‘1984’ 33 Years On

The Arts


This is the latest in a series of blog posts that looks at George Orwell’s book from ever-lengthening perspectives.

There are always two dates to mention when dealing with George Orwell’s masterwork – the year of its publication (1949) and the year in its title. Orwell inverted the title as he was writing it, but had originally intended it to be ‘1948’.

In the sleepy complacency of my own childhood ‘1984’ was a book that entrapped me. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and as we were still fifteen years away from the novel’s date, I naively assumed that Orwell would provide futuristic rocket adventures. Rearrange the title date and you have the key to the book’s style. There’s hardly a page of ‘1984’ that doesn’t reflect the cadging gruesomeness of postwar life, from the ever-present smell of old mats and boiled cabbage to the cigarettes that lose their contents if held upright. A new hardback edition by Heinemann was careful not to label it SF but printed it as part of ‘The Modern Novel Series’, a catch-all collection that included LP Hartley and Somerset Maughan. Unable to access any notion of the concept ‘dystopia’, the blunt, angry prose hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.

Few future visions had ever been able to build their foundations so solidly in the recent past, or had been told with such fury. Orwell’s novel stands accused of being too preachy, too schematic, not a testament to the human spirit. What we tend to forget is that it is first and foremost an extraordinarily well-constructed piece of fiction, tense, terrifying, ideological, and above all, visceral. For Winston Smith, the sheer effort of breaking state laws seems so exhausting as to be hardly worth it. We know from the outset that the struggle won’t equal the prize, because there is no prize. The future has already arrived. In this sense the book felt shockingly modern for decades, the ultimate slacker’s novel. No wonder it was best filmed as ‘Brazil’ rather than in faithful adaptation.


‘1984’ Now

When we reached the year in question, we found ourselves in the middle of the Thatcherite revolution. As the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no such thing as society’, we felt that Orwell’s predictions had all been proven true. Comparisons between the past and present were made and worrying parallels were drawn.

And as with all future-predictive books, a remarkable thing happened. The future was altered in a way that nobody, certainly not the author, could have ever foreseen. Globalisation did not unleash government control but the opposite. Rampant commercialisation and the arrival of the internet created the deepened divide that Orwell had predicted, but designed it with the coercion of the populace – or at least, those members of the human race that found themselves with wealth and power.

Orwell could never have predicted Trump. The fall of real authority came with the willing participant of the people. Few authors would imagine that citizens would deliberately vote themselves out of better living standards and less freedom. The internet meant that instead of there being one channel of state-controlled ‘Big Brother’ news where contradictory states could co-exist (‘War is Peace’) there were so many thousands of ways open to manipulation and abuse that information would eventually become ‘fake’ and meaningless. It was no longer essential to government that people believed lies.

‘1984’ continued to fascinate, though, precisely because it is not a predictive SF novel but a possibility, an alternative, a nightmare. The Headlong stage production of ‘1984’ came as a slap in the face by playing unsettling mental games with its audience. At first the setting appeared to be a book club rereading Orwell’s novel in a municipal library, but the dialogue stuck and repeated, fictional characters appearing as events started melding with an imagined past and a dubious future. Doomed idealist Winston Smith was tossed back in time and dragged through 1984’s events.

The new version reflected the present day without being thunkingly obvious about it. Video monitors took up the top half of the stage, so we could become complicit in the betrayal of Winston and Julia. They also ran a live video feed into Room 101, which brought us impressions of Guantanamo Bay and CCTV surveillance. The repeated dialogue patterns created a genuinely nightmarish feeling as character dialogue overlapped, at one moment creating ‘Or, ‘Well’.

The book’s sales soared upon Trump’s arrival but its old problems still remain, even within its ‘classic’ status; Winston, led on by a wildly dangerous Julia, is a man doomed from his first free thought. The trouble has always been that he is a cipher, and this remains the case – but Orwell intended him as an everyman because he needs to be. The novel has relevance now as a warning. Having somewhat fallen out of love with Orwell over the years, I was glad I returned and rediscovered its haunting power. But the rallying cry of ‘1984’ was picked up by the young, who adapted its dystopia in myriad ways.

Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

14 comments on “‘1984’ 33 Years On”

  1. Roger says:

    “As the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no such thing as society’, we felt that Orwell’s predictions had all been proven true. ”
    Surely Orwell’s prediction is the opposite: in ‘1984’ there is nothing but society. Individual tastes and choices have been wiped out. In his earlier review of Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ Orwell pointed out that ‘a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State’. He also reaches a conclusion like yours: ‘There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.’
    Elsewhere – in his essay on H.G. Wells – he could ‘imagine that citizens would deliberately vote themselves out of better living standards and less freedom.’ One of the most frightening aspects of ‘1984’ is its portrayal of the attraction of unthinking obedience.

  2. Steveb says:

    Very relevant both then and now for USSR / Russia
    Adam Curtis points out how Putin uses fake news to confuse

  3. admin says:

    Not familiar with Orwell’s essay on HG Wells – I’ll seek it out. You’re right about unthinking obedience, but I would add that the concept of civil disobedience cannot work when the choices are all the same.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    The most important thing is surely that we retain the ability to analyse what we are told and take no one source or collection of sources as infallible. It is difficult when one is bombarded by repeated iterations of “facts” and you have trouble discovering where these “facts” originated but you have to keep on, especially with the internet acting as a gigantic repeater of whatever strikes its fancy just now.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    My son graduated from high school in 1984 – 33 years ago!?

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    Animal Farm’s slogan ‘We are all equal’, and the addition ‘but some of us are more equal than others’, reminds me of the US slogan ‘Anyone can become president.’ and they don’t add on but ‘some of us are presidential then others, or should that be richer?

    Sadly people have voted for making themselves worse, through desperation or thinking they are going to get better, history is littered with them, Iran, Germany, and so on.

    With Trump he doesn’t know how to play politics, to be honest I don’t think he’s a dangerous as Reagan, ‘Win one for the Gipper.’ He really upped the anti in the cold war to a dangerous degree, remember the bombing of Tripoli?

    And at least trump doesn’t have a vice president as worrisome as Mr. Potato Head AKA Dan Quayle (when Bush Snr was ill in Japan, I was genuinely worried knowing he had the finger o the button. Doonesbury did a strip in which all cartoonists took a day off not to slate Bush in thanks for choosing Dan Quayle.) or someone as belligerent as Dick Chaney (who made quips about invading small countries. It’s what he loved about the job.) whose old company had some wonderful oil deals.

    As for post truth, is just a new phrase for the old tradition of muddying the waters. Reading about WW2 they had propaganda, grey propaganda and black propaganda, basically truth (but always in such a way to promote) 1/2 truths and out right lies, it wasn’t new then, it’s not new now. Think of the Churchill speeches, which he may have not made (the BBC re-recorded them with him later), and then think of the Oxford Dictionary definition of post truth, Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, and after pondering that and then I point back to Ronald Reagan, a showman, Contra-cold war and all.


  7. brooke says:

    Again, Mr. Fowler has produced a very profound and complex article.
    As part of my entrance exam to graduate business school, I was required to write an essay commenting on Orwell’s 1984; consequently I studied the book as well as Orwell’s other writings carefully. While I might argue a bit with a few of Mr. Fowler’s points and the bottom graphic, this post deserves more thought and conversation.

    But it is very much on point, given US events– our president and the National Inquirer (southern based supermarket tabloid with enough power to try to acquire Time Magazine) stand accused of extortion aimed at two opposition broadcasters and their families. If you wish to learn more about the mad people behind the curtain, this is The New Yorker’s article on one of Trump’s propaganda machines. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/03/the-national-enquirers-fervor-for-trump.

    Btw–we keep pointing to other countries as examples; Russia, Iran, German, etc. But as the Pogo cartoon says, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

  8. brooke says:

    Re: Not only is 1984 being read and re-read, Octavia Butler’s work is back on the shelves. Ms. Butler, an African-American sci-fi writer, mined the anxieties of the late twentieth century. Worth a look if you haven’t encountered her before. She is quoted as saying: “I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.” I think she and Orwell would have understood each other.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Agreed Brooke, in the UK we’ve backed some odd things, local elections show how people can react to emotional causes.

    I live in a tower block and the sudden rush to test things and the problems that are now being faced (I was going to say come to light but we’ve known about some of the problems for a long time) are manifold. Our local housing trust is still deciding what to do about the cladding. At least we’ve been tested and are at low risk.


  10. Roger says:

    The interesting thing with Wells is that he could see the appeal of evil in his fiction, but he couldn’t imagine it in his non-fiction.

  11. brooke says:

    @Wayne. Glad to hear that your home is at low risk. Be well.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Wayne, I’m glad they really are testing all the cladding. That dirty black finger is going to stick up as a warning for a long time.
    I’m picking up a hold at the library so I shall look for Octavia Butler and suggest her if they don’t have her.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    There was a pool of Butler, but most out so she’s being read. I got Kindred and notice there is a graphic novel version available as well.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks for the kind words. We currently have fire marshals on site, the block did fail, of the cladding 15% failed, but as said it is low risk. The marshals will stay until they will decide what to do, we may have an external sprinkler system or they may tear it off and re-clad the blocks.


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