Tyranny Made Vivid: The Enduring Power of Nineteen Eighty-Four

A famous artistic denunciation of tyranny, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, is now almost 70 years old. Completed by Orwell in late 1948 and published the following June, the influence of Orwell’s novel over the following decades has been tremendous. Probably far more people are familiar with the fictional dramatically repressive, one-party state of Oceania than with the actual history of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s—the place and time that is the closest real-life parallel to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s dystopian society.

The novel has been widely imitated and parodied, perhaps most memorably in a famous Apple computer ad, and certain phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four, such as “the Thought Police” and “Big Brother is Watching You” have entered common usage. Moreover, warnings and accusations that contemporary politicians are turning society into a real-world version of Orwell’s dystopia are almost as common as similar invocations of Hitler or Nazi Germany.

The seven-decade-long influence of Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates art’s power to impress real-life injustices and horrors on people’s minds. How does the novel accomplish this, though? What did Orwell do that was so effective?

Identifying Nineteen Eighty-Four’s strengths paradoxically requires first looking at one of the novel’s most notable weaknesses.

What is striking about Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four is how, for a nightmare vision of the future, the society lacks many of the worst features of real 20th-century repressive states. Oceania’s regime certainly is repressive—people are frequently arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for real and imagined offenses against the state—yet large-scale, genocidal killing such as that perpetrated by Nazi Germany does not occur. While everyone outside the ruling elite lives in material poverty, Oceania does not have massive famines that kill millions, which makes it unlike both Stalin’s Soviet Union and (years after Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication) Mao Zedong’s China.

Oceania wages constant war against the world’s other two superpowers, Eurasia and Eastasia, yet the war consists of relatively low-level, conventional warfare. Nuclear weapons are not used anymore, so humanity is not at risk of extinction. Moreover, because the three superpowers have a tacit understanding that the war should last forever (so as to justify repressing their populations), there is no danger that Oceania will ultimately be defeated and conquered. National disaster through wartime defeat, which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan suffered and the Soviet Union almost suffered, does not threaten the citizens of Oceania.

Viewed in this way, Orwell’s dystopia seems comparatively moderate. This illustrates Nineteen Eighty-Four’s biggest flaw, at least as a political statement: to make his fictional tyranny seem as omnipotent and unassailable as possible, Orwell attributes far greater stability to the regime and far greater competence and foresight to its rulers than occurs in real life. This should undermine the novel’s power, as it makes the fictional world less realistic and less horrifying than it could be.

I say, “should undermine the novel’s power”; yet, somehow, it doesn’t. Despite its flaws, Nineteen Eighty-Four still disturbs and haunts many of us, as its continuing influence shows. The reason is that Orwell depicts features of tyranny that while objectively less severe than mass murder, famine, or devastating war, are subjectively more moving. For those who have never experienced the worst features of tyranny—as most of Orwell’s readers in 1940s Great Britain presumably had not—descriptions of mass murder, starvation, and similar atrocities can be shocking but also very quickly numbing. A reader can sympathize with the victims of such injustices but may not be able to identify with them.

Instead, Orwell describes in great detail aspects of Oceania’s tyranny that readers can identify with and that can stir a deeper sense of revulsion and outrage than greater but more distant atrocities would. I can identify at least four of these:

Poverty. People might not starve by the millions in Oceania, but everyone lives a bleak, meager material existence. Much space in the novel is given to describing the uncomfortable, deprived life that Winston Smith and other characters live, with Orwell including telling details such as periodic power outages, the lack of razor blades, the cigarettes that fall apart if you hold them the wrong way, and the only alcohol available being foul-tasting gin. Winston prizes small possessions such as an old-fashioned notebook not merely because it allows him to keep a diary but because it looks and feels nicer than most of the material objects he encounters: “a thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover…Its smooth creamy paper, a little yellowed by age, was of a kind that had not been manufactured for at least forty years past.”[1]

This kind of detail is presumably the legacy of Orwell’s journalistic career living among and writing about the poor, whether in Paris, London, or the north of England, as well as his experiences of wartime and post-war austerity. This part of the dystopia would be something his fellow Britons could definitely identify with. Orwell captures what the novelist Anthony Burgess, in his commentary on Nineteen Eighty-Four, aptly described as “the cheating of the senses with shoddy food, drink, and tobacco, the rough clothes, coarse soap, blunt razor blades, the feeling of being unkempt and unclean.”[2]

Lies. Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, which is the propaganda department of Oceania’s regime. He—and thus we the readers—have a first-hand view of how the regime lies about history and current events so they will fit the political need of the moment. At one point Winston is charged with rewriting an old news story that mentions a Party member who had subsequently been purged and executed. He accordingly writes an article about a speech by Big Brother praising a martyred war hero, one Comrade Ogilvy. As the novel tells us, “It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.”[3] The grotesquerie of this deliberate, blatant lying is somehow more memorable than the mere fact of the purged Party member’s murder.

Such lying parallels real-world government-sponsored fictions. Indeed, the aspect of the Ministry of Truth’s operations with perhaps the greatest relevance is its treatment of Oceania’s foreign relations. As the regime periodically changes its wartime allies and enemies, it switches the stream of hate and vilification from one foreign country to another, going so far as to rewrite history to make the enemy of the moment the enemy from time immemorial. Allowing for a certain exaggeration, I don’t think this aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four qualifies as “dystopia” or even “satire.” This is simply a description of how governments and foreign policy work.  

Psychological humiliation. The scenes of interrogation and torture that occupy much of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s final quarter or so are probably the weakest part of the novel. As Orwell tries to make the tortures lurid and unexpected (as with the horrors of Room 101) and the torturers as villainous as possible (as with “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake,” “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” and similar mustache-twirling lines), he ultimately undermines these scenes’ credibility. Nevertheless, a potent idea—with, again, a real-life parallel—remains behind it all.

The Thought Police seek not merely to hurt or kill Winston Smith and their other victims, but to make them abase themselves by accepting their own guilt and the regime’s essential legitimacy—to love Big Brother, as the novel puts it. This allows the regime to kill dissenters without ever making them into martyrs. This scenario parallels the Stalinist show trials, in which leading Communists were forced to confess to various conspiracies and crimes. Such psychological abuse can be more moving than physical abuse. This is perhaps partly because the focus on the victims’ emotions encourages us to empathize with them. Perhaps partly it is also because robbing someone of their self-respect is more painful to witness than physical harm. 

Breaking the family. Oceania’s regime wants to eliminate love between individuals so that the only love is for Big Brother and the Party. Nineteen Eighty-Four focuses on the regime’s efforts to stamp out romantic love, with Winston’s relationship with his secret lover Julia being the book’s key act of rebellion. What receives less attention but is no less powerful is the tyranny’s attack on the relationships of parents and children. Winston’s parents are long gone, vanished in a purge, and he has only vague recollections of them. The only children of note in the book are those of Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. These children are violent, hyper-aggressive devotees of the regime who threaten Winston with toy guns. Winston later reflects,

Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the [regime youth group] the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages….[T]hey adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother—it was all a sort of glorious game to them.[4]

Mrs. Parsons lives in fear of her children. The fear proves justified when, toward the book’s end, the family’s seven-year-old daughter informs on her father, leading to the father’s arrest by the Thought Police. Even Winston’s half-remembered relationship with his mother was marred by his bad behavior, brought on by poverty: he remembers constantly demanding more food and even stealing from the family stores, despite the deprivation this means for his mother and younger sister. His last contact with his family was stealing a piece of chocolate from his sister before running away from home; by the time he returns, his mother and sister are gone, apprehended by the police. As Julia comments, “All children are swine.”[5] This bleak portrait of family relationships fraying and even disappearing is another of the terrible yet understandable details by which Orwell makes his dystopia vivid.

Yet family life also provides one of the few elements of warmth and even nobility in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Depicting such elements of human decency, however rare they may be, is no less important to the success of a dystopia such as Orwell’s than depicting the horrors of dystopian existence. To act as an effective warning against future tyranny, a dystopia must offer some positive aspect of life to hold on to and set against the tyranny’s evils. To the extent Orwell provides a positive alternative to Oceania’s poverty, lies, and repression, that alternative is not democratic socialism—Orwell’s own political philosophy—or any other explicitly political ideology but a kind of domestic happiness set apart from politics.

Perhaps the most significant and touching moment in Winston and Julia’s relationship is not their lovemaking or acts of overt resistance to the regime but when they briefly hold hands in a crowd. Winston feels “a deep tenderness, such as he had not felt for her before…He wished they were a married couple of ten year’s standing. He wished he were walking through the streets with her just as they were doing now, but openly and without fear, talking of trivialities and buying odds and ends for the household.”[6]

Such domestic life and devotion is exemplified by Winston’s shadowy mother, who is perhaps the most admirable character in the book because of her love for her children, despite the hardships of poverty, war, and the regime’s repression. She cares for them in the face of her impending arrest and Winston remembers her protective embrace. He reflects on his mother’s values:

It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love…The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. When once you were in the grip of the Party, what you felt or did not feel, what you did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference…And yet to the people of only two generations ago, this would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history. They were governed by private loyalties, which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.[7]

These moments of human affection and loyalty, as displayed by Winston and Julia and by Winston’s mother, provide a contrast to the demands of the tyrannical regime. They offer a glimpse of humanity in a book mostly taken up with depicting inhumanity and perhaps also offer a significant insight. What Orwell places in opposition to the tyranny of Oceania is not an alternative political vision (which might in turn become tyrannical if ever put into power) but the notion of ordinary people living ordinary private lives beyond the pervasive reach of the state. Along with Orwell’s condemnation of tyrannical repression, this championing of ordinary, domestic life and happiness against an all-embracing state is well worth remembering.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Penguin Books [Signet Classics Reprint], 1992), 9.

[2] Anthony Burgess, 1985 (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1978), 18.

[3] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 42.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 136.

[6] Ibid., 116.

[7] Ibid., 136.

© 2018 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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