[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is one of my favorite novels of all time.
Right away, that statement probably caused some readers to draw assumptions. Comparisons to Orwell's iconic dystopia are recognized as a trope that has been overused to the point of absurdity—recognized as such even by people who make such analogies themselves. On the internet in particular, people are so quick to draw (often hyperbolic) parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four that one wonders whether all these people actually read the novel, or if they only know it from the constant memes about "doublethink" this and "Ministry of Truth" that.
I know the “1984” references are a little stale but the government creating an actual Ministry of Truth is a little too on the nose for me.— Jason Howerton (@jason_howerton) April 28, 2022
But if you're someone who hasn't read it (I, too, was a slacker in high-school lit class and made frequent use of SparkNotes), Nineteen Eighty-Four has much more to say than "authoritarianism = bad." Orwell details a concrete picture of life in a totalitarian society that was able to achieve absolute control—a picture based on his experiences brushing up against tyrannical state power. Though allusions to Nineteen Eighty-Four may have ruined themselves through overuse, this is not something that should count against Orwell's final work, but rather a testament to the author's ability to create concrete, memorable concepts that have lasting relevance.
The novel explores authoritarianism through a number of different angles. Psychology is perhaps the most central one. The protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in a culture where he must always control his actions to avoid revealing unorthodox thoughts, due to the constant threat of becoming an "unperson." A world in which people are forced to never reveal their true thoughts is one in which they are driven to neurosis, paranoia, and hatred. Unafraid of making his protagonist "unlikable," Orwell showed this mindset in raw terms, revealing in the first chapter that Winston "disliked nearly all women" and harbored sadistic fantasies.
This relates to the relationship between romance, sex, and authoritarianism, which is another less-discussed theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Party demands that sex only exist as a "duty to the state." By making it so that people "can't get no satisfaction," so to speak, the Party fosters the pent-up hatred that it thrives on. As Winston says in one scene: "They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. [...] If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?"
Suppression drives Winston to cling to any hope he finds, which ultimately becomes his downfall. At first he secretly scribbles in a diary to vent his hatred for the Party, though he knows the potential consequences, and then acts on vague indications that others secretly hate the party when a soberer mind would see these as traps by the Thought Police.
It always sounds like hyperbole to compare things to 1984, but the principle behind banning "misinformation"—that the government can dictate what's true and ban what it deems false—is the same principle behind the Ministry of Truth.— Out of Frame (@OutofFrameFEE) October 13, 2021
The central question of Nineteen Eighty-Four is whether objective reality exists outside the human mind. Winston clings to the idea that it does, but when it comes down to it, he cannot logically refute the Party's philosophy that they can determine objective reality as long as they have the power to eliminate dissent and contradictory evidence. This leaves open the question: Can objective reality be proven by reason alone or does it depend on supra-rational presumptions?
I interpret this as related to the novel's theme of valorizing things that are personal, romantic, and traditional, things that don't conform to state, order, and industrialism. Throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four, characters take solace in things that have subjective value to them as individuals—baubles in an antique store, make-up on a woman's face, the folk-songs of proles on a summer day—even if there was no higher rational justification for their value.
At the same time, this is a double-edged sword, as innate human desires can be weaponized by the state through torture, propaganda, and deprivation.
Orwell's magnum opus is regarded as one of the classics of 20th-century literature for a reason. These are only several of the rich themes that make it more than the caricature that comes through in popular culture.