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“In all the useful arts the world is either standing still or going backwards.” – George Orwell
The literary quake that engulfed the world seventy-years ago resonates with an inspired frightening intensity in present day society. The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four written by George Orwell, was completed in June 1949, became his ninth and final piece of work completed in his lifetime. Orwell died the following January at the age-of-46 from a burst artery following a long battle with tuberculosis. How he would view our modern twenty-first century idealism is questionable, then again those familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four would assume he already has. Though George Orwell was no prophet, nor a Nostradamus figure of predictions. He was a journalist, who simply read the writing on the walls being built, and where it would all lead. However, not even Orwell with all his insight into the human condition and the politically fired mindset could he have predicted how his work would increase in significance. The influence within popular culture of this novel is staggering. Take for example the futuristic sci-fi 1974 album Diamond Dogs by David Bowie. This was originally planned as a concept work, centred on bringing Nineteen-Eighty-Four to the stage in the form of a theatrical adaptation. However, the Orwell estate turned down permission for the late Bowie to transform the book into such an extravagant affair. In 1984 respectively, thirty-five years ago, the midpoint of the novels release, Nineteen Eighty-Four hit the cinema screen. This adaptation by director Michael Radford, introduced a new generation to the work, and the importance of Orwell. The lead character of Winston, played by an electrifying John Hurt. More recently the popular The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) set of novels and later the television adaptation held some of the ideals of the oppressed population that Orwell pointed to.
To look into the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the very zeitgeist of a cultural icon, it is a map into government overreach and control. The attainment of power through the forceful breakdown of the human spirit and individualism is explored, creating a scenario similar to the moral investment of the Anthony Burgess work A Clockwork Orange (1961). The novel, set in a dystopian era 1984, within a world torn apart by war. With three totalitarian states Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania which now rule civilisation. The novel is set in Airstrip-One (United Kingdom) which is part of Oceania and under the watch of the cult-like Big Brother. The government, or the ‘Party’ as they are called have the single purpose of stamping out and silencing anyone who will not conform to their ideals. With the use of the Thought Police, or Thinkpol whose sole purpose is to act on any negative thinking, unapproved thoughts towards the party. There is the constant presence of surveillance (telescreens), recording and the techniques of hypnotic thought-suggestion keep the general public swayed to the Party’s ideology.
In this world of decay, the reader finds a protagonist in Winston Smith, a nobody in the cog of monotonous machinery. Winston works at the Ministry Of Truth, destroying records of history and rewriting them to the Party’s ever-changing needs. – “Who controls the past controls the future.”
Though it is Winston himself who starts to question the world around him, taking to writing down his thoughts and hatred towards the Party true- “Always in your stomach and in your skin there was… a feeling that you had been cheated of something you had a right to.” That is until he falls in love, a feeling and emotion that it is deemed illegal, as any physical contact is solely for reproductive purposes. Sex has now become a crime, just as love has. The very feeling that makes us human, is now a sacrilegious act deemed punishable.
“Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.”
Does Nineteen Eighty-Four still fit into the category of Dystopian?
The question of dystopian literature balances on the ideals that a government, in this case the Party oppress the public with acts to keep control while cleverly not letting the public know they are controlled. Further to that there are far reaching aspects to consider such as the control of information. Looking at how it is altered to mislead the general public, with further confusion through falsified information. Then it is the citizens themselves who are constantly watched (telescreens), it is only through constant surveillance that the government will know what the mindset of the general public is. Where the faults lie, and what needs to be changed. Of course this seeps into the privacy and rights to privacy as every move is invaded. Though the greatest tool is distraction, in a way similar to a magician performing a trick, he will keep you focused on one hand, so you do not notice what is in his other. Once the general public is distracted they do not notice, nor fight against the freedoms that are being stripped away from them. Finally, a destroying of an old way of life to bring about a new one, in destroying the old ways the government can also destroy old ideals. Under the veil of promises of a new set of principles, the old ones perish.
All of this, in light of modern culture points to mankind knocking on the dystopian door. Are we controlled? Are we now all Winston Smith?
In some respects, yes! The basis of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how society is controlled, either by relaying our greatest fears (Room 101) to change our mindset. How we are watched via the obvious over reliance on social media distracts us then Facebook HQ is Big Brother and who controls Facebook is the Party (government, billionaire etc.). Our brains are diluted with questionable propaganda through the spread of information on a news feed. Granted, not to single any one social media base out as they are all possible of spreading misinformation. This causes confusion and splits sectors regarding topics, but also distracts us from real events, real news. Of course the fears are always present surrounding how much of our online presence is watched. It may be a factor, but it is one society is happy to live with just to stay online. This flow of influence also alters past events, such as pointing fingers in obscure directions for the horrors of the past. Just like Winston Smith, should we turn against or question our masters we are re-programmed through fear (war, food shortages).
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” – Party Leader O’Brien
That fear is the oppressor of the twenty-first century, and that is what George Orwell pointed to, fear equals control. Whilst many are familiar with the aforementioned big screen adaptation, the book is the only way to absorb every ounce of the nightmare. In the movie, for whatever reason, they changed the ending, and in some ways misinterpreted the true meaning. In the movie adaptation after Winston is released from rehabilitation, his final scene hears John Hurt whisper “I love you” with tears in his eyes pointing to his love for Julia or Big Brother. However, the novel is more clear cut and points to him loving solely Big Brother, but it is a more hope filled ending. To re-educate and break down the revolutionary mind of Winston Smith, the Party had to go to the extremes of interrogation, surveillance and effort. If everyone revolted at the same time then to re-educate every member of society would be impossible, that is unless they accept it of their own free will. It is better to say Orwell did not write a warning with Nineteen-Eighty-Four, instead he wrote the instruction manual on oppression, turning a novel into a weapon.