May 20, 2017

Orwell’s 1984, As Read by an Arts Student and a Science Student

As sales of the book continue to soar, we consider what lessons can be gleaned from its study of control and propaganda when read through the arts and science.

Orla Howells and Tim Suits

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is renowned for its chilling depiction of an all-consuming dystopian world in which freedom of thought and expression are repressed, resulting in a mechanic society devoid of individualism or emotion. Reading this novel five years ago, it would easily be classified as fantasy. Reading this today, it feels more like a forecast of where society is headed. Thanks to many recent events such as the escalation of Brexit, “alternative facts” and US President, Donald Trump’s, speeches, it isn’t surprising that sales of Orwell’s novel have skyrocketed since January 2017. It is hard not to see comparisons between our current state and the inter-war years of the 1930s, a decade which serves as a shadow to Orwell’s writing and vision. In light of this, a deconstruction of Orwell’s novel will see if the book can be used as a mirror for today’s society.

To allow for freedom of thought and not to submit to the dictatorship mindset of the novel’s society, this exploration is a collaboration between an arts student and a science student. Although we agreed on many points, methods of interpretation varied: the arts-based reading focused on close analysis and language, whereas the science-based interpretation was more interested in the structure of the world and analysing its motives. What stood out the most when reflecting on the book in relation to today’s world was the concept of war. In the 1930s and 1940s, countries were at war with each other. In today’s world, many are at war with themselves, just like in Orwell’s novel.

What stood out the most when reflecting on the book was the concept of war. In the 1930s and 1940s, countries were at war with each other. In today’s world they are at war with themselves, just like in Orwell’s novel


In a society that propagates the present and denies any history or past, “thought crime” is the most apparent form of rebellion, and the most apparent form of thought crime is nostalgia, as any literature course would suggest. Orwell had written this novel in 1948, and his writing style suggests that he was aware of how nostalgic his own age would be for later generations. The protagonist’s name, Winston Smith, emulates the great Winston Churchill, the free-thinking leader of the 20th century who brought his country to victory over the Nazi dictatorship. Orwell evokes a glorified past that the reader will recognise is at odds with Smith’s present. Smith struggles in vain to grasp onto a glorious past, convinced that whatever the past was, it must have been better than the present. This need for nostalgia in a disenfranchised present speaks volumes to the supporters of Trump, whose memorable campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated most powerfully with voters.

In Orwell’s society, the Party falsifies the past and produces what a scientific reading would describe as an ever-changing enemy: Party leaders who emulate the Party’s ideas are suddenly condemned as traitors, a previous ally is now at war, Smith is indoctrinated and then imprisoned. This is a society in which it is impossible to trust the judgement of authority, which is particularly pertinent in today’s political climate. As soon as a previous ally becomes an enemy of the authoritative power, they are immediately condemned and vilified and any amicable history between the two is re-written. We experience this on a daily basis with Trump, whether it is certain media outlets or minority groups. It is equally true of tabloid media: we smear those whom we once advocated. Who knows who tomorrow’s enemy will be?

The use and abuse of language is arguably the major theme of Orwell’s novel. Although the novel is written in standard English, the characters who work for the Party are supposed to speak a new language called “Newspeak”. This is a shorter, snappier language which relies on superlatives, “good”, “plusgood” and “doubleplusgood” or “ungood”, meaning bad. This language aims to abolish the “vagueness” of Standard English. This type of language is resonant of Trump’s language on Twitter, regurgitating signature superlatives such as “huge”, “bad” and “great” – words which are indebted to Trump for a new level of significance.

“Doublethink” is Newspeak’s most intriguing term, and relates to a type of philosophy whereby we readily accept a statement as fact, despite being aware that it is false. Smith is aware that the past has existed and yet eventually accepts the Party’s notion that it does not, because if two people believe that something happened then, by a degree of philosophy, it has happened. In today’s world, we approach tabloid media and information that we know is false, and yet we consume it anyway. Generally speaking, we are attracted by clickbait headlines that we know are false and exaggerated, but we click them. We read headlines instead of articles. We simply allow information to be told to us rather than questioning its sources or investigating it for ourselves. After Smith’s thought crimes, he is put into a rehabilitation centre in which he is fed lie after lie about the Party. Doublethink is 1984’s deadliest weapon, and if it is the first step towards a debased dystopian society, then we should be wary.

Our vast language has been reduced to labels such as “snowflake”, “liberal”, “racist”, “sexist”, “feminist”, “homophobe”. This type of language is another method of vilifying the opposition, and refers to the forceful “duckspeak” in 1984

Newspeak does more than promote its own philosophies through language: it also aims to censor the language we already use. In the novel, Smith’s co-worker, Syme, gloats that they are cutting down so much of standard English that it will be redundant by the year 2050. If language is becoming more and more restrictive, it is censoring expression. How can we express radical ideas or beliefs if there is no vocabulary for them? In contemporary society, our vast language has been reduced to labels such as “snowflake”, “liberal”, “racist”, “sexist”, “feminist”, “homophobe”. This type of language is another method of vilifying the opposition, and refers to the forceful “duckspeak” in 1984. These labels immediately shut down broad discussion, and society is denied personal expression or individualism if it is thought to conform to these labels.

In this all-consuming world, is there room for our academic interests? In the most recent version of Newspeak, there is no word for “science”, as this is a concept which has been removed from society. Similarly, the restriction of language means that there are no arts, no source of desire in society. The scientific reading sees a society which rejects science and “free thought”, and a literary one agrees that this is just as true for the arts. Freedom of thought and expression are our strongest attributes, and we need to grasp a firmer hold of them so as not to let ourselves escalate further towards the totalitarian landscape of 1984.

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