1984 (Signet Classics), Book Cover May Vary: George Orwell

Audiences around the world are re-reading George Orwell’s 1984, which is ‘a handbook for difficult times’, writes Jean Seaton.

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Reading 1984, George Orwell’s claustrophobic fable of totalitarianism, is still a shoông chồng. First comes the start of recognition: we recognise what he describes. Doublethink (holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time), Newspeak, the Thought Police, the Ministry of Love that giao dịch in pain, despair and annihilates any dissident, the Ministry of Peace that wages war, the novel-writing machines that pump out pornography to lớn buy off the masses: Orwell opened our eyes to lớn how regimes worked.

But now we can read 1984 differently: with anxious apprehension, using it to lớn measure where we, our nations and the world have got to on the road maps to a hell Orwell described. Prophetic? Possibly. But stirring, moving, creative, undeniable and helpful? Yes. A book published on 8 June 1949, written out of the battered landscape of total war, in a nation hungry, tired & grey, feels more relevant than ever before, because Orwell’s 1984 also arms us.

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The book, with its disorientating first sentence, “It was a bright cold day in April, & the clocks were striking thirteen”, defines the peculiar characteristics of modern tyranny. Winston Smith, the protagonist, works as a censor in the Ministry of Truth in a constant updating of history to lớn suit present circumstances và shifting alliances. He and his fellow workers are controlled as a mass collective by the all-seeing & all-knowing presence of Big Brother. In 1984 television screens watch you, & everyone spies on everyone else. Today it is social truyền thông that collects every gesture, purchase, bình luận we make online, & feeds an omniscient presence in our lives that can predict our every preference. Modelled on consumer choices, where the user is the commodity that is being marketed, the harvesting of those preferences for political campaigns is now distorting democracy.


Orwell understood that oppressive sầu regimes always need enemies. In 1984 he showed how these can be created arbitrarily by whipping up popular feeling through propaganda. But in his mô tả tìm kiếm of the ‘Two Minutes Hate’ he also foresaw the way in which online mobs work. Obliged to watch the violent film, (as everyone is), Winston Smith observes “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged khổng lồ act a part, but that it was impossible to lớn avoid joining in…A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to lớn kill, to lớn torture, khổng lồ smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed khổng lồ flow through the whole group of people like an electric current”. Now political, religious & commercial organisations all trade in whipping up feelings. Orwell uncannily identified the willing collusion in hate that such movements can elicit: và of course Winston observes it in himself. So, by implication might we, in ourselves.


Then there is Orwell’s iconic dictator Big Brother: absurd & horrifying in equal measure. Orwell’s writing is rooted in the struggles between the giant ‘-isms’ that disfigured the 20th Century. He fought against Fascism as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War (believing pacifism was a luxury paid for by other people) but realised the hollow promise of Communism, when the anti-Stalinist group he was fighting for was hunted down by the pro-Stalin faction. He witnessed first-hvà the self-deception of true believers. Today there is another mix of ‘-isms’, such as nationalism và populism who operate through the mobilisation of that most dangerous of feelings, resentment. And everywhere you look in the contemporary world, ‘strong’ men are in positions of power. They giới thiệu the need to crush opposition, a fanatical terror of dissent và self-promotion. Big Brothers are no longer a joke but strut the world.

Two plus two equals five

But the greademo horror in Orwell’s dystopia is the systematic stripping of meaning out of language. The regime aims to lớn eradicate words & the ideas & feelings they emtoàn thân. Its real enemy is reality. Tyrannies attempt lớn make understanding the real world impossible: seeking lớn replace it with phantoms and lies. Winston Smith’s first audacious act of dissent had been khổng lồ hide from the all-seeing camera và write a diary – to lớn compose his own tài khoản of himself và his inner world. He knows that the acts of writing & describing mark hyên ổn out for the death penalty if he is discovered. When he is finally broken by torture he agrees that “two plus two equals five sầu.” He had discovered that they could indeed “get inside you”, & “Something was killed in your breast; burnt out, cauterised out”.


The terror in 1984 is the annihilation of the self and the destruction of the capacity to lớn recognise the real world. There is no fashionable or casual relativism in Orwell’s work: he understands how hard it is khổng lồ get things right. However, this story pins down the terror of a world where people have fewer và fewer words to use & whose thinking is distorted by ideologies.

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All over the world where tyrannies rule 1984 is banned, but of course it is pirated. And sales have surged too in countries known as stable democracies. In India và the UK, in China và Polvà people are turning lớn 1984. In the US, sales surged as people searched for a way of getting to grips with the reality of the Trump administration.


You cannot separate Orwell’s work from the man. He is increasingly viewed as a kind of a saint ,but how he would laugh at the statues of hlặng that are sprouting up. His views towards feminists (though not women), vegetarians and other groups would hardly pass the demo now. But he was a man who lived by his beliefs. He made himself genuinely poor; he fought for what he thought was right; he was unfailingly generous và kind khổng lồ other writers, and yet he taught himself to lớn try and see the world as it was not how he would like it khổng lồ be. He was never compliant, & forensically unearthed for our gaze the worst of himself. His aloof integrity is chất lượng.

It is not only that we live in a world transformed by Orwell’s insights in that it shapes how we see oppression. But 1984 is also handbook for difficult times. Knowledge is a kind of strength và we are all being tested.

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster và Director of the Orwell Foundation.

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