George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was written at the very start of the Cold War. Orwell had seen totalitarian socialist leaders begin to crack down on their people — and he wanted to send a warning to Western society. The story follows Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania, a fully totalitarian state which is controlled by “The Party”. The government goes to extreme lengths to manipulate the population and stamp out any individual thought. Many phrases from the book — such as “thought police”, “big brother” and “doublethink” — have now become common usage. And, in recent weeks, the book has shot back up to the top of bestseller lists. Why are today’s readers returning to Orwell’s classic?
Above all, 1984 is a novel about the devastating effects of living under a government with too much control over its citizens. This was a threat during the Cold War — and, in recent years, many have begun to fear that the world could be creeping back in this dangerous direction.
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Winston works for The Ministry of Truth, the propaganda arm of Oceania’s government. But outright propaganda is not the only way The Party controls thought: it also constantly rewrites history, denies facts, and changes its position on key issues without any warning. Could the era of “fake news” and “post-truth” be leading people back to 1984?
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“Big brother is watching you.” It is not just a reality TV show — it is also a constant warning from The Party, which monitors its citizens closely for any signs of dissent. Children are trained to spy on their parents. Cameras are everywhere: “telescreens” (transceivers which both receive and transmit). And the slightest change in demeanour could be enough to give you away.
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Despite everything, Winston begins to dissent. He writes in his diary about the injustices he sees, and begins testing the limits of The Party’s power. Eventually, he turns to all-out resistance. Meanwhile, his friend Julia commits smaller, subversive acts of rebellion: wearing make-up and having sex against The Party’s ideology.
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This is one of the key ways in which The Party controls its citizens — through a new language called “newspeak”, which has been stripped of any vocabulary that might encourage free will or independent thought. Meanwhile, the words in Winston’s diary give him confidence — and put his life in danger.
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