Themes in 1984

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
George Orwell's novel ''1984'' addresses many important themes that are still relevant to today's readers. In this lesson, explore some of those themes.

What Is A Theme?

A theme in literature is not that different from the theme of a party, really; a theme in a work of literature is just a main idea discussed in a work, whether it's discussed literally or figuratively. Much like the theme of a party, a work can be built around the discussion of that theme. A piece of literature can definitely have more than one theme, though, as you'll discover in this lesson.

In 1984, there are plenty of different themes at work throughout the novel. George Orwell uses the text to draw attention to issues he felt were extremely relevant at the time: surveillance, censorship, and nationalism, to name a few.

The novel
1984 cover image


The idea of surveillance, or observation, is everywhere in 1984. The citizens of Oceania are under constant watch by the government, whether by the police or telescreens. And that's no exaggeration. Imagine living in a world where you have absolutely no privacy. You're watched from the moment you wake up, to the moment you...well, no, you're actually watched as you sleep, too. You're watched at work, at meal times, and even in the bathroom. Imagine there are also posters plastered all over the place telling you that this surveillance is okay, with slogans like 'Big Brother Is Watching You.' Imagine that this government surveillance is so ingrained in you that the idea of privacy, of being alone, is completely foreign.

Sounds terrible, doesn't it? This is the world Orwell crafted for his novel, because he feared the direction society moved toward with the beginning of the Cold War. The world in the novel is an exaggeration of government surveillance, at least at the time the book was written - not so much in the age of the NSA - but with this terrifying world in which nobody can have privacy of any kind, Orwell begs you to pay attention to the world around you. It's a cautionary tale, a vision of what might happen, should governments insist on infringing upon the rights of the individual.


Censorship is another major theme of 1984. Censorship is the act of suppressing questionable or objectionable material, usually done on political or moral grounds. Censorship, like surveillance, appears pretty much everywhere throughout the novel, so much so that it almost becomes mundane to a reader. The extremely controlling government of Oceania wants more than physical control over its citizens. So how do you obtain that, and how do you keep it? For starters, you control the flow of information. You control novels, fine art - the Ministry of Truth, or the propaganda bureau, takes care of this, and even rewrites old poetry so it glorifies Big Brother - and you also, most importantly, control historical documents.

While you might think of censorship as protecting people from offensive material (like a group of parents getting together to ban a book from a school library), what the Ministry of Truth does throughout 1984 is censorship, too. In rewriting historical events, they're censoring things that have already happened in order to maintain their power. The government also erases people completely from existence once they've been killed, which is another type of censorship. The government George Orwell created runs on a hyped-up version of censorship, censorship on steroids, because they never allow potentially damaging material to exist long enough to hurt them. It's an impressively well-oiled machine, you have to admit.


You've probably heard about the idea of nationalism from history class. It's basically an extreme form of patriotism, a blind, unquestioning belief that whatever your own country does is right. Well, George Orwell, who lived through World War II, saw the terrifying consequences of blind, extreme nationalism during that conflict. He included several (very scary) examples of nationalism in 1984, and the novel expands on several of the ideas he poses in his 1945 essay 'Notes on Nationalism'.

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