Perhaps no other novel in this century has had a greater impact upon the way we think and talk about our world than George Orwell's classic, 1984. "Big Brother," "doublespeak," and "the thought police" have become part of our everyday lexicon, and the term "Orwellian" has become a familiar adjective for any situation-real or imagined-where conformity is compulsory and where someone always seems to be watching.
Orwell's novel also has the distinction of being, along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and his own Animal Farm, one of the most important works of anti-utopic fiction produced in this century. These novels, which began to flourish after World War I, imagine a nightmarish society where all that is ugly and perverse about human nature has prevailed, and people are powerless to resist an insidious, coercive order.
In 1984, the insidious order is known as "Big Brother," a personification of the regime that both demands and ensures absolute loyalty and obedience from all of its citizens. One of these citizens is a man named Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel and a worker in the state's Ministry of Truth. Through following Winston, we see the myriad methods Big Brother employs to keep the populace servile and under its heavy thumb. Winston's work at the Ministry is to help rewrite history so that Big Brother's pronouncements, in retrospect, always appear to be infallible. Just as sinister is the propagation of "Newspeak," an abridged version of English whose eventual adoption, the party members hope, will limit anyone's ability to think or talk in a way that opposes Big Brother. Perhaps the most often-discussed component to Big Brother's control is the use of the telescreens, television-like gadgets installed in every home that act as surveillance devices and keep track of who is obeying and who is not. Winston, skeptical of Big Brother, but unsure of who or what to trust, tries to find ways of resisting the state's coercive power, and asserting his individuality. But Big Brother is watching.
Although 1984 is almost universally hailed as a landmark in twentieth century fiction, critics have been divided as to how we are to read it. Some see it, as Orwell himself described it, as a dire warning about the future. Others view it as a polemic criticizing Stalin's regime, the government that Big Brother most resembles and that Orwell saw as a monstrous perversion of Marxist ideals. Still others consider it a satire of contemporary England, a deliberately exaggerated version of the propaganda, conformity and denial of history that can exist even in a liberal, democratic state. These interpretations are by no means mutually exclusive, of course, and it is a testament to Orwell's genius that his work continues to speak in different ways to students of history, politics, philosophy, and literature alike.
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