1984 by George Orwell Contents and Historical Context

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Orwell was writing this novel in an age of totalitarianism, mainly in Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The publication year also coincided with the establishment of the Communist Party in China in 1949. These governments had “iron curtains” around their populations, suppressing their freedoms and strictly controlling their actions. That is why the novel is overrun with ideas of hunger, forced labor, mass torture and imprisonment, and perpetual monitoring by the authorities. Orwell had spent time in Spain during the peak of their Fascist regime as a correspondent for the BBC, and he was very disappointed with how that administration (which he initially had a great deal of faith in to assist the country) turned against its citizens. He felt their media was nothing more than a propaganda machine, hiding the truth and inflating half-truths to disillusion the masses. This is likely to be the reason why Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, also works for a media agency, since it is through his actions that the reader knows how deeply the Party affects and controls any public expression. It is also Winston’s exasperation with this manipulation which spurs on his rebellion to the Party. Orwell must have seen and strongly disproved of this manipulation in his own experiences.

The novel is also set in a state of perpetual war, since Orwell was writing right after World War II, coming off the tails of World War I. (It is interesting how Orwell uses the slogan “War is peace” to describe the motives of the Party. – see summary for Part Two, Chapter Nine) Orwell was able, in his travels, to see the experiences of the masses in Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, on which he bases the condition of the proles in the novel and the suffering expressed in Winston’s childhood. Orwell creates a “dystopia” in the novel, which is the opposite of a “utopia,” thereby establishing a model of what the world should NOT become. He is therefore suggesting the qualities of a utopia, which would be the opposite of the conditions found in Oceania, like ample food, freedom of expression, and self-determination.

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