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George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell’s other anti-communism novel is the one that has had the most impact on the world. The vision of 1984 and Big Brother is watching you resonate not just with the anti-Soviets but also with citizens of the West who have seen greater social control and greater use of technology to carry out this control. The fact that every major street corner in Britain, for example, has cameras spying on the populace is now taken for granted. In short, many people have said that Orwell got it wrong. 1984 wasn’t like 1984. But…

The story is straightforward. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, where he has to alter history to conform to the ever-changing present-day realities. His country – Oceania – is in a constant struggle with the other superpowers – Eastasia and Eurasia. However, Winston is not the loyal subject he should be. First he has illicit (i.e. outside marriage) sex with Julia. Secondly, he reads a banned book, the work of Goldstein (clearly based on Trotsky, whose real name was Bronstein.) They carry out their misdeeds in a small room above an antique shop, as that is outside the party’s spying mechanism (Big Brother).

Of course, it turns out that the owner of the antique shop is a party hack and that Bronstein may well have been invented by the party. They are taken to Room 101 (which has also become something of a catchphrase), interrogated and break down. Meeting later, they remain indifferent to each other, the party having controlled their emotions.

Newspeak has become not only a catchphrase but a reality, as listening to any politician will confirm. Orwell’s achievement is less literary and more political prescience. While his vision of 1984 was, of course, inaccurate and never intended to be anything else, many of the trends he predicted have come to pass. Thought criminals, rewriting of history, Big Brother, all are very much possible and, in many cases, happening. And, if they tell you otherwise, be very careful.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Secker & Warburg