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George Orwell

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Learn about themes in George Orwell's novel 1984 with Course Hero's video study guide.

1984 | Themes


Class Struggle

The novel explores the theme of class struggle. Orwell supported democratic socialism as a way to fight against oppression of the working class. He saw totalitarianism as a huge danger in countries where socialism was the party line, but the reality was much harsher. Winston speaks often of the need to mobilize the proles, the working class in the novel, against the Party. The Party controls the middle class and has them convinced that the proles are at the same level as animals. This keeps the middle class and the proles from joining forces. Winston belongs to the middle class, which has no control or power over anything in their lives, and he knows the higher class enjoys privileges he can't have. At some level Winston believes that the proles enjoy freedom because they are ignored by the Party.

Freedom versus Oppression

Orwell wrote 1984 in reaction to the rise of totalitarian governments such as Joseph Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, anyone perceived as an enemy of the government was executed or condemned to forced labor.

In fictionalizing what can happen under a regime that monopolizes all power, Orwell includes techniques he saw in totalitarian regimes usurping power in Europe. Limiting the press was necessary so that the only "truth" one heard was propaganda spread by the state. Poverty was widespread, and scarcity was imposed. As Emmanuel Goldstein explains in "the book," even when there is no scarcity of material goods, artificial scarcity must be created because an underfed, poor, weak population is easier to rule over than one that lives with all they need.

Orwell's intent in this cautionary tale is twofold: to disparage totalitarian regimes such as that of Stalin and Hitler and to warn future readers about the possibility of takeover by intolerant, antidemocratic regimes that constrain individual freedoms and thought. Orwell seems to be saying, "Be vigilant. Hold onto what you know to be true. Remember the past. Recognize the lies."

Fear and Hate as Means of Control

In 1984 Orwell examines the sneaky ways governments create fear and hate among their people. Orwell shows how fear and hate, which are natural emotions everyone experiences, are ramped up by politicians, subgroups, and governments in order to gain or hold onto power. Propaganda is used to convince people that they need to be afraid and that hatred is the correct response to alleviate that fear. With enough media exposure, the people can be convinced of anything. The telescreens in Orwell's novel subject the people to nearly constant exposure to verbal propaganda.

One way in which the Party incites fear and hatred is with the ritual of Two Minutes Hate, which the narrator describes as "an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise." The effect of the ritual, and the obvious intent of the Party, is to work the populace into a mad frenzy—to blame their troubles on a distant enemy, to build solidarity in the face of a bleak world where things keep turning darker, to tell themselves that someone else is to blame, and to believe that their own culture is the only positive society in the world.

Individual Thought versus Mind Control

Individual thought requires freedom of expression, and the richer the language, the more choices a person has to express nuance and specificity. Winston's colleague Syme, an orthodox member of the Outer Party, is helping to create the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary. The purpose is to eliminate words from the language, thereby reducing the range of consciousness, limiting original thinking, and controlling both the thoughts and the behavior of its speakers. With each edition more words are dropped from the dictionary. Syme looks forward to a time when there will be no thought because there will be no words to express them. "Orthodoxy," he says, "means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." This is the ultimate form of mind control.

One day, Syme explains, reading classic literature will be impossible. No one will understand the words because they won't exist. Even having a conversation like the one he and Winston are having will be impossible, and Party slogans will need to change. "How," he asks, can you "have a slogan like 'freedom is slavery' when the concept of freedom has been abolished?"

Not only is speaking out against the government repressed and overt rebellion punished, but people are not even allowed to think anti-Party thoughts. Thoughtcrime can be detected by a lukewarm expression during calisthenics (facecrime) or a less-than-enthusiastic expression of hatred when a convoy of prisoners passes by. The only allowable thoughts are the ones that the Party instills, and most of those thoughts are lies. But if someone in power tells a lie often enough, and no dissenting voices come forward, people begin to believe the lie.

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