Motifs in 1984

Instructor: Brooke Sheridan

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

This lesson looks at how George Orwell uses the motifs of information control, thought control, and the relative freedom of the proletariat to support the primary themes in his novel 1984. After you learn about these motifs in the story, you can test your new knowledge with a quiz!

Information Control

A major theme driving George Orwell's 1984 is the totalitarian government under which the main character, Winston Smith, lives. If you need a refresher, totalitarianism is a type of system in which the government exercises complete control over its citizens. To help create the oppressive sense of this totalitarian government, Orwell employs information control. The Party, the inner circle of government big-wigs, dictates the information that reaches the citizens of Oceania, one of the fictional superpowers of the novel, and in fact changes that information whenever it suits their cause. These changes include manipulating history itself by revising newspapers, textbooks, newsreels, and any other information delivery system that we might otherwise think of as fixed and unchanging.

But why? The Party must know that the citizens can remember who they're at war with, for example. But The Party changes this information occasionally: Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Except...weren't we at war with Eastasia last week? Of course the citizens remember. What matters is that they don't question the information The Party presents, because they know the consequences are dire. That is how information control fuels The Party's power. The Party's ability to deliver conflicting information without recognizing the conflict is called doublethink.

An example of The Party

Thought Control

The Party's totalitarian power is further supported by near-constant surveillance in the form of telescreens, the thought police, and even children used as junior spies. Through the eyes of Winston Smith, the reader realizes that the citizens of Oceania live and work in the omnipresence of telescreens, which people can watch, but which can also watch them right back. It can also hear what they're saying, as can hidden microphones all over the city. With this type of surveillance, along with the thought police, citizens learn that even the simplest change in facial expression can trigger suspicion. With that level of scrutiny, it's best to control your thoughts, to learn to obey The Party and to love Big Brother, the leader of Oceania. In these ways, The Party again is using fear as a form of control--citizens 'choose' to control their thoughts, but only because they have no other choice. The Party may not be directly tapping into the brains of the citizens of Oceania like telepathic aliens out of Star Trek, but they might as well be.

In totalitarian Oceania, TV watches you!

The Party also attempts to control thought through the manipulation of language. Orwell introduces Newspeak, a language system based on English but severely restricted. For example, multiple superlatives do not exist in Newspeak, so the words 'wonderful' 'extraordinary' or 'fabulous' have been eliminated. Instead, the word would be 'doubleplusgood' in Newspeak--and nothing else. The government's simplification of language is also an attempt to simplify human thought by eliminating words and ideas that exist in the gray areas. It is easier for The Party to exist in absolutes: good or bad, yes or no, obedience or subversion.

The Relative Freedom of the Proletariat

Winston and his lover Julia find a temporary reprieve from the oppression of The Party in the poor quarters of town where the proletariat citizens live. These people are working class, and far less subject to the surveillance and thought control of the government. As Winston watches these people go about their lives--poor as they may be--he comes to believe that a future free from Big Brother and The Party is in the hands of the proletariat. The government lulls its outer-party citizens (like Winston) into believing they are being taken care of by being housed, fed, clothed, etc., while the proletariat languish in poverty.

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