Column | ‘1984’ has maintained its relevance for 75 years


Jacob Slabosz

A digital version of the Signet Classics cover of “1984” by George Orwell

By Jessie Wang, Assistant News Editor

Published on June 8th, 1949, George Orwell’s “1984” drew inspiration from political themes within World War II and Stalinism. Yet, 1984’s relevance remains timeless, even beyond the context in which the novel was first written.

Phrases such as “Orwellian”, “Big Brother ”, “2+2=5” and “doublethink” have entered popular vernacular, serving as indication of dystopian and totalitarian trends in society. The novel, banned in the Soviet Union until 1988 and symbolic of the measures that oppressive governments take to control its citizens, was (ironically) also the most popular fiction book in Russia in 2022.

“1984” takes place in the dystopian future of the year 1984. The state of Oceania, under the dictatorship of Big Brother and The Party, is constantly at war.

Winston Smith — the protagonist — is employed by the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda arm of the regime. Smith’s job is to revise historical records to match the state’s version of history, although he secretly engages in “thoughtcrime” as he dreams of rebellion.

Smith begins a romantic entanglement with Julia, another employee at the Ministry of Truth, who expresses a similar dislike of those in power. The two join a revolutionary group, known as the Brotherhood, and are caught by the government.

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After brutal torture, Winston’s “re-education” by the Ministry of Love is deemed successful after he betrays Julia and swears loyalty to the Party. The novel ends with Winston welcoming his newfound love for Big Brother.

It’s easy to draw parallels between 1984 and current times.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is described as a “special military operation” by state controlled media; China’s social credit system, aimed to rank a person’s trustworthiness, surveilles all aspects of someone’s life; North Korea’s generational dictatorship, built around the Kim family’s cult of personality, claims that late dictator Kim Jong Il invented the burrito in 2011.

However, the west is not exempt from Orwell’s commentary. Climate change, economic distress and social unrest have created uncertainty, resulting in the rise of fascism and right-wing extremism.

Politicians exploit this uncertainty to unite people toward the perceived cause for their problems — immigrants, minorities, Jews and others… In 1984, Winston is left questioning if Emmanuel Goldstein, a vilified former Party member, is a manufactured propaganda tool or truly a real threat.

Fundamentally, though, 1984 concerns our relationship to truth.

In the novel, truth is a flimsy matter. The Party’s slogan: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery”, is at face value, a paradox.

Referred to as “doublethink”, blatant lies became so commonplace in 1984, and are repeated so often, that they are eventually accepted as truth. Truth serves as a mechanism for control. Not only for controlling the state’s narrative, but for something far more dangerous — controlling ideas and thoughts.

1984 is often called a pessimistic novel; However, its pessimism serves as a warning. What we accept and believe to be true is ultimately up to us. Orwell is asking us to choose wisely.

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