Could the world in 1984 ever really exist? This question haunts readers from the first to the last pages of Orwell’s novel. Sadly, the answer is ‘yes’; or at least Orwell hopes that readers will leave 1984 accepting the possibility enough to question government and tread cautiously into the future. Orwell intends to portray Oceania just realistically enough to convince contemporary readers that such a society has, in fact, existed and could exist again if people forget the lessons taught by history, or fail to guard against tyrannical, totalitarian governments. These two themes- totalitarianism and history-tie together the plot and messages in 1984.
Orwell sets his story in war-torn London. Thirty to forty bombs rain down on the city per week and everywhere Winston turns reminders of the war, such as the Two Minutes Hate and billboards plastered with Party slogans, color his existence. Deprivation, another bi-product of war, hangs in the air as heavily as the horrible grime and stench created by the city’s overcrowded tenements. Upon opening 1984, Orwell’s first readers, English people during the late 1940s, would have immediately recognized themselves. Having just emerged from WWII, Londoners would have intimately related to the deprivation and destruction portrayed in 1984.
However, while Winston placed full blame for his situation on the shoulders of Big Brother, Londoners would not have identified the cause of their misery as the British government. More likely, the British would have blamed Nazi Germany for starting the war and causing such chaos and devastation. Winston’s rebellion against Big Brother would have resonated with contemporary audiences because they too had recently struggled to defeat the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. While it is difficult to pinpoint the specific sparks that set off WWII, the people fighting in the Allied armies must clearly have believed that their collective mission was to crush totalitarianism and restore democracy around the world. Given this context, 1984’s political messages emerge unmistakably clear.
The Party is a totalitarian government. Neither the Outer Party nor the proles (proletariat) have any influence on the direction of their country or the rules that govern their lives. The Inner Party manipulates the media and infiltrates citizens’ private lives to gain complete control over every aspect of human existence, including love and sex. When the propaganda, deprivation, and rigid guidelines fail to convert someone to Party doctrine (INGSOC), the government uses torture to brainwash citizens. The fact that the Party must turn Winston into a walking zombie to finally crush his inner-revolt, reveals the Party’s ultimate frailty. Since the principles of INGSOC fail to inspire thinking people like Winston, the Party has no choice but to use extreme force and coercion to stay in power. Orwell calls upon his readers to recognize the evil and frailty of the Party and fight to prevent the spread of totalitarianism. While Orwell does not advocate for a specific alternative system, undercurrents of Socialism, Democracy, and Capitalism pervade.
“History” is another important theme in 1984. In many ways, Orwell’s novel reads like a history book. 1984warns readers that the Oceania universe will be the future, if people fail to learn the lessons revealed by major historical events and figures such as WWI, WWII, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini (to cite examples from Western and Eastern Europe). The Party understood the power of history. A citizenry educated to understand history would not allow the Party to survive. Thus, the Party eliminated nearly everyone who remembered the past before Big Brother, created a new, post-Big Brother history, then manipulated history through the Ministry of Truth so much that it was impossible to ever know what was happening or what had really happened.
It is ironic that Winston worked in the Ministry of Truth, changing historical facts to suit the Party. In a small way, Winston contributed to the collective amnesia that plagued Oceania, maintained order, and secured his own powerlessness. However, had Winston not worked in the Ministry of Truth, he would not have gotten the proof he needed to validate his subconscious and unconscious misgivings about the Party. In fact, had it not been for several articles about past rebels that crossed his desk, Winston’s internal rage would never have solidified into outward rebellion. It is also telling that Winston’s commits his first act of rebellion by writing in a diary. The act of recording his present circumstances constituted extreme disloyalty to the Party because Winston was actually documenting history. Totalitarian rulers throughout history, including Hitler and Pol Pot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia), destroyed books and exterminated journalists and intellectuals because they understood the power of documentation and history. While Orwell clearly shows that history is mutable, he also proves that this type of mutation leads to the death of culture and freedom.