Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control

George Orwell’s most powerful warning against totalitarianism fulfilled his stated desire to make political writing into an art; it represents the single most famous example of the science-fiction subgenre known as dystopian literature.

Summary of Event

When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June, 1949, George Orwell had entered the last phase of his chronic illness. Despite his persistent stubborn hopes of a full recovery from the respiratory problems and tuberculosis that plagued his adult life, he must also have felt a strong sense of urgency. The speed of the planning and writing of the book, completed in two years, exceeded even his usual astoundingly short periods of composition, especially considering that his work on the book was interrupted constantly by periods of hospitalization. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell)[Nineteen Eighty Four (Orwell)]
Dystopian literature
Science fiction
[kw]Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control (June, 1949)[Nineteen Eighty Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control]
[kw]Totalitarianism and Mind Control, Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays (June, 1949)
[kw]Mind Control, Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and (June, 1949)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell)[Nineteen Eighty Four (Orwell)]
Dystopian literature
Science fiction
[g]Europe;June, 1949: Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control[02930]
[g]United Kingdom;June, 1949: Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control[02930]
[c]Literature;June, 1949: Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control[02930]
[c]Cold War;June, 1949: Nineteen Eighty-Four Portrays Totalitarianism and Mind Control[02930]
Orwell, George
Warburg, Fredric

George Orwell.

(Library of Congress)

As Michael Shelden recounts in his 1991 biography of Orwell, the book was to be Orwell’s self-described most important work. It was impelled by his cumulative disappointment in socialism as an effective deterrent to fascism and perhaps by a subconscious realization of his own precarious mortality. Orwell wanted Nineteen Eighty-Four to be his best creative work, a distillation of language, style, and ideas that would convey most compellingly his desire to make political writing into an art. It was also to be the strongest expression of the moral vision that shaped both Orwell’s life and his writing.

Orwell’s commitment to the idea of the constant struggle for freedom from tyranny of any kind—physical, political, or spiritual—began early in his adult life. Having failed to win entrance to the University of Oxford following his largely mediocre and unhappy school career, he more or less stumbled into joining the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar). His maternal grandmother still lived there, and his father, a lifelong minor functionary in the Indian Civil Service, believed that Orwell could follow a similarly secure, respectable, and patriotic career.

Although he did his conscientious duty in his lonely five-year tenure (1922-1927), Orwell hated the Imperial Police. He came to loathe the values that had fueled British empire British Empire;ideology building, especially the paternalistic concept of “the white man’s burden,” and to understand with a mixture of sympathy and fear the extent of the hatred that the Burmese felt toward their British rulers. “Shooting an Elephant” “Shooting an Elephant” (Orwell)[Shooting an Elephant] (1936), one of the many penetrating, luminously written autobiographical essays that Orwell was to produce, powerfully portrayed the dilemma of authority in which a British civil servant with a lively conscience could find himself anywhere in the sprawling British Empire.

The forging of Orwell’s social consciousness begun in Burma continued through his sojourns in London and Paris between 1927 and 1929. Periodically, and by choice, he lived as a tramp and menial laborer on the fringes of these two great cities, endangering his already precarious health and threatening his personal autonomy.

Orwell’s first, strongly autobiographical, book, Down and Out in Paris and London
Down and Out in Paris and London (Orwell) (1933), chronicled these experiences. Its generally good reviews marked the permanent adoption of his pen name George Orwell and gave him the opportunity to complete Burmese Days
Burmese Days (Orwell) (1934), a very personal and vivid novel based on his Imperial Police experience. Its mixed success gave Orwell the means to abandon a wretched job to write full-time, marry, and move to the Hertfordshire countryside, where he and his wife, Eileen, ran a small country store.

A Clergyman’s Daughter
Clergyman’s Daughter, A (Orwell)[Clergymans Daughter, A] (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Orwell) (1936) were the resulting two novels. In them, he explored both the writing of pure fiction (largely a failure) and more memorably the lives of two alienated, emotionally starved individuals stifled by the rigid morality of middle-class England. In these novels’ central protagonists lay the seeds of Winston Smith’s character and his lonely struggle for personal fulfillment.

The rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930’s stirred Orwell’s interest in socialism, which, he declared in his next nonfiction work, The Road to Wigan Pier
Road to Wigan Pier, The (Orwell) (1937), was the only ideological and political movement that could stand in opposition to fascism. In 1936, Orwell went to Spain, eventually joining the International Brigade to fight the Fascists led by Francisco Franco. He recounted his difficult sojourn in Spain in Homage to Catalonia
Homage to Catalonia (Orwell) (1938), in which his disillusionment with internal party politics and his political idealism are expressed in some of his best writing to that time. In typical fashion, he understated his own dedication and heroism in that struggle.

Recovering slowly from a bullet wound to the throat, an exhausted Orwell conceived and wrote his next novel, Coming Up for Air
Coming Up for Air (Orwell) (1939), during a “rest cure” in Morocco. Its lyrical depiction of the South English countryside (later echoed in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Edenic Golden Country) was undercut by a strong sense of doom, soon given credibility by the Luftwaffe’s devastation of England’s major cities and much of its southern landscape during World War II.

Orwell devoted himself courageously to the civil defense of England throughout the war. His writing during this period was confined to a series of more and more confident and incisive essays and reviews, in which he polished both his prose and his insightful political commentary into brilliance. In 1945, he published Animal Farm, Animal Farm (Orwell) the political fable that was finally to bring him enormous popular fame. This satirical indictment of the Russian Revolution’s worst aspects appealed to the public imagination in Great Britain and North America just as the Cold War was beginning. Animal Farm paved the way for Nineteen Eighty-Four and elucidated Orwell’s opinion that socialism itself was not the danger: the Soviet model and its power-hungry leaders were.

Animal Farm was arguably a masterpiece, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was the work toward which Orwell’s vision, through almost all of his other fiction and nonfiction, had been developing. At its center lies Orwell’s perception that power and its abuse are the essential evils against which humanity must always pit itself. In the novel, under the all-seeing, paternalistic eye of Big Brother, Winston Smith (embodying in his given name the fierce spirit of Winston Churchill and in his surname, common man) struggles to preserve his memory, emotions, identity, and above all his hope against the forceful repressiveness of the sterile totalitarian society in which he exists.

The principles of INGSOC (English Socialism), summarized in a trio of paradoxical slogans, provide the regime’s overtly simple public ideology. The welfare of the state is not the real raison d’être of INGSOC, which is instead dedicated to the complete subjugation of its people to the power of a tiny elite. Control of daily life is pervasive and absolute. Although Smith recognizes this truth intellectually, he clings stubbornly to the hope that one day the mass of the “proles” (proletarians, or working-class people) will rise up and overthrow the tyrants. Expressing Orwell’s socialism, Smith recognizes that “if there is hope, it lies in the proles.” Even his recognition of the proles’ current apathy and debasement does not quench either his optimism or a will to survive that he perceives as endemic to humans. “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER,” writes Smith repeatedly in his illicit diary.

Smith eventually is subjugated to the Party’s power through torture inflicted physically, mentally, and emotionally. The torture is carried out meticulously and with leisurely certainty by O’Brien, Big Brother’s Mephistophelian spokesman and a man in whom Smith had mistakenly sensed an ally. Despite the explication of the Party’s overwhelming control that O’Brien unfolds, Smith clings as long as possible to his own belief: “I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.” The novel’s closing sentence—“He loved Big Brother”—seems to signify Smith’s defeat, however, as Smith is a lone individual and he struggles as an individual. The only hope to change the system and eliminate Big Brother, the book implies, is a mass uprising: If there is hope, it lies in the proles.

The novel’s projected title was The Last Man in Europe. On January 25, 1949, Orwell and his publisher, Fredric Warburg, agreed on Nineteen Eighty-Four as a more suitable title, arrived at simply by reversing the last two digits of the novel’s year of completion. The original title does embody much of the novel’s central vision. Smith indeed can be seen as Europe’s “last man,” the articulator of humankind’s desire to be free, the representative of what Orwell called elsewhere in a poem “the crystal spirit.” As well, the word “Europe” in the novel’s first title conjures the specter of thousands of years of history (however bloody at times), civility, and culture crushed under tyranny’s heel. Whatever its title, the novel made vividly clear Orwell’s main intention: to warn against authoritarianism in general, whether right or left in the political spectrum. That he made his political point so well in a book that also succeeded as a work of fiction is a tribute to Orwell’s formidable powers as a writer.


Orwell died in January, 1950, so he certainly was aware of the huge popular success of Nineteen Eighty-Four and its critical acclaim, but he could not have envisioned its lasting domination in the literary firmament. “Orwellian” is an adjective now popularly used to describe fictional and nonfictional governments and societies characterized by repression or diabolical ideologies; the widespread recognition of at least Orwell’s last two fictional works is testimony to their impact.

Critical acclaim for Nineteen Eighty-Four in both Great Britain and the United States was even more positive and widespread than it had been for Animal Farm, with respected writers such as V. S. Pritchett, Lionel Trilling, and Aldous Huxley weighing in with praise. Any criticism from socialists that the novel was an attack on socialism in particular Orwell denied swiftly and firmly in letters and articles he wrote in response. He reaffirmed his support of socialism as an ideology, though he continued to criticize its abuses.

A general fear of Joseph Stalin’s continued power, underscored by acceleration of the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism in the United States, made Orwell’s reading public especially vulnerable to fears of the future and the loss of personal freedom. Interestingly, 1949 also saw the production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which portrayed poignantly the tragedy of that inveterate dreamer, lover of the pastoral, and “little” man, salesman Willie Loman, obsessed with his stifling urban life and his total failure to “measure up.”

Right up to his premature death, Orwell displayed his own “crystal spirit,” hopeful to the end that he would get well, burning as usual to get on with other writing projects. His legacy to humanity has been his clear-eyed vision and sharp, luminous prose, urging readers over and over again to embrace the socialist ideal as a means to and fight for freedom against tyranny. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell)[Nineteen Eighty Four (Orwell)]
Dystopian literature
Science fiction

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Compilation of essays by leading scholars, examining Orwell’s work from a variety of angles. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Calder, Jenni.“Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987. Part of a series of short introductory books about major writers, texts, and literary concepts. Seven chapters link common thematic, stylistic, and political aspects of the two novels. “Suggestions for Further Reading” is geared to student work on Orwell’s principal novels. Helpful and straightforward.

  • George Orwell and “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Trivandrum: Institute of English, University of Kerala, 1985. The papers of conference speakers who represent the cream of Orwell scholars. The novel is examined under four topics: “The Test,” “The Man,” “The Book,” and “Its Meaning Today.” A comprehensive, annotated bibliography follows. Invaluable for in-depth study of the novel.
  • Gleason, Abbott, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. On “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: Orwell and Our Future. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Compilation of revised papers presented at a 1999 conference on the lessons of Nineteen Eighty-Four for the present and the future. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Howe, Irving, ed. Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: Text, Sources, Criticism. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. This essential compendium consists of the text of the novel and eight more parts comprising short, succinct selections by and about Orwell and his works; criticism by such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Lionel Trilling; reviews of the novel; analyses of totalitarianism; and recent views.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey. A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975. In clear, straightforward chapters, Meyers guides readers through the Orwell canon. Chapter 8 is a particularly interesting theory of the novel’s sources of inspiration. Bibliography and index included.
  • _______, ed. George Orwell: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. An enormously rich collection of critical writing, mainly book reviews in whole or in part, on all of Orwell’s fiction and nonfiction, including posthumous. Essential study compiled by the preeminent Orwell expert.
  • Reilly, Patrick.“Nineteen Eighty-Four”: Past, Present, and Future. Twayne’s Masterwork Studies 30. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A scholarly work in two sections. The first discusses historical context, the novel’s importance, and its critical reception; the second is a series of four interpretations, quite idiosyncratic, of the novel’s several themes. Very thorough bibliography and index.
  • Shelden, Michael. Orwell: The Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. An exhaustively researched chronicle of Orwell’s life, inspiration, and works, written in lucid prose. Includes photos, bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, comprehensive source notes, and an excellent, thorough, useful index. The viewpoint is somewhat biased in places, but fact and commentary are generally well balanced. Absorbing and essential.
  • Woodcock, George. Orwell’s Message: 1984 and the Present. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1984. Woodcock was Orwell’s friend and a respected critic who perhaps knew Orwell and his writings most intimately. He presents a reassessment of the novel in four thorough, informative chapters. Index.

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