1984 as a Dystopia

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

Is 1984 still a dystopia in 2016? In this lesson, we'll explore the sociopolitical context and themes of George Orwell's novel and discover how ''Nineteen Eighty-Four'' reflected and influenced 20th-century culture.

The Future world(?): Oceania in 1984

Two related literary traditions that focus on describing the future have inspired authors who believe bright and better times are coming and writers who have little hope about what lies ahead. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four belongs to the second category. It's a dystopian novel, which means that Orwell speculates on how the future might turn out by emphasizing the ways a present situation could turn ugly. Unlike utopias and utopian fiction, which imagine a perfect and idealized society, dystopias dramatize the many ways things could go wrong. War could break out. The government could watch us on a massive surveillance system. People could lose the right of free speech and censorship could make propaganda indistinguishable from the news.

All of these things come true in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. The novel is bleak, gloomy and pessimistic. This society Orwell portrays is ruled by fear. In Oceania, there is no freedom to speak of. It's the textbook example of dystopian society. Orwell re-imagines world geography and remaps the borders of countries. He establishes a perpetual war between three giant nations: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The first, Oceania, consists of the Americas and England, where the novel is set. The state is controlled by a totalitarian regime known as ''The Party,'' and an all-seeing law enforcement entity referred to as ''Big Brother.''

Fictional map depicting the national borders in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Countries in pink refer to Oceania.
1984 map

While the novel's title suggests a future setting (it was written in 1948), Orwell merely reversed the numbers. What if 1984 isn't the future? What if it's a state of mind? Orwell wrote the novel during and just after World War II which had devastated England and created a pessimistic climate. The prescience of the novel is that it doesn't describe a distant dystopian future -- its setting is pretty close to home.

Propaganda and Surveillance

Big Brother is Watching you: if this doesn't sound sinister to you at first, speak it aloud in a menacing voice. Nineteen Eighty-four has had such a strong impact on the concept of dystopia that any society involved in propaganda, censorship and surveillance are often referred to as Orwellian. The Patriot Act, an American national security program that included surveillance, was launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and made it legal for the government to invade the privacy of its citizens. This sort of policy can be described as Orwellian because it extinguishes certain civil liberties.

The idea that a state of constant surveillance creates a sense of paranoia is part of Panopticism, a social theory developed by French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault. Drawing on the architectural design of Jeremy Bentham's prison, the Panopticon, Foucault posits that societies are ruled by inflicting a sense of control on their subjects. In the ideal Panopticon, the watchtower is empty. Society functions because people are aware that they are being watched. But if they can't see the person who might be watching, they will live in a constant state of fear.

Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba
panopticon

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