George Orwell

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1984 | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In 1984 how is Victory Mansions, the name of Winston's apartment building, an example of verbal irony?

Verbal irony occurs when what is said or written conveys a meaning that is the opposite of the reality. Nothing about Winston's apartment building reflects an atmosphere of victory or the plush life of a mansion. The hallways smell of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. The elevator seldom works. Winston has to help his neighbor with her plumbing, and the narrator tells us, "These amateur repair jobs were an almost daily irritation." Readers are told the old flats are falling to pieces. Even if the reader assumes that the word victory applies to the victory of the Party in obtaining power in the Revolution, the building doesn't represent power because a truly powerful ruling government should be able to provide its citizens with livable conditions.

In 1984 Winston secretly writes in a diary purchased at an antique shop, where he also bought his pen. What is the significance of this act?

Readers learn a lot about the world of 1984 under Big Brother when Winston writes in his diary. Because Winston had to buy both his diary and the pen (the narrator describes it as an "archaic instrument") at an antique store, readers learn that writing must be a thing of the past. The pen and the diary are from a time when human memory and reflection were meaningful. In Winston's time memories cannot be considered reliable. The past is rewritten daily to fulfill the mandate of the party. If an individual records his or her own memories, he or she is creating a record the Party cannot control. The narrator tells readers that, while nothing is illegal, Winston's act, if detected, could be punishable by death. Indeed, as Winston writes he trembles. He has moved into an alcove out of the sight of the telescreen so he is writing in secret, yet he's still scared. This shows how obtrusive and oppressive this world is. People are fearful even when they know they are silent and out of sight. It's not really paranoia because Winston really is being watched. Winston, and most likely anyone conscious enough to want to rebel, feels helpless. Winston doesn't know to whom he is writing. There isn't much hope, or any hope for change in this world, because Winston tells readers that, regardless of whether he writes anything down, he is committing thoughtcrime. Thus, readers learn that even thinking thoughts like "Down with Big Brother," which Winston writes, will lead to his arrest and vaporization. Winston's action shows readers that there is no freedom in 1984, not even freedom of thought, and certainly no freedom to disagree, let alone act, against the rule of Big Brother.

In 1984 the story unfolds from Winston Smith's point of view. Is Winston a reliable or an unreliable narrator?

Readers must believe that Winston's perception of people and events is accurate to understand the oppressiveness of 1984's totalitarian regime. However, Winston emerges as an unreliable narrator as the plot unfolds. His interpretations of the other characters are clouded by his desire to rebel and find independence. Readers learn about the other characters, especially O'Brien and Julia, through Winston's eyes. If Winston is deceived by a character or if he does not have enough information to judge a person or situation correctly, readers are just as much in the dark. For example, when O'Brien enters Winston's cell in the Ministry of Love, readers are likely to believe Winston's cry of "They've got you too!" and to be shocked, along with Winston, by O'Brien's reply, "They got me a long time ago."

Explain the purposes of the four ministries in 1984 and what they reveal about life under Big Brother.

In Chapter 1 of Book 1, readers learn the names of the four ministries into which the government of Oceania is divided. Readers are told what each ministry ostensibly concerns itself with, but even in Chapter 1 it becomes clear that, like the name of Winston's apartment building, Victory Mansions, these names are deceptive. The Ministry of Truth is in charge of the news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts, but in later chapters it becomes apparent that this ministry is really in charge of untruth, as one of its main functions is to rewrite history to suit the current desires of the Party. The Ministry of Plenty is seemingly charged with economic affairs, but even in Chapter 1 readers see that there is no "plenty," only scarcity. This ministry arranges rationing and distribution of goods. Although there are likely resources enough to support the population, scarcity is imposed to maintain control and to avoid movement between classes. If those in the middle class could acquire property and luxuries, they might aspire to the high class, or Inner Party. The Ministry of Peace is straightforwardly in charge of war; readers are told as much in Chapter 1. This echoes the platitude of "peace through strength" in the real world. This ministry dictates which foreign powers are currently the enemy and the ally. The Ministry of Love is in charge of law and order, but this is, in fact, the most frightening ministry of all. Later in the novel, readers find out that the Ministry of Love's true function is to torture dissidents until they are empty shells who adhere to the orthodox party line like automatons. The four ministries reveal to readers the depth of oppression, deception, and paranoia that is inherent under Big Brother.

In 1984 what does Orwell imply about social conformity in the "Two Minutes Hate" scene?

During the Two Minutes Hate ritual, the citizens of Oceania are encouraged to be afraid of whichever figure is denigrated on the screen and to accept whatever the government presents as the solution to that fear. The face of Big Brother appears on the screen at the end of this ritual, and the gathered group starts to chant "B-B! ... B-B!" in adoration of their leader. Orwell implies that the Party can use humans' tendency toward social conformity to keep people in line. It is dangerous to rebel in a group situation. The Party is therefore able to control not only how people feel about the enemy of the moment but their attitude toward Big Brother and the Party as well.

In 1984 England is known as "Airstrip One." What does this name suggest?

In 1984 England is renamed "Airstrip One" to strip away any sense of patriotism to a particular country. The name Airstrip One has the sound of a military outpost, a place more interested in war and technology than human life, culture, and beauty. It also suggests that England and other nations that have become part of Oceania are now all just landing spaces. They are all alike except for their number, not individual countries with cultural differences.

In Chapter 2 of 1984, Winston surreptitiously writes in a diary, yet he believes his diary will not survive. Why is he writing it?

Winston asks how anyone can pass on their real thoughts to future generations if their words are destroyed or changed to fit the Party's version of the truth. So he writes in a diary to try to preserve his thoughts, even though he considers himself "a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear." Winston decides that, in order to spread the truth, as long as he "uttered it," in some way, "the continuity" is not broken—at least it exists somewhere for a while. Some shred of original human thought from before the Revolution will survive and carry on the human heritage, even if it is simply written and never read. Winston's job at work is to destroy the past, literally, but he is still tortured by his knowledge of the past, which he can't forget. With his diary Winston is recording a version of events that, while he is alive, cannot be changed to fit the Party narrative. This is a profound act of rebellion and of hope.

How was 1984 relevant to Orwell's contemporaries, and how is it relevant to modern readers?

Orwell wrote for his contemporaries about the dangers of totalitarian regimes such as those in Nazi Germany, which ended four years before 1984 was published, and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, who was still in power. Both systems of government diminished the value of the individual for the better of the collective. Totalitarian regimes still exist in the 21st century, and even democratic governments use methods similar to those in the novel to oppress and spy on their citizens, suppress original thought, and maintain power. The novel's relevance has not diminished over time.

In 1984 how does the Party control both the past and the future?

In 1984 history is constantly rewritten in the offices of the Ministry of Truth. People who remember the past that the Party erases are also erased by being vaporized. By controlling the past, the Party can frame the society it has created as the best one ever to have existed, and there isn't anyone left to argue the point. For example, the Party portrays capitalism (the political and economic system that Ingsoc and Big Brother replaced) as one in which scarcity and oppression were worse than they are now. Of course capitalism had (and still has) problems, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the Party portrays it. This sentiment echoes the point of view of the Soviet Union, which demonized capitalism and celebrated the strength of the collective. Describing capitalism the way the Party does convinces a docile citizenry that totalitarianism is far better than capitalism and that Big Brother takes care of them by watching their every move. If the people know the truth about the past, they would argue with this version of history. Controlling the past also allows the Party to depict Big Brother as infallible. It can erase any misjudgment Big Brother may have made in the past. Revisions of the past, at the Ministry of Truth, do just that.

In 1984 how is Newspeak used to brainwash people?

Newspeak is used to replace Oldspeak, or plain English. Any word in Newspeak is negated with the addition of "un." This instant negation reduces all language to pro/con or positive/negative. This clear distinction between what is right and wrong is key to controlling the middle class and maintaining power. In Chapter 5 of Book 1, Winston's coworker Syme, who is working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary, says that the purpose of decreasing the number of words in the language is to reduce an individual's range of consciousness. Having only a few words in which to express ideas and not having the freedom of subtlety and connotation limits expression. Newspeak also gradually erases the past, because eventually there will be no one left who understands Oldspeak. All literature from the past will be meaningless.

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