Nineteen Eighty-Four is an anti-utopian or dystopian novel which describes a future world (set in London in 1984) in which a ruthless all-powerful Party, headed by the dictator Big Brother, controls man’s actions.
The novel has become one of the modern myths, with its prophetic picture of a world where individuality is annihilated, and the symbol of modern man’s enslavement to mass media:
In fact Big Brother, the mysterious, omnipresent and overwhelming oppressor, has become the symbol of the total control of the individual’s life by the mass media in highly technological societies.
Big Brother sees whatever is said by the people and watches whatever is done through huge posters with his face and telescreens: one can only be alone in darkness and silence, when tries to remember a time when London was not the ugly agglomerate of decayed buildings.
Big Brother is probably modelled on a combination of Stalin and Hitler, and represents the essence of authoritarianism and of leader-worship.
The social organization of Oceania takes inspiration from Stalinist Russia, from Nazi Germany and from some aspects of Western capitalism: the manipulation of minds and the abolition of any form of freedom were typical of both Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany; while the description of the urban settings or of the miserable conditions of life of the proletarians, seem to take as models the slums or the living conditions of some areas of capitalism.
In 1984 the world is divided into three great powers: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. They are continually at war each other. Britain, a part of Oceania, is ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship whose leader is Big Brother. Big Brother watches every street and building from huge posters. Everyone is constantly observed.
Society is divided between members of the Party and the proletarians who live in separate districts.
The main character of the novel, Winston Smith, is a writer who works for the Ministry of Truth. He feels different from the other members of the Party and one day he starts to keep a diary and tries to understand what is going on, what is really happening in the world.
He meets Julia with whom he starts an illegal relationship. When it is discovered both Winston and Julia are subjected to a rehabilitation treatment, a programme of mental and physical torture.
At the end of the treatment Winston become an automaton, with no will or emotion.
English literature has a long tradition of utopian and anti-utopian writings: the model of all utopias is Plato’s Republic; in the Renaissance the English humanist Thomas More wrote Utopia in Latin.
An anti-utopia is the reverse of a conventional utopia: its aim is to promote the creation of a better society by presenting a negative society as hideous.
For example Gulliver’s Travel by Swift describes some world with positive qualities, accosted to world with negative qualities which are recognizably in human’s world.
The political theme is the central one of the novel: it depicts the useless rebellion of the individual against the power: against this power, Winston can do nothing, he is physically and mentally destroyed by it. The Party deprives man of his dignity and of his self-respect.
The second important theme, the man’s inability and need to communicate, is seen in Winston’s story:
he searches for a friend or simply for one who understands or listens to him. Initially he writes a diary, then finds a temporary form of communication in Julia, and finally and disastrously in a member of the Inner Party, O’Brien.
A third theme of the novel is the greyness of a world in which love, pleasure and even the creativity are canalized towards pre-established aims. The symbols of a way of living which is grey, unhappy and without hope are to be found in the squalor of the places, in the physical infirmities of the characters, in the widespread mismanagement and in the constant presence of the dust everywhere.
Name: The protagonist’s name is particularly significant: Winston was a popular name as it was reminiscent of Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister during World War II. As for Smith it is one of the most common surname in Britain. The full name underlines the universal and the highly individualized character of the protagonist.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only a novel famous for its portrait of a bleak and ruthless totalitarian world, also its language has left a deep mark in modern cultures.
Newspeak is the new version of the English language the Party is gradually imposing.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits but to make all other modes of thoughts impossible.
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted and Oldspeak forgotten a heretical thought should be literally unthinkable.
For example the word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could not be used in its old sense of politically or intellectually free.