Book Report on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell and published in 1949, is generally considered Orwell’s greatest work, and is a fine example of the “dystopian” or “anti-utopian” genre. This genre describes a world which appears to have reached utopia, but is actually the antithesis of utopia.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bleak, gray, and dull world, the specific setting being a dilapidated London, still in post-World War II condition and ruled over by the ruthless and oppressive Party. The world as it existed before World War II is gone, and has been replaced by three nearly invincible superstates- Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania- which rule over the majority of the inhabited Earth and are constantly engaged in war with each other. The book takes place solely in Oceania, in the city and outskirts of London.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a common office worker of Oceania who, by the time the book opens in April, 1984, has been growing more and more dissatisfied with the Party’s rule. He has begun to take little risks which could get him into serious trouble with the Thought Police, a government agency which spies on the people to ensure that their thoughts and actions are “orthodox” or “goodthinking”. For example, he has started to keep a journal, which is prohibited, and has visited a non-Party shop, which the Party discourages.

Winston, while feeling that his negative opinions of the Party and of Big Brother, its fabled and probably non-existent leader, are perfectly justified, is well aware that he must keep them to himself or risk imprisonment, torture, and execution. He is especially terrified of a young female Party member, who appears to be snooping on him. Days after he first takes note of her, he meets her by chance in the streets and, momentarily terrified that she will report him to the Thought Police, contemplates killing her. The next day he comes face to face with her in the halls of the Ministry of Truth, his workplace, where he is shocked by her revelation that she is actually in love with him. After devising how to arrange a meeting, he and the woman, Julia, meet regularly to make love for several months before being discovered, imprisoned, and “cured” of their “insanity,” i.e. crimes against the Party discipline.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is known primarily for its description of a ruthlessly efficient totalitarian state: “Big Brother is watching you,” Newspeak, the Thought Police, unpersons, and the telescreen[1]. In The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a book-within-a-book supposedly authored by Oceania’s public-enemy-number-one Emmanuel Goldstein, it is described how science and technology have nearly disappeared except where they are relevant to police espionage and surveillance.

To read Nineteen Eighty-Four merely as an exaggerated criticism of the Soviet Union, the real-life government of which closely resembled the Party, or as a critique of totalitarian government, however, is to overlook a far more fascinating aspect of the book: its discussions of the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of the Party. The Party’s official ideology is called “Ingsoc,” a Newspeak word which is a contraction of “English Socialism.” Newspeak is itself a core element of Ingsoc: according to an orthodox Party member, “Ingsoc is Newspeak and Newspeak is Ingsoc.” The other core aspect of Ingsoc is doublethink.

Newspeak is a constructed language based on standard English, but cut down to the bone and eviscerated of all shades of meaning and subtlety, as well as all concepts such as equality, freedom, independence, and individuality. The ultimate purposes of Newspeak are to short-circuit thinking, and more importantly to make “unorthodox” thoughts or “thoughtcrime” actually unthinkable by eliminating from the language the words that express them.

Doublethink, referred to even by Party members as “reality control,” is a mental device by which Party members simultaneously hold two contradictory beliefs. As regards the people, doublethink neutralizes their knowledge of the dull life they are forced to lead; while they see and recognize the gray, colorless London skyline, the collapsing 19th century apartment complexes, and even the forgeries they are committing for the Party in their office jobs, they also believe that it is not so, and know that it is not so. As regards the government, doublethink, as explained in Goldstein’s book, allows the government to hold sufficient knowledge of the atrocities and deceptions they are committing in order to commit them properly, while also allowing them to believe that their atrocities are virtuous and their deceptions truth.

Described as “a vast system of mental cheating” and a dislocation of the “sense of reality,” doublethink is the more striking of the two major elements of Ingsoc. The “ultimate subtlety,” according to Winston, is the application of doublethink to doublethink itself. Meaning, the good “doublethinker” is unaware that he is even using doublethink- or rather, he is aware so as to be able to complete the process, but unaware so that he does not suffer a guilty conscience for deceiving himself. O’Brien, the Party member who interrogates Winston and helps him to become “sane” during his stay in prison, is a master of doublethink: for example, he believes that the stars are both little balls of fire a few kilometers away, and distant heavenly bodies thousands of kilometers away.

Ingsoc has one more feature, which is related to doublethink but also distinct. It is the denial of objective reality, or “collective solipsism.” Ingsoc teaches that whatever the records (which are continually forged and brought up to date) say and the Party agrees on is true, and furthermore has always been true. Thus, though Oceania’s allies in the perpetual war change three times over the course of the book, when Oceania happens to be at war with Eurasia, “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.” However, even the war is unnecessary, as the Party could collectively write Eurasia and Eastasia off the records, and forget they ever existed. They would then need only to utilize doublethink- forget they had forgotten- and the world would be dominated by Oceania. A more ludicrous example of the denial of reality is displayed by O’Brien, who believes that he can float off the ground like a soap bubble, if he so chooses.

These philosophical foundations of the Party’s government and politics are the less discussed, and yet more memorable elements of Nineteen Eighty-Four. They are also the more relevant part of the book in our time. People know when they are being enslaved, but they are not so aware when their minds and thought processes are being tampered with. The way to prevent the rise of Big Brother today is primarily through use of logic, mental rigor, and a good memory. Big Brother will be made helpless if we can simply tell him, “But we haven’t always been at war with Eurasia.”

 [1] Telescreens are a technologically superior variation of the television which can simultaneously transmit propaganda to the people, and monitor the people at every moment.