1984

by: George Orwell

Themes

Main ideas Themes

Language as Mind Control

One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984 is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing. If control of language were centralized in a political agency, Orwell proposes, such an agency could possibly alter the very structure of language to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because there would be no words with which to think them. This idea manifests itself in the language of Newspeak, which the Party has introduced to replace English. The Party is constantly refining and perfecting Newspeak, with the ultimate goal that no one will be capable of conceptualizing anything that might question the Party’s absolute power.

Interestingly, many of Orwell’s ideas about language as a controlling force have been modified by writers and critics seeking to deal with the legacy of colonialism. During colonial times, foreign powers took political and military control of distant regions and, as a part of their occupation, instituted their own language as the language of government and business. Postcolonial writers often analyze or redress the damage done to local populations by the loss of language and the attendant loss of culture and historical connection.

Loyalty

In 1984, the Party seeks to ensure that the only kind of loyalty possible is loyalty to the Party. The reader sees examples of virtually every kind of loyalty, from the most fundamental to the most trivial, being destroyed by the Party. Neighbors and coworkers inform on one another, and Mr. Parson’s own child reports him to the Thought Police. Winston’s half-remembered marriage to his wife fell apart with no sense of loyalty. Even the relationship between customer and merchant is perverted as Winston learns that the man who has sold him the very tools of his resistance and independence was a member of the Thought Police. Winston’s relationship with Julia is the ultimate loyalty that is tested by the events of the book. In Book Two: Chapter VII, Winston tells Julia, “if they could make me stop loving you—that would be the real betrayal.” In the end, the Party does make Winston stop loving Julia and love Big Brother instead, the only form of loyalty allowed.

Resistance and Revolution

In 1984, Winston explores increasingly risky and significant acts of resistance against the Party. In Book One: Chapter VII, Winston observes that “rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word.” Winston builds up these minor rebellions by committing personal acts of disobedience such as keeping a journal and buying a decorative paperweight. Eventually he escalates his rebellion through his sexual relationship with Julia. The relationship is a double rebellion, as it includes the thoughtcrime of desire. Winston doesn’t believe his actions or the actions of others will lead to the destruction of the Party within his lifetime, but before he is caught by the Thought Police he holds out hope that in the future someone will be able to look back at Winston’s time from a world that is free.

Winston’s most concrete hope for actual revolution against the Party lies with the social underclass of the city, called the proles. He observes that the proles already have far greater numbers than the Party and that the proles have the strength to carry out a revolution if they could ever organize themselves. The problem is that the proles have been subject to such serious poverty for so long that they are unable to see past the goal of survival. The very notion of trying to build a better world is too much for them to contemplate. All of these observations are set against the backdrop of the Party’s own identity as the product of revolution. According to Winston, the Party was created during the mid-1960s during a revolution that overthrew the existing British social order. The Party claims that the Revolution has not yet ended and that it will be fulfilled once they have complete control.

Independence and Identity

While the Party’s primary tool for manipulating the populace is the control of history, they also control independence and identity. For example, the basic traits of establishing one’s identity are unavailable to Winston and the other citizens of Oceania. Winston does not know how old he is. He does not know whether he is married or not. He does not know whether his mother is alive or dead. None of his childhood memories are reliable, because he has no photos or documents to help him sort real memories from imagined ones. Instead of being unique individuals with specific, identifying details, every member of the Outer Party is identical. All Party members wear the same clothing, smoke the same brand of cigarettes, drink the same brand of gin, and so forth. As such, forming a sense of individual identity is not only psychologically challenging, but logistically difficult.