“Big Brother is watching you,” George Orwell famously warns us in his dystopian novel 1984. One wonders what Orwell—who was born 115 years ago today—would think of contemporary society. It’s 2018, but 1984 has remained incredibly relevant, despite the fact that the year 1984 has long come and gone.
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What caused Orwell to write 1984 in the first place?
World War II had just ended, yet the horrors of the war were still fresh, and many feared the threat of warring totalitarian states. Some 50 million people had perished during World War II, infrastructure throughout Europe had been destroyed, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been devastated by the atomic bomb—which threatened the end of civilization and made the future look bleak.
That’s the world Eric Arthur Blair, otherwise known by his pen name, George Orwell, was living in when he started work on 1984. Then in 1945, his wife died during a routine operation, leaving Orwell a single father filled with grief. Shortly after, a friend offered his remote estate in Scotland to Orwell, where he moved in 1946 and began writing feverishly—almost literally.
After the success of his previous novel, Animal Farm, his publisher set a deadline, looking to capitalize on Orwell’s fame. Suffering from poor health, Orwell was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1947 but continued to write and published the book in 1949. Despite its popularity, Orwell declined in health and died in 1950—just seven months after 1984’s release.
Yet the legacy of 1984 lives on. Orwell was fascinated with the relationship between morality and language and how language could control and change thought. He invented terms like “newspeak” and “doublethink,” and “Orwellian” is still used to describe anything oppressive or totalitarian. For example, in 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had been surveilling cell phones, 1984 was continually referenced in news reports.