of having thoughts that do not conform to those accepted by the government they may be arrested by the Thought Police: "You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized" (3).

The correlations between the society in 1984 and the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are unmistakable. Much like these two regimes, Orwell's dystopian society has no political parties-there is only The Party. Winston, a middle-aged man who works for The Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), listens to the news of the completion of the "Ninth Three Year Plan," which echoes the "Five Year Plans" of the U.S.S.R.'s frantic push to industrialize. The "two minute hate" focuses on generating hatred of the enemies of the Party, particularly "Goldstein," a man described as having a "lean Jewish face" (12). Orwell is clearly paralleling Hitler's use of the German Jews as the national scapegoat.

The government in 1984 controls every facet of the lives of the people. All individuals must participate in mandatory exercise (35), sex is meant to be joyless and only for the purpose of producing children, and marriages between individuals who seem to be attracted to one another are forbidden (65). Even the official language, "Newspeak," is in the process of being rewritten to eliminate not only synonyms and antonyms, but also any words for forbidden concepts. Syme, the author of the Newspeak dictionary, states "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it" (52). The means of expression and all literature associated with it will be destroyed. Most importantly, the strict measures only apply to Party members and not to the "proles" or commoners who are not considered to be a threat to the government. The children of Winston's neighbor clamor to see the hanging of Eurasian prisoners and play games that suggest that they would be more than willing to report their parents or neighbors as thought criminals (22-23). Indeed, Winston contemplates how relatively normal it is for parents to fear their own children (24).

Inconsistency is to be accepted, just as the paradoxical statements "War Is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength" are to be accepted. These fallacies are accepted by all and echo Hitler's philosophy of propaganda: create simple, emotionally charged statements and repeat them as much as possible. One Party slogan declares "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." (248). Winston's work at Minitrue, the government's propaganda organ which manufactures news and culture, is the embodiment of the Party's philosophy. He rewrites history on a daily basis, incinerating any evidence of the empirical truth. His awareness of this living contradiction leads him to question and then hate the Party. He rebels first by committing "thought crime"-all anti-government thoughts are punishable offenses.

Winston's greater offense, however, occurs when he falls in love with Julia, a much younger woman who also hates the Party. The passion between the two is clearly forbidden by the government, and the two are forced meet in secret, in a room above a shop in the proles' district. When they are caught, they are separated. Winston is tortured, not in an effort to punish him, but to "make him sane" (253). He is conditioned to doublethink, to accept all impossible contradictions. Then he is forced to betray Julia. His torturer, O'Brien, tells him "If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct" (270). O'Brien turns the once rebellious Winston into another thoughtless drone of the Party, exemplifying the all-powerful nature of the government, and the futility of fighting against it.

In the end, Winston is broken in his conflict with his society. The totalitarian state survives without true opposition. The Party members will live in ignorance, fear and unhappiness. In a sense, this is the danger that Orwell warns against: that not only will such a state arise, but that, once established, it would be nearly impossible to overthrow. The totalitarian state represents a loss of freedom, individuality and joy in life that is in direct opposition to the ideals of a democratic society where individuals are equal and have the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Related Texts

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

"Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1950.

Bauer, Amanda C. and Robert S. Puchalik. "The Dangers of an All-Powerful, Totalitarian State." Literary Theme: The Dangers of an All-Powerful, Totalitarian State, Mar. 2006, pp. 1-7. EBSCOhost,

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Historical Context

Nineteen Eighty-Four in Dystopias and Utopias

from The Literature of Propaganda


Nineteen Eighty-Four, published by George Orwell in 1949, depicts a dystopian future under a totalitarian government characterized by incessant surveillance, mind control, and perpetual war—all administered under the figurehead of “Big Brother.” The protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), a department dedicated to propaganda and historical revisionism, but he secretly loathes the Party, even attempting to keep a secret diary of his own thoughts, a crime punishable by death. Winston begins a covert affair with Julia, a co-worker, which simultaneously fuels his resentment of the Party and his fear of discovery. When they are ultimately betrayed by a seemingly sympathetic co-worker who is secretly a member of the Thought Police, Winston is tortured for months until he renounces Julia. His spirit broken, he is released. The last line of the novel, “He loved Big Brother,” illustrates the complete efficacy of the regime's propaganda, which finally succeeds in controlling and eliminating even Winston's most private thoughts.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is variously considered a literary political novel, a satire, and a work of dystopian science fiction. Orwell wrote in 1946 that “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell's earlier satire Animal Farm (1945) both depict scenarios in which political revolutions are betrayed by a powerful and corrupt elite. Orwell was particularly concerned with how language influenced, supported, and manipulated political movements, a topic he discussed in a series of political essays and book reviews. Nineteen Eighty-Four ends with an appendix in the form of a scholarly analysis of “Newspeak,” the term for Oceania's use of language for control and manipulation. Today Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to be considered relevant not only for its depiction of a totalitarian society but also for its prescient description of media manipulation, psychological torture, and sur-veillance as means of governmental control.


The Spanish Civil War played the most important part in defining Orwell's socialism as well as his hatred of fascism and distrust of communism. Despite the bleak picture painted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell remained convinced of the possibility of a socialist revolution that would not become corrupted as, in his view, the revolution in the Soviet Union had become. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” Orwell wrote that “the war and the revolution are inseparable … the fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy,” arguing that while the old British class system would prove insufficient to battle Nazi Germany, English socialism could still preserve the national character. “Ingsoc,” the English socialism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a far more brutal and pessimistic vision of the future than Orwell described in his essays.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was heavily influenced by World War II and the early days of the Cold War. Although much of the novel most clearly alludes to Stalinist Russia, it also includes references to Nazi Germany and the threat of global nuclear war. Orwell began planning the novel in 1944, feeling pessimistic about the ability of Western democracies to respond adequately to fascism and disillusioned by the political rhetoric at the beginning of the Cold War. Physically unfit for military service, Orwell was employed during World War II by the BBC's Indian branch, producing material to boost the morale of Indian soldiers. This experience with governmental propaganda production may have served as an influence on his two best-known novels. Nineteen Eighty-Four is concerned not only with the political effects of life under a totalitarian regime but also the regime's psychological and personal effects. The original title, The Last Man in Europe, reflected Orwell's ideas about the dehumanizing effects of life in a fascist state.

Key Facts

Time Period: Mid-20th Century

Genre: Novel

Events: Spanish Civil War; World War II; Cold War

Nationality: English

Orwell was likely influenced by other dystopian works such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which Orwell reviewed in 1946. Nineteen Eighty-Four also bears some similarity to H. G. Wells's work When the Sleeper Wakes. Wells was a child-hood favorite of Orwell, although Orwell came to believe that Wells's confidence in science and rationality had become outmoded in the twentieth century. The geopolitical climate of Nineteen Eighty-Four also resembles the future described by American political theorist James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution, including the presence of “super-states” in perpetual conflict and a hierarchical society in which power is retained by a small elite.

One key literary aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the emphasis of obfuscating language as a political tool that can exert psychological pressure and even torture upon citizens. Many of its terms, including “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “Thought Police,” and “Big Brother,” have become part of the vernacular, as has the adjective “Orwellian,” which refers to an attitude or a policy of control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past


Censorship, surveillance, and historical revisionism are key themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston's job at Minitrue involves rewriting newspaper articles, in particular to remove any references to “unpersons.” “People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of every thing you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.” The other governmental departments, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty, serve similar controlling functions. Mini-pax, the military branch, keeps Oceania at constant war in order to ensure that citizens focus all their hatred onto foreign powers. Miniluv enforces loyalty to Big Brother through fear and torture and is the site of the dreaded Room 101. Miniplenty controls economic planning and rationing, keeping the populace in poverty while promoting images of prosperity. All four ministries are named ironically, which reiterates Orwell's concerns with language as a political tool, as do the three slogans of Oceania: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” These illustrate the concept of doublethink. “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

Many of the themes and motifs in Nineteen Eighty-Four were drawn from practices of the Soviet Union. Winston Smith's job, “revising history,” alludes to the Stalinist tradition of airbrushing images of “fallen” people from group photographs and removing references to them from books and newspapers. Likewise, the Junior Anti-Sex League, of which Julia is a member, is often thought to refer to the komsomol, the Young Communists, who were discouraged from forming romantic or social bonds that were seen as distracting from loyalty to the party. Nineteen Eighty-Four also expands on theories Orwell put forth in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” in which he discusses the different ways nations, political movements, and communities define themselves in opposition to others. The Party retains power through positive nationalism (the cult of Big Brother), negative nationalism (the daily “Hates” targeted a character known as Goldstein), and transferrable nationalism (in the shifting attitudes from Eurasia to East Asia.)

Orwell rejected the idea that political content could or should easily be divorced from art. In his essay “Why I Write,” he described his work as both politically and aesthetically motivated, and he stated that his most artistically accomplished works derived from passionate political convictions. “I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly…. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Critic Aaron Rosenfeld suggests that Nineteen Eighty-Four consciously rejects romantic novelistic conventions about character or plot resolution in order to underline the horror of the world he depicts and its complete destruction of the individual.


Although Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a dystopian future based on fear, Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World depicts a world in which social control is based around pleasure, creating a populace that is apathetic and easily manipulated. Brave New World critiques a youth-oriented, industrialized society preoccupied with homogeneity and consumption. Huxley used names that evoke the Russian Revolution but also made references to American and western European icons such as Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, creating a “World State” that combined aspects of industrial capitalism, communism, fascism, psychoanalytic theory, and eugenics.

Brave New World, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, drew inspiration from the scientific utopias of H. G. Wells; Wells responded by saying “a writer of the standing of Aldous Huxley has no right to betray the future as he did in that book.” Other critics at the time found Huxley's novel to be antiscientific, antiprogressive, or simply irrelevant in its concerns.

Today, however, Brave New World is critically praised and often read in conjunction with Nineteen Eighty-Four as an alternative vision of totalitarian control. Critic Neil Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”lk


Nineteen Eighty-Four, following the immensely popular Animal Farm, was an immediate critical success and remains an influential and popular text today. Orwell scholar John Rodden claims that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm together have sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author. Mark Schorer, reviewing the novel in the New York Times, wrote, “it is probable that no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fulness.” A few criticized the text as being unrealistic, exaggerated, or unnecessarily alarmist, but Orwell defended his work as satire and reaffirmed his commitment to socialist causes until his death in 1950. Although Nineteen Eighty-Four is widely considered a classic of twentieth-century literature and is widely taught in schools, it has also frequently been challenged or banned for its political and sexual content.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been the subject of numerous adaptations for film, television, and radio and has been referenced in media ranging from pop music to video games to commercials. Rodden points out that at times Orwell's work has ironically been subject to the kinds of language manipulation he himself condemned, pointing out that in American editions of Orwell's works published in the 1950s, references to Orwell's socialism were omitted. As Rodden stated on the PBS radio program Think Tank, “If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay ‘Why I Write’: ‘Every line of serious work that I've written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism. … ’ Dot, dot, dot, dot, the politics of ellipsis. ‘For democratic socialism’ is vaporized, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that's very much what happened [at the] beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to be of interest to critics from a variety of disciplines: it has been analyzed in terms of its political content, its use and analysis of language, and its ongoing political and technological relevance. It has also been studied as a work of dystopian science fiction or alternative history. Orwell has repeatedly been studied and cited as an influence on a vast number of late twentieth-century authors, including Anthony Burgess, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon, and Margaret Atwood.

A 2012 protest in Tallinn, Estonia, against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a multinational treaty. Protesters hold a banner referencing George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, implying that the treaty is a step toward the totalitarian repression depicted in the novel. © SASHA STOWE/ALAMY.



Orwell, George. “Notes on Nationalism.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Web. 12 June 2012. 

Orwell, George. “Why I Write.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Web. 12 June 2012. 

Rodden, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell. Cambridge UP Cambridge UK, 2007. Print. 

Rosenfeld, Aaron S. “The ‘Scanty Plot’: Orwell, Pynchon, and the Poetics of Paranoia.” Twentieth Century Literature 50.4 (Winter 2004): 337. Web. 12 June 2012. 

Schorer, Mark. Rev. of Nineteen Eighty-Four, by Orwell, George . New York Times. New York Times Company. 12 June 1949. Web. 2 Aug. 2012. 

Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg. “Orwell's Century.” Narr. Rodden, John . PBS, n.d. Web. 20 June 2012. Transcript. 



Bloom, Harold, ed. George Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Chelsea Philadelphia, 2004. Print. 

Clarke, Ben. Orwell in Context: Communities, Myths, Values. Palgrave MacMillan Basingstoke UK, 2007. Print. 

Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Trial and Terror. McGill-Queen's UP Kingston ON, 2001. Print. 

Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. Basic Books New York, 2003. Print. 

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Harper Perennial New York, 1969. Print. 

Marks, Peter. George Orwell the Essayist: Literature, Politics and the Periodical Culture. Continuum London, 2012. Print. 

Orwell, George. All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays. Mariner Books New York, 2009. Print. 

Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. Penguin Books New York, 2000. Print. 

Rai, Alok. Orwell and the Politics of Despair: A Critical Study of the Writings of George Orwell. Cambridge UP Cambridge UK, 1988. 

Sisk, David W. Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias. Praeger Westport CT, 1997. 

Media Adaptations

Nineteen Eighty-Four. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1954. TV Movie. 

1984. Dir. Michael Radford; Perf. John Hurt; Richard Burton; Suzanna Hamilton. Umbrella-Rosenblum Films Production, 1984. Film. 

George Orwell
Marie Becker

[Gale]  Copyright © 2013 St. James Press

Orwell, G., & Becker, M. (2013). Nineteen eighty-four. In T. Riggs (Ed.), Literature of society series: The literature of propaganda. Farmington, MI: Gale. Retrieved from