The Setting of George Orwell’s 1984
The novel 1984 of George Orwell shows us a pretty grim and bleak place, where the Big Brother is watching you, literally. The mascot of the government, the aforementioned Big Brother, is everywhere, never letting both the characters and the readers feel safe.
This is the main line of the novel – the absence of safety, freedom and personal space. The war that never stops, poverty and harsh life can be bearable, but stripping people of their freedom to speak and think is much more horrible, more so because they can’t even understand it now.
The novel starts from a seemingly peaceful note: a description of a cold spring morning. But there is nothing blissful in it: we see that the spring, the season that is metaphorically connected with life and renewal is cold and sterile here. Nothing will bloom in such hostile conditions. We meet our protagonist, Winston Smith, the most average person we can only imagine.
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But his daily routine we follow throughout the novel is anything except average for us. We learn the concepts that make chills go down our spine, like thought crime and thought police that can arrest you for thinking improper thoughts, the telescreens that aren’t allowed to be turned off – TVs with cameras in every single apartment that are constantly brainwashing people with propaganda and also watching them (the particularly humiliating example is when the lady from the morning exercise TV program shames Winston aloud from the screen for doing the exercise not thoroughly enough).
The monstrous “newspeak” that mixes and matches the concepts, excluding from the language anything that doesn’t have a utilitarian meaning or is connected with imagination. The words of newspeak mutate into the clumsy constructs that may have only one meaning – as we learn later it is also done on purpose. The people who never heard about the concepts of freedom, friendship and romantic love, dignity and determination, can’t even imagine them. Reinventing the very concept and naming it anew is a hard task only a few can accomplish. In such a way, the government breeds the whole generations of the people who don’t know anything about their normal humanity.
The most unnerving concept of the newspeak is the doublethink – a new paradigm of thinking that demands from people to believe in the two opposite ideas simultaneously and wholeheartedly. The doublethink is the invention of the Ministry of Truth (that works with lie and propaganda, rewriting history almost daily according to the current demands).
We see the example of their work, when they are destroying the previous newspapers and printing the new ones, replacing the news with the others. The people who read the newspapers and listen to the propaganda make themselves instantly believe that what was yesterday never happened and live according to their new worldview. Believing in something that was valid for the yesterday history is also a crime the thought police should take care of.
Of course, the iconic image of the setting that embodies everything is the portrait of the Big Brother with the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”. The whole idea of Big Brother watching should be related to safety but here it looks like more of a cult of evil deity that waits until anyone commits something sinful and punish them. His “priests”, the thought police, have thousands of microphones and cameras to watch citizens in the name of the Big Brother. The idea came from inspiring protection to blatantly threatening everyone and reminding them of obedience.
The setting is described more through the story of Winston and his forbidden love. Winston and Julia, the two who managed to develop feelings to each other and reinvent the concept of love (that is considered a “sexcrime”, as any other relationship where romantic emotions and passion are involved). This feeling slowly evolves, and Winston starts to see how wrong and flawed his society is.
Very carefully and with the great caution he starts to doubt in the ideals of the Party and soon it grows to a full-blown hatred to the government. He trusts his thoughts to his only friend, who, as Winston thinks, agrees with his ideas. But the friend appears to be a high-ranked government worker, who deliberately plays a doubtful one and befriends the potential traitors to blow their cover and then pass them to the mysterious Room 101.
The Room 101 is another horrifying concept invented by George Orwell. It isn’t an ordinary torture room. It is highly personalized, presenting every convict the special kind of torture they fear most. The meaning of the torture isn’t threatening, or a means of punishment or even execution – the Room 101 exists to completely break people to the state of the mindless dolls and brainwash them with the ideals of the Party, this time – permanently. In the end of the novel we see Winston and Julia meeting on the street and feeling nothing about each other – they both betrayed each other in Room 101, breaking every promise they gave, and now they are considered completely “cured” citizens.
The exaggerated portrayal of the totalitarian government one can’t imagine existing in real life reflects George Orwell’s own detestation and hatred. Lots of the traits are taken from Communist Party. The never-ending war reflects the World War Two, at the beginning of which Stalin and Hitler were allies, but after the attack of the Nazi Germany the propaganda turned everything upside down, claiming that Nazis were always the mortal enemies of the Communists.
The posters with Big Brother watching resemble Communist ones saying that “Stalin cares about everyone of us in Kremlin”. The poster actually looks quite peaceful – Stalin, clearly tired, works late at night, ruling the country – but “taking care” was often the euphemism of execution, so the double meaning of the poster became completely obvious later. The newspeak is also shares some traits with the habit of Communists invent the new language forms that contain more than one, like “kolkhoz” from “kollektivnoye khozyajstvo” (the collective farm) or Comintern (Communist Internationalism).
But it is not only technical devices and mind controlling through language and media. The people themselves are clearly assisting the system to maintain itself. The feeling of suspicion they constantly live in, makes them avoid friendship (and, seeing the fate of Winston, we understand why: because everyone considered a friend may be an enemy spy or an agent of the government) and any other connection.
They try to maintain the bright facade of a normally functioning society, they are polite and resort to allowed social interaction (usually low-quality amusements like drinking and porn provided by government). But still, there are no real social connections. The families exist without love (or a “sexcrime”), they are just useful for procreation and replenishing the lines of new workers and soldiers.
Also the family members are constantly watching each other, ready to report about “crimes” of each other, so the families are useful for the government as the source of free agents.
George Orwell deliberately hyperbolized the main traits of the totalitarian regime, meaning not only the Communist one, but any other one that can appear in the society. The traits of it are so bright and feel so wrong that the readers are urged to examine their own culture, media, propaganda and government politics to see if there are signs of something similar that can warn them about bad things happening. He clearly says that in his own quote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936, has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”.
The 1984 novel gives us a clear understanding of what an absolutely totalitarian world would look like. This work of George Orwell became an inspiration for the whole dystopian genre, but it still stays the one that depicts the real problem and the real possibilities of its worsening so vividly and logically. Unfortunately, some of the modern countries slowly move towards Orwellian world, using all the unlimited possibilities of the technical progress to watch the citizens and punish them for improper opinions, thoughts or even posts on the personal pages of social media.
The popular internet meme: “George Orwell wrote you a warning, not an instruction manual!” becomes less funny and more of a threat with time. The World War Two was brutal and devastating, but there are signs that it isn’t the last one that the humanity has to face. The propaganda becomes more and more oppressive and, with the development of digital lives and digital identities, the “thought crimes” and “thought police” could become real very soon in several places.
George Orwell’s 1984 shows how far it can go if the society won’t oppose the totalitarian ideas with the development of critical thinking and ability to doubt the decisions of the government. The Big Brother watching his people isn’t the real person, both metaphorically and story-wise. It is a symbol of a system, soulless and merciless, that works by itself now. There is no Evil Overlord to defeat, the battlefield lies in the minds of the people and our civilization can’t afford losing even a single one.