Orwell’s 1984 is back, and top of the charts

Then and now: Orwell’s work was first published in 1948.

With Donald Trump in the White House, one of the greatest dystopian novels is flying off the shelves again. We commonly say real life is ‘Orwellian’ — so is 1984 a good metaphor for our age?

‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’

This is a famous line from Nineteen Eighty-Four. In George Orwell’s novel, a leader called ‘Big Brother’ would rigorously watch people’s behaviour for signs of rebellion. And an official Ministry of Truth would manipulate information and language, obscuring reality and consolidating his control.

Dissenters would be guilty of ‘thoughtcrime’. Those in power would eliminate them or torture them into changing their minds. Children would denounce their free-thinking parents to the authorities.

This week, interest in the book — and other dystopian novels — has surged. On Monday it reappeared in Amazon’s bestseller list. By Tuesday evening it was in the number one position.

This comes just days after Donald Trump became president of the United States. Like the fictional ‘Big Brother’, the authoritarian Trump has shown disdain for free thought — for example by denouncing reporters and voicing his admiration for Vladimir Putin.

And this weekend his spokeswoman said the White House had used ‘alternative facts’ regarding the crowd size at his inauguration. This — the latest of many Trump lies — attracted comparisons with the novel’s darkly euphemistic ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’.

Orwell’s work is often invoked to describe real-life events: Orwellian, according to The New York Times, is ‘the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer’. In recent years it has been linked to Brexit, government spying, counter-terrorism legislation and political correctness.

Is the internet to blame? As respected news outlets have struggled, ‘fake news’ has proliferated online. Polls suggest a rising number of people believe conspiracy theories. Some pundits have dubbed this the ‘post-truth’ age and worried that mob rule and ‘echo chambers’ are preventing people from sharing dissenting opinions freely.

So is this dystopian fable a strong metaphor for our times?

Big Brother is watching you

Terrifyingly so, warn the concerned. Orwell did not just predict 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.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel free to think for yourself?
  2. Is Orwell’s 1984 a good metaphor for the current political climate?

Activities

  1. In pairs, list some ways you could try to control people’s thoughts if you were an authoritarian leader. Then discuss as a class: how effective would your ideas be?
  2. Read the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Write a two-page essay plan under the following title: How relevant is Orwell’s work to understanding the political climate of 2017?

Some People Say...

“Fiction never tells us what will really happen.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can a fictional book really make any difference to the way I live?
Fiction books like Nineteen Eighty-Four may be made up. But Orwell was a brilliant man and his work reflected his understanding of human nature and behaviour. He died in 1950, but the knowledge and ideas he passed on have been very valuable ever since.
But I haven’t even read the book.
You should — it is widely regarded as a classic. It is so often cited in public life — reading it will help you understand what people mean when they talk about it. Even if you think people refer to it too readily, the themes Orwell explored remain relevant to anyone who cares about living and thinking freely. While you are at it, try reading Orwell’s other work, like his essay Politics and the English Language or the novella Animal Farm.

Word Watch

Novels
This week Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here also re-entered the chart.
Reporters
On Saturday he said they were ‘among the most dishonest human beings on Earth’. He has also railed against the media at rallies.
Putin
The Russian president has cracked down on opposition, rigged elections and almost certainly murdered opponents.
Newspeak
The language of Oceania (the totalitarian state the novel is set in), created so the rulers could control what people think.
Doublethink
The ability to think two contradictory things at the same time. The novel’s hero, Winston Smith, is expected to tell lies, which he knows are untrue, and believe them at the same time.
Brexit
Some are angry at a campaign claim that the UK sent £350m per week to Brussels as EU members. Others say judges and campaigners have been intimidated.
Political correctness
Last year Fawlty Towers star John Cleese compared a ‘super-sensitive’ approach to comedy at universities to 1984. And in 2015 a science professor was sacked for telling a sexist joke, drawing similar comparisons.