1984

by: George Orwell

Setting

All of the events of the novel take place in a fictionalized version of London at some unspecified time in the future. Within the novel, London is the capitol of a province called Airstrip One, which is itself part of the nation of Oceania. Oceania is one of three world powers, and is composed of the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa. The other two world powers are Eastasia, composed of China, Japan, and parts of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet; and Eurasia, composed of the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait. We might assume from the title that the novel is set in the year 1984, but we never actually know for sure. Because of the way that the Ingsoc Party controls and rewrites history, Winston does not know what the year is, but only suspects that it is 1984.

The city of London is divided between three distinct social groups. The Inner Party lives in relative comfort with servants and access to luxury goods. The Outer Party, of which Winston is a member, lives in stark, dilapidated conditions with very little control over their personal space or property. The lowest social group, the proles, live in poorly maintained slums where the Party does not attempt to exert much control, but also does not provide support or opportunity. The city is dominated by four large mega-structures that represent the four ministries of the Party. The names of these departments are intentionally misleading and in fact the exact opposite of the function of each office. The Ministry of Love is in charge of law and punishment, the Ministry of Peace controls war, the Ministry of Plenty manages rationing, and the Ministry of Truth produces propaganda. A few remains of the real-world London of George Orwell’s time are mentioned, such as St. Clement’s Church, but only as crumbled ruins and reminders of an earlier and forgotten era.

The technology of 1984 is largely unchanged from the mid-twentieth century period when Orwell wrote the novel. Trucks, submachine guns, airplanes, and leg irons all seem identical to their real-world counterpoints. The novel also includes fictional technologies that work to serve Ingsoc’s manipulative goals. Versificators are large kaleidoscope-like machines that are used to generate fiction without the need for individual human authors. Memory holes are slots for depositing papers and other documents so that they can be immediately incinerated. Documents are destroyed to erase seditious material, but also to get rid of outdated documents that have been replaced with new versions of propaganda. Most famously, the world of 1984 includes the Telescreen, which functions as a two-way television, showing Party Members a constant stream of propaganda while simultaneously providing the Thought Police a way to watch every individual in the city. Telescreens represent, both symbolically and literally, the all-seeing eye of Big Brother and are synonymous with the quote, “Big Brother is watching you.”