Nineteen Eighty Four Comparative Studies | HSC English

Nineteen Eighty Four Comparative Studies

  • The Post-war Period – 1945-1960

    Immediately after the war, the allies had to cope with the two things they let happen – the holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was a scary new world in which anyone could kill their enemies with the touch of a button, and the minute the USA and Russia had finished shaking hands in Berlin at the end of WWII, each of them started looking at the other as their biggest political rival. This was the motive of Nineteen Eighty Four.

    So started ‘the Cold War’ a term coined by George Orwell – to describe the way these two powers tried to out-do each other without actually using their bombs, which they feared would end in the destruction of the whole world.

    The period was characterised by a fear of international spies, paranoia, the building of bomb shelters, and 1950s stoicism. England’s MI6 did plenty of spying during this period – they were close enough to Russia and Europe to fear the ‘domino effect’, and with a pragmatic ‘end justifies the means mentality’ that is evident in some of Orwell’s novels, Nineteen Eighty Four is one of them.

  • Nineteen Eighty Four - 1949

    Orwell was fairly worldly – he’d grown up in English-colonised India and in his youth, had been a police officer in British-ruled Burma.Perhaps these experiences developed his belief in social democracy and his political passion. For a while, he lived in London and Paris, writing creative-nonfiction and becoming a sought-after writer, until he rather idealistically, signed up for the Spanish Civil War in 1936 ‘to fight fascism’.

    The war was quite factional, and at one point he was thinking of siding with the Spanish communists, when he was listed in a smear campaign as having been a fascist sympathiser, which deeply hurt his feelings. At the front. he was shot in the throat and rendered unable to speak, a trauma that gave him some mental health problems which rendered him unfit for military service.

    On returning to England, he was charged with ‘rabid Trotskyism’. These experiences gave Orwell a thorough introduction to propaganda.

    During WWII, Orwell worked at the BBC in Indian programming to counter Nazi propaganda there. He also began working as a journalist for the leftist paper, the Tribune, and wrote Animal Farm.

    This book resonated with the post-war climate, which was disillusioned and wary of any idealism (although, that is not actually the message of the book). He was involved in all sorts of political lobbying and writing by the time he wrote Nineteen Eighty Four several years later, disillusioned with the political climate of the cold war.

    Nineteen Eighty-Four, is set in Airstrip One, which used to be Great Britain, and is known as such because it has been air-raided and bombed so many times. This hearkens back to many English people’s experience of the Blitz in WWII. It is part of a superstate, Oceania, which is in perpetual war, not unlike Britain’s own experience of the Cold War.

    The war at Nineteen Eighty Four seems to exist as much as tyrranical control of Oceania’s own people as to keep out invaders. Government surveillance and propaganda are the norm, so much so that it is impossible to tell exactly what the real date is as history has been revisioned so many times.

    There are three classes to society – the upper-class Inner Party (2%) the middle class Outer Party (13%) from which the protagonist, Winston Smith comes, and the Proles (85%) who are the ignorant working class at Nineteen Eighty Four.

    Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth as an editor, revising historical records, to make the past conform to the ever-changing party line and deleting references to unpersons, people who have been ‘vaporised’, i.e. not only killed by the state but denied existence even in history or memory. This process may be why the Party is not content to simply kill Winston, but to convince him to love Big Brother.

    The Ministry of Peace deals with war and defence, the Ministry of Plenty deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation), the Ministry of Love deals with law and order (torture and brainwashing). The point of the Party is simply to gain and wield power. They have no other ideology – this negatively reflects on the poltiical pragmatism of British governments of the day.

    Smith’s memories and his reading of the proscribed book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, reveal that after the Second World War, the United Kingdom fell to civil war and then was absorbed into Oceania. Simultaneously, the USSR conquered mainland Europe and established the second superstate of Eurasia.

    The third superstate, Eastasia, comprises the regions of East Asia and South-east Asia. The three superstates wage perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world, forming and breaking alliances as is convenient, Nineteen Eighty Four.  

    From his childhood (1949–53), Winston remembers the Atomic Wars fought in Europe, western Russia and North America.

    It is unclear to him what occurred first: the Party’s victory in the civil war, the US annexation of the British Empire or the war in which Colchester was bombed. Smith’s strengthening memories and the story of his family’s dissolution, suggest that the atomic bombings occurred first (the Smiths took refuge in a tube station), followed by civil war featuring “confused street fighting in London itself” and the societal postwar reorganisation, which the Party retrospectively calls “the Revolution”. 

    Nineteen Eighty-Four is itself a very important book for coining important new political terms such as ‘Orwellian’ ‘throught crime’ and ‘Big Brother’. Most confusing of these is ‘doublethink’ where a person can hold two contradicting thoughts simultaneously, and believe them both wholeheartedly.

    This is the most dangerous aspect of the Big Brother poltiical regime of Nineteen Eighty Four, because if you take away a person’s ability to articulate that black, is in fact, not white, all of experience becomes slippery and all values become relative – it becomes impossible to talk about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

  • Values of the Time at Nineteen Eighty Four

    • The Cold War saw a rise in gritty realist fiction about spies published in England, including La Carre’s ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ which demonstrated that England was no better than the communists they were supposed to be keeping people safe from.
    • There is plenty to suggest critique of totalitarianism in the book, but actually, Winston Smith seems to be, like Orwell, a socialist – he thinks that ‘if there is any hope it lies with the Proles’ and wishes, initially, that there will one day be a revolution against Big Brother.
    • Uniformity and individualism. Part of the dystopia within the novel is that any kind of ‘different thinking’ is frowned upon. This is not just a commentary against communist regimes but also against westerners who become close-minded due to fear and misinformation.
    • The power of language and propaganda. Nazism showed the world how powerful propaganda could be, but Orwell had also experienced it first hand in the Spanish Civil War. The Ministry of Truth controls the ‘offical’ record, and keeps history unknowable. Likewise, Newspeak strips people’s ability to articulate what is wrong with society, consequently, it disempowers them to do anything about it.
    • The power of language and propaganda. Nazism showed the world how powerful propaganda could be, but Orwell had also experienced it first hand in the Spanish Civil War. The Ministry of Truth controls the ‘offical’ record, and keeps history unknowable. Likewise, Newspeak strips people’s ability to articulate what is wrong with society, consequently, it disempowers them to do anything about it.
    • Idealism vs. Pragmatism. Both can be scary, but, living in a terribly pragmatic time, Orwell seems to favour idealism, the idea that love can happen, that a person can be individualistic, wonder, and keep a diary, and the hope that the Proles will rise up and change the future.

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