M. Keith Booker
University of Arkansas
Dystopian literature might be defined as imaginative literature that constructs flawed fictional societies the shortcomings of which satirize ideal utopian societies, or specific real-world societies, or both. Dystopian fiction has become a major mode in the twentieth century, though it has roots that go back still further. This is especially the case with English literature, which was at the forefront of the turn from utopian to dystopian visions of the future at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in the early works of H. G. Wells. In any case, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) can be considered the first truly important twentieth-century dystopian novel in English, while it joins Evgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to constitute the three central founding works of modern dystopian narrative. Orwell’s novel is probably the most important and influential of the three. Indeed, one could make a viable case that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only the central work of English dystopian fiction but also one of the pivotal works in all of twentieth-century global culture. All subsequent English dystopian fiction has been influenced to some extent by Orwell’s vision, though it is also important to recognize that Orwell’s work itself had numerous important predecessors, especially in the numerous antifascist dystopian satires produced by British leftist writers during the 1930s.
Dystopian fiction is typically an individualist genre, opposing the special desires and inclinations of its protagonists to the demands of an oppressive regime that makes true individualism impossible. In this sense, one might be tempted to see dystopian fiction and utopian fiction as polar opposites, given that fictional constructions of utopia have typically emphasized the community rather than the individual, envisioning a world in which individual eccentricities take a back seat to the greater good of the greater number. Indeed, one of the central premises of most dystopian fiction is that one person’s dream might be another person’s nightmare, so that even an achieved utopia from the point of view of some might be a dystopia from the point of view of others. Of course, this very premise suggests that the opposition between dystopia and utopia is neither absolute nor simple. Among other things, while both dystopian and utopian fiction tend to be set in worlds that are distant in space or time from that of the author, both modes are often intended as satirical critiques of specific trends in the author’s own world, the displacement in setting merely providing exaggeration and emphasis of the kind that is central to all satire.
The opening paragraphs of Nineteen Eighty-Four are a masterpiece in dystopian world building. While leaving a few details tantalizingly unclear (and thus driving the narrative forward), these paragraphs quickly and efficiently introduce the protagonist (Winston Smith, a thirty-nine-year-old in less-than-ideal health) and the world in which he lives, a grim and decaying London in which a totalitarian Party embodied in the possibly mythical figure of “Big Brother” keeps a firm grip on power through a combination of propaganda, surveillance, and sheer terror. The remainder of the text then fills in more details about life in this London and about Smith’s failed attempt to rebel against the soul-crushing oppression that the Party inflicts on the people of Oceania. In telling this story, Orwell not only presents a compelling commentary on his contemporary world but also constructs a virtual blueprint for future dystopian fictions. In addition to the being the most influential of all dystopian fictions, Orwell’s novel may have had a bigger impact on the popular consciousness in Britain and the United States than any other work of science fiction in general. Indeed, it has been one of the most influential works of literature of any sort ever published, providing some of the best-known images and ideas of post–World War II Western culture.
Part of the success of Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in the vividness with which Orwell is able to convey the texture of day-to-day life in the dim, gray, soul-crushing dystopia of Oceania, without getting bogged down in excessive detail. We see enough of Smith’s life, both at home and at work, to have a very good idea what that life is like. Meanwhile, Orwell makes it clear that London is the “chief city” of “Airstrip One,” roughly equivalent to real-world Britain and the third most populous province in the sprawling megastate of Oceania, which is made up essentially of a merger of the United States and the remnants of the British Empire. Oceania is one of three superstates that dominate the globe. The others are Eurasia, formed when Russia absorbed continental Europe, and Eastasia, which consists of China, Japan, and southeast Asia. Oceania is ruled with an iron fist by the “Party,” which rose to power after devastating nuclear wars in the 1950s and now seems to have no real goal other than crushing the spirits of the general population simply as a demonstration of the power of the Party’s leaders (the members of the “Inner” Party).
Words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four—such as “Thought Police,” “doublethink,” or “Big Brother Is Watching You”—have become a part of our everyday language and are well known even to those who have never read Orwell’s novel or seen Michael Radford’s excellent 1984 film adaptation of it. Of course, the impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four was greatly enhanced by the context in which it was first published: in the early years of the Cold War, when memories of European fascism were still fresh and anti-Stalinist rhetoric was on the rise. Orwell’s novel thus seemed at the time to address issues and fears of great currency. Its images of a decaying future were especially vivid in a postwar Britain that was exhausted from the war and no longer the power it once was. In the United States, the novel helped to feed a demand for effective warnings about the horrors of Stalinism, and the book was generally presented in the West as a satire of Stalinism, even though Orwell himself had described the book more as a warning against the excesses that might develop in England in the attempt to combat Stalinism. Indeed, it is important not to dismiss the text as a critique of Stalinism and thus to consign its warnings to the past, because it remains an effective account of the possible consequences of authoritarianism as a whole.
Smith is a member of the “Outer” Party, a larger group of Party functionaries who do most of its day-to-day work but live meager, barren lives that lack the amenities afforded to members of the Inner Party. Most of the population of Oceania, however, consists of the lowly “proles” (proletarians), who are not members of the Party and are hardly even regarded as human. Smith works for the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth, which controls the flow of news, information, and entertainment in Oceania. He is charged largely with altering historical records so that they match the current Party line, thus making the Party appear infallible. Other ministries include the Ministry of Peace, which administers the perpetual war between Oceania and the other superstates; the Ministry of Plenty, which controls economic affairs in the impoverished state; and the Ministry of Love, which maintains law and order, especially through the offices of the sinister Thought Police. That these ministries have names that suggest the opposite of their real functions is only appropriate in this society, in which the Party is able to manipulate perceptions of reality for its own purposes, encouraging its members to develop the ability simultaneously to entertain completely contradictory notions.
The Party rules Oceania according to the principles of “Ingsoc,” or English Socialism, though their political philosophy the precise opposite of the socialist project of universal equality. Ingsoc, in fact, is designed specifically to maintain the kind of class-based inequalities that socialism is designed to eradicate (and that capitalism requires in order to function). As O’Brien explains to Smith during his interrogation, the Party cannot stand the idea of social equality because they thrive on the domination of others. However, they realize that technological progress had been moving society toward the kind of universal affluence and enlightenment that would ultimately make equality inevitable. Therefore, they have contrived to create widespread poverty and ignorance, largely by expending most of their society’s resources on their perpetual wars with either Eastasia or Eurasia, which are undertaken precisely for that purpose. Through this and other means, the Party consciously seeks to create the ultimate dystopia, a world that “is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined” (267).
As the book begins, Smith has become disillusioned with the Party and its iconic leader, “Big Brother.” As a way of maintaining his integrity in the face of the Party’s manipulations, he begins to keep a secret diary in which he records his subversive thoughts, a project that is made difficult by the constant surveillance to which the members of the Party are exposed. This surveillance is maintained in a number of ways, including the ever-present two-way “telescreens” that are one of the book’s most memorable images and that clearly anticipate the coming power of television in modern society. These devices allow the Party both to keep its members under surveillance and to bombard them with a constant barrage of video propaganda; these screens are on at all times and can be turned off only in the homes of members of the elite “Inner Party.” The Ministry of Truth maintains a strict control over other cultural products as well, working to supply Party members with “newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels—with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment” (43). Even the proles, who are not considered worth keeping under surveillance, are not exempt from this strict cultural control, and one of the reasons they need not undergo constant surveillance is that they are effectively kept in line by the Ministry’s departments of proletarian culture, which produce “rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means” (43).
Smith’s subversive activities move to a different level when he begins a clandestine sexual relationship with Julia, a young woman who works in the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth. Such relationships are strictly forbidden by the Party, which seeks to prevent the fulfillment of sexual desire, feeling that sexual pleasure might create “a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” and that sexual privation might allow the Party to divert sexual energies for its own purposes (133). In response, Smith and Julia view their illicit intercourse as a way to assert their individuality in opposition to the official power of the Party. Both partners, in fact, conclude that their union “was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (126). On the other hand, Smith later becomes concerned about Julia’s lack of political awareness, accusing her of being “only a rebel from the waist downwards” (156).
Of course, this reaction might be attributed to the strong streak of incel-like misogyny that Smith displays throughout the novel. In any case, the sexual rebellion of Smith and Julia turns out to be entirely ineffectual. Both are arrested by the authorities, then tortured and brainwashed and forced to turn against each other. In the end, the official appropriation of Smith’s passion for Julia becomes complete; he sublimates his desire for the woman in the only direction that is socially acceptable in this dystopia, deciding that he now loves only Big Brother.
Despite their willingness to undertake public executions and physical torture of the most gruesome sort, the Party employs techniques of power that are primarily psychological, very much in line with “carceral” techniques of power associated by Michel Foucault with modern bourgeois societies. Thus, the Party’s emphasis on surveillance as a technique of power directly recalls Foucault’s suggestion in Discipline and Punish that a sense of constant surveillance is central to the experience of life in modern bourgeois societies. Indeed, O’Brien, the Inner Party member who oversees Smith’s downfall in Nineteen Eighty-Four, summarizes the Party’s technologies of power in a way that makes them seem the natural extension of the transition from repressive medieval power to productive bourgeois power as described by Foucault. As he explains to Smith, “The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art’” (255).
Foucault’s ideas are relevant to Nineteen Eighty-Four in other ways as well. For example, much of Foucault’s work has detailed the ways in which Western societies have defined “normality” by identifying despised others (including madmen, lepers, homosexuals, “delinquents,” or criminals) upon whom they have projected characteristics that they wish to define as abnormal or undesirable. The Party pursues a somewhat similar strategy, demonizing enemies of the Party in order to promote pro-Party sentiment. In particular, all opposition to the Party is personified in the much vilified figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, the official party enemy. A central Party ritual is a phenomenon called the “Two Minutes Hate.” In this rite of hatred, Party members gather before a telescreen as programming focused on the supposedly heinous treachery of Goldstein gradually whips the crowd into a frenzy. The viewers jump up and down, screaming at the screen, and even those (like Smith) who are initially less than enthusiastic find themselves caught up in the mass hysteria. Gradually, the incendiary focus on Goldstein shifts to a calming focus on Big Brother as a savior from Goldstein’s Satanic evil, and the frenzy of hatred turns to a frenzy of devotion and loyalty the religious echoes of which are unmistakable. At the end of one such session, a woman runs toward the screen and proclaims Big Brother her personal savior, making the religious implications of this ceremony unmistakable.
Goldstein’s role as Party enemy in Nineteen Eighty-Four echoes in an obvious way the vilification of Leon Trotsky by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. However, given that Foucault’s various studies of the demonization of despised Others applies primarily to the bourgeois societies of the West, an appeal to Foucault suggests that Orwell’s depiction of the Party in this sense once again satirizes the capitalist West as much as the Stalinist Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the religious intonation of the Two Minutes Hate suggests the way in which the Party uses strategies derived from religion to further its power, much in the way that Karl Marx famously proclaimed religion to function as an “opiate of the masses” under capitalism. Granted, conventional religious activity is strictly forbidden in Oceania, at least to Party members, though Orwell suggests that the lowly proles would have been allowed to practice religion had they so desired. However, it is clear in Orwell’s book that the ban on religion comes about not because organized religion is so radically different from the Party, but because the two are all too similar and would therefore be competing for similar energies. As with sexuality, the Party actively works to appropriate the energies traditionally associated with religious belief and to use those energies for its own purposes, giving the Party itself a quasi-religious air.
Among other things, the Party enforces its ideology with all the zeal of the medieval Inquisition, but with a considerably more sophisticated understanding of psychology and power. They are perfectly willing to use elaborate physical tortures, but they rely primarily on psychological tortures, and even these are administered under a veil of secrecy that works far differently from the spectacular public punishments inflicted by the medieval Church as a warning to potential opponents. Party official O’Brien thus explains to the incarcerated Smith late in the book that the torture chambers of the ironically named Ministry of Love differ from the public tortures of the medieval Inquisition in that the Ministry does its work in secret, given their victims no chance to become martyrs (253).
In addition, the techniques of the Ministry of Love are designed not only to extract confessions, but to make the prisoners themselves believe those confessions and honestly to repent. These techniques are designed not so much to inflict punishment as to elicit loyalty; the goal of the Ministry of Love is to convert its prisoners and to release them into society to function once again as loyal Party members. In this sense the Party once again echoes the traditional functioning of the Church, but in Orwell’s dystopia this conversion motif takes a dark turn. Unlike repentant Christians who can still be welcomed fully back into the fold, once rehabilitated Party members have proven their new orthodoxy for a time (and thus demonstrated the Party’s ability to make them loyal subjects) they are apt to be arrested and executed without warning. Orwell’s Party is thus considerably more ruthless in its theory than the medieval Church, though not necessarily in its practice—victims of the Inquisition were often urged to repent and confess before being burned at the stake. And the Party’s insistence that members must repent of their own free will rather than being coerced clearly echoes the Christian tradition; the Party, like the Christian God, wants not just to be obeyed but to be obeyed willingly and worshipfully.
The Party seeks not merely to influence and control its members, but literally to produce them as products of its ideology. Thus, while their efforts at control seem extreme, the strategies of the Party are ultimately not all that different from those of modern capitalist societies, in which individual subjects are constituted by bourgeois ideology in the process described by Louis Althusser as “interpellation.” In fact, while the actions of the Party bear numerous superficial resemblances to those of the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin, a closer examination shows that the fundamental nature of Oceanian society is more accurately described as a satirical extension of the bourgeois societies of the capitalist West, despite the Party’s strongly anticapitalist rhetoric. Granted, certain details, such as the Party’s insistence on the maintenance of squalid and depressing living conditions, differ markedly from the strategies of contemporary consumer capitalism, which seeks to create an air of affluence and ease, at least for the middle class (who roughly correspond to Orwell’s Outer Party). But the dreary texture of material life in Oceania directly reflects conditions in Orwell’s contemporary postwar England, and he may simply not have foreseen the coming era of superficial capitalist prosperity. Orwell does, however, anticipate our contemporary world in important ways, as when the ideas of his Party so strikingly anticipate the postmodern worldview that rose to prominence in the West in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Among the most memorable of the strategies undertaken by the Party in pursuit of power is the work of the Ministry of Truth not only to control the content of all newspapers in the present, but also continually to modify the filed back issues of those newspapers according to the latest Party line, leaving no official record of anything that might run counter to current Party policy. Smith and others in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth continually “update” history by editing official records, effacing all indication of the existence of problematic persons or events and creating fictional records of nonexistent persons or events that help to support the Party line. Indeed, a key element of the ideology of Party involves what they call the “mutability of the past,” and the Party continually updates all records of the past as it sees fit in a thoroughly process that
was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political significance. … All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary” (40).
This updating of history echoes an activity of which the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was often accused, but it is also the case that reformulating history for its own purposes was a central strategy used by the European bourgeoisie to justify and explain its rise to power in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the whole notion of history in the modern sense—which envisions the flow of history as a logical cause-and-effect process governed by scientific laws—was a bourgeois invention. Thus, early texts such as Edward Gibbons’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire envision the rise of Catholic-aristocratic power in the Middle Ages as the demise of true civilization—and the subsequent rise of the bourgeoisie as a return to the glories of ancient Rome. In short, history in the modern sense is an invention of the European bourgeoisie, designed to narrate (and justify) the centuries-long cultural revolution through which they rose to hegemony in Europe. Or, as Fredric Jameson puts it, “the transition from feudalism to capitalism is what is secretly (or more deeply) being told in most contemporary historiography, whatever its ostensible content.” Further, Jameson points out, this view of history makes the bourgeois cultural revolution “the only true Event of history” (Signatures 226–27).
Yet Jameson goes on to note in his work that, in the era of global late capitalism, the Western bourgeoisie, comfortable in their power and no longer needing such justification, have lost all genuine historical sense, a sense that Jameson defines as “the perception of the present as history” (Postmodernism 284). For Jameson, the past in the postmodern era has been reduced to “little more than a set of dusty spectacles” (18). It has become an insubstantial collection of images that can be used and manipulated in the present without any real awareness of their source in a material past that is the prehistory of the present. In the case of Orwell’s Party, this manipulation of the past goes beyond a mere attempt to make it seem as if the Party’s rule has actually improved the quality of life in Oceania. It also involves the Party’s desire to control every aspect of the lives of its members, including their memories. To an extent, the Party seems to want to continually change the past simply because it allows it to demonstrate that it is able to make individuals literally recall the past in whatever way the Party wants, including ways that are inherently contradictory. Indeed, the Party revels in the notion of “doublethink,” which allows Party members not only simultaneously to believe contradictory notions, but to participate in the construction of overt lies while believing those lies themselves.
This desire to control the thoughts of its members has also led the Party to work to maintain control of language itself. One of its central projects is the development of “Newspeak,” an official language the authoritarian intentions of which are made clear in the book. Newspeak (extensively described in an appendix to the novel) is based on English, but the Party is gradually modifying it and paring it down to place stricter and stricter limits on the range of ideas that can be formulated within the language. The basic goal of Newspeak is simple—to deprive the populace of a vocabulary in which to formulate or express dissident ideas, and therefore literally to make those ideas unthinkable. Not surprisingly, the Newspeak project extends to works of literature as well, since the classics of past literature are informed by precisely the kinds of polyphonic energies and human passions that the Party seeks to suppress. Therefore, the works of writers such as Shakespeare are in the process of being translated into Newspeak and thereby rendered ideologically orthodox.
The Newspeak project is an integral part of the Party’s insistence that “reality” itself is a social-linguistic construct. For the Party our perception of reality derives not from any direct access to reality itself; rather, what we think of as “reality” is merely the product of a whole system of pre-existing concepts and beliefs about reality. For the Party all descriptions of reality are fictional, and “the very existence of external reality was denied by their philosophy” (80). Or, as O’Brien declares to Smith during the interrogation of the latter, “truth” is a function not of reality, but of Party policy (205).
This notion of the constructed nature of truth and reality, like the notion of doublethink, strikingly foreshadows the postmodern view of the world, which (as Jameson has convincingly argued) is a direct expression of the ideology of late capitalism. For example, Brian McHale, in his useful survey of postmodernist fiction, suggests that the postmodern worldview is epitomized by the notion of the “social construction of reality,” as expressed in the work of sociologists such as Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who “regard reality as a kind of collective fiction, constructed and sustained by the processes of socialization, institutionalization, and everyday social interaction, especially through the medium of language” (McHale 37).
That this attitude corresponds so closely to that of Orwell’s Party suggests that proclamations of the liberating effects of postmodern challenges to authoritarian notions of absolute truth should be regarded with suspicion. In this sense, Nineteen Eighty-Four lends support to Terry Eagleton’s warning that a facile rejection of “truth” as a purely authoritarian notion merely plays into the hands of a capitalist power structure that employs lying and gross deception as central strategies. As a result, for Eagleton,
the true facts—concealed, suppressed, distorted—can be in themselves politically explosive; and those who have developed the nervous tic of placing such vulgar terms as “truth” and “fact” in fastidiously distancing scare quotes should be careful to avoid a certain collusion between their own high-toned theoretical gestures and the most banal, routine political strategies of the capitalist power-structure. (Ideology 379)
Of course, in keeping with the principles of doublethink, Orwell’s Party wants to have it both ways: they regard reality as a provisional and constantly changing linguistic construct, but also insist on the absolute truth of these constructions at any given time.
The chilling conclusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Smith realizes that he now truly loves Big Brother, suggests the horrifying extent to which the Party is able to succeed in controlling the minds of its members. Having carefully eliminated all perceived threats, the Party seems to have made its power permanent, though the book does leave open the possibility (scoffed at though it is by O’Brien) that a certain revolutionary potential still resides in the lowly proles. However, the fact that the grim and dehumanizing conditions of life in Oceania seem virtually insurmountable makes Nineteen Eighty-Four all the more effective as a cautionary tale—and one that remains even more relevant in an era when the seemingly unchallenged power of global capitalism makes the kind of total power exercised by the Party seem more and more feasible.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor, 1967.
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage-Random House, 1979.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
———. Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1992.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. 1949. New York: Signet, 1961.