1984 at 70: Still relevant says Orwell’s son
Even after a lifetime, can a classic still have a message? Few novels have had such an effect, with ‘Big Brother’, ‘newspeak’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ now firmly embedded in the English language.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
So begins, famously, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The thirteenth stroke calls into question not only the credibility of that extra stroke, but of the previous twelve and the clock itself.
And it isn’t just one clock but “the clocks”. George Orwell hints that all claims to truth in his fictional society should be called into question.
An autocratic leader, “Big Brother” rigorously watches people’s behaviour for signs of rebellion. And an official Ministry of Truth manipulates information and language, obscuring reality and consolidating his control.
Dissenters are guilty of “thoughtcrime”. Those in power eliminate them or torture them into changing their minds. Children denounce their free-thinking parents to the authorities.
Orwell’s classic remains as relevant today as when it was published, according to the author’s son who says the claim that all-encompassing surveillance is good for us makes his “teeth grind”.
Orwell’s novel was published on 8 June 1949 and celebrates its 70th anniversary this week.
It comes amid growing public concern about the power of social media corporations and questions how they use people’s data.
“Every great dystopia exists in that unnerving territory between fact and fiction,” says the critic Dorian Lynskey.
When critics described Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale as science fiction, the author countered that everything that occurred in her near-future theocracy, Gilead, had already happened in America’s past, or was still happening in someone else’s present.
All that she did was transport these horrors into a scenario close enough to 1980s America to make her readers uncomfortable.
Orwell had minimal interest in science fiction and an understanding of technology so limited that he didn’t even explain how his famous invention, the two-way telescreen, actually worked.
He never presented himself as a prophet with special insight into the future. If so many of his observations ring true today, then it is because they were true in 1949.
The technology and personalities may change over time, but the psychology of politics and the operation of power remain fundamentally the same.
Is Big Brother still watching?
Terrifyingly so, warn the concerned. Orwell did not just imagine the takeover by a police state: he warned of a creeping mindset that could become established in democratic societies. Now reporters fear the wrath of the US president, and the average person worries about the mob on Twitter. Attempts to bully us into thinking a certain way are gaining in strength.
What a lazy analogy, critics respond. Today’s turbulence shows we are freer than ever: free to find out what we want, and form whatever opinions we like. It is easy to cite Orwell without knowing what he really meant. Often he is invoked simply to silence or patronise those we disagree with. Ironically enough, there can be few things more Orwellian than that.
- Do you think for yourself?
- Is Orwell’s 1984 a good metaphor for the current political climate?
- List some ways you could try to control people’s thoughts if you were an authoritarian leader. Then discuss your ideas as a class: how effective would they be?
- Orwell’s first sentence sets up his whole novel. Have a go at writing the first sentence of your own novel. When you have done it, write a further paragraph explaining what you are aiming to convey.
Some People Say...
“The best books…are those that tell you what you know already.”George Orwell
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Sales of the book surged in 2013 after Edward Snowden’s revelations about state-sponsored mass surveillance, and again following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President in 2017 after one his advisors used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview.
- What do we not know?
- Whether Orwell was chiefly writing about his time or ours; what he saw happening in 1949, or what he thought might happen in the future. Far from plunging his readers into apathy and despair, he wanted to wake them up and alert them to the fragility of liberal democracy. Hitler had been defeated but Stalin was still all-powerful, and who knew where the next Big Brother could come from?
- Big Brother
- Yes, the reality TV show took its name from the character in George Orwell’s novel because contestants were constantly under surveillance in the Big Brother house, just as they are in his story.
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- Originally a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 and set in a near-future America, in a totalitarian state that has overthrown the US government. Later adapted for TV to huge acclaim, it scooped up a mass of awards.
- Devices that operate as televisions, security cameras and microphones. In Orwell’s novel and its adaptations, telescreens are used by the ruling party in the totalitarian fictional State of Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance.