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1984 Literary Criticism & Critical Analysis

Instructor: Brooke Sheridan

Brooke has an MA/MFA English literature and creative writing. She teaches college composition and world literature.

This lesson offers a broad overview, summarizing George Orwell's novel, '1984,' and also offering a broad analysis of some of the major themes and characters in the novel.

Introduction: Welcome to the Dystopia

Big Brother is Watching You. Freedom is Slavery. Two and Two Make Five. Any of this sound familiar? Chances are you've heard expressions like these used in media and in everyday conversation, and they all come from George Orwell's 1949 dystopian novel, 1984.

Understanding 1984 begins with understanding the term 'dystopian,' and how it is represented in fiction. A dystopian novel is about, very essentially, a world where the bad guys are winning. Much of dystopian fiction--think of Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games, and The Giver, owes a debt to 1984.

Welcome to Airstrip One

Orwell's dystopia takes place on the island we know as Great Britain, but which has come to be known in 1984 as Airstrip One. Airstrip One is part of a larger conglomeration of countries known as Oceania, and is understood to be at perpetual war with one of the other two major conglomerations on earth: Eurasia, or Eastasia. All that is happening on the larger scale while we follow a period of activity and change in the life of one man, Winston Smith. It is through Winston's eyes that the reader learns of Big Brother.

In the novel, Big Brother exists as a face on a poster, often accompanied by the text 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.' We learn that nearly every moment of Winston's life is under surveillance, either by the people around him or by the omni-present telescreens, which are sort of a two-way television that can be watched, but through which authorities can watch and listen to you, too.

Big Brother is Watching You

Big Brother, in regularly televised speeches, rails against the enemy known as Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein is purported to be the writer of a revolutionary manifesto and founder of The Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization. Like Big Brother, Winston and the people of Oceania never actually see Goldstein.

Winston finds himself very subtly subverting some of the rules of Oceania simply by keeping a journal, or indulging in thoughts against the Inner Party, which is how top members of Oceania's government are known. Winston also begins to suspect that a high-ranking Party member, O'Brien, is secretly part of The Brotherhood.

Welcome to the Revolution

While Winston's so-called subversions may seem insignificant, they would be downright revolutionary if the Thought Police got wind of them. Winston does his best to keep his thought crimes to himself, but is ultimately drawn into an illicit and dangerous affair with Julia.

Winston had observed Julia at work before, but her apparent fervor her work and for the rules leads Winston to believe initially that she's a rabid supporter of The Party. He soon learns that fervor is a facade Julia employs to hide her true distrust and loathing of Big Brother and the entire Party culture. Winston and Julia establish a secret meeting place in the poor, less-strictly monitored quarter of the city. They meet when they can to make love and to share their feelings against the Party.

Welcome to the End

Alas! Their occasional freedom, such as it is, ends abruptly when the Thought Police crash into their secret hideaway, and they learn they've been monitored all along. Winston and Julia are sent to the deeper recesses of the ironically-named Ministry of Love, a government building known to be the place where thought criminals were 'dealt with.' Winston himself knew more than a few people who went to the Ministry of Love, and ultimately disappeared.

While imprisoned, Winston learns that O'Brien is most definitely not a member of the Brotherhood, and it is O'Brien who leads the interrogation and torture of Winston. Throughout much of his detention, Winston holds on to a thread of belief in his own sense of self, in the dangers of Big Brother, until the physical and psychological torture become too much for him. He attempts to shift the punishment to Julia--whom, until this point he had been protecting--and this is the act that breaks Winston. O'Brien has won, and Winston really and truly now loves Big Brother.

Important Themes

Control is the theme to really pay attention to in 1984. It's everywhere! The Party rewrites history daily, according to whatever version will best support its current goals. Winston's job, in fact, is to receive revisions (which are described by The Party as error corrections) and then seek out all historical records referencing the information and 'correct' the source. But this is fairly low-level manipulation. The real control comes from the idea of thought crimes, and the Party's ability to make the population believe that even their thoughts are not their own, and that subversion, even in the form of an idea, will be detected and punished. This type of government is known as Totalitarian, and an extreme form, where the government believes in its right to control all aspects of the lives of the governed.

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