"It was a bright cold day in April, as the clocks were striking thirteen." Thus begins one of the most chilling, haunting, amazing, and many say prophetic, novels ever written. George Orwell's 1984 (henceforth written here in this more brief form for the sake of brevity) is also one of the most popular and beloved novels of all-time, selling over 30 million copies to date. By 1989, the book had been translated into 65 different languages, the most ever for a novel in English up to that point in time. Besides its many other influences, 1984 has also added several new words and terms into the english lexicon, including Big Brother, thought police, doublespeak, thought crime, newspeak, and 2 + 2 = 5.
As a young man, George Orwell (born Eric Blair) spent four and a half years working for the imperial police in Burma. In his position, Orwell had over people, their lives, their circumstances, and their very person.
A Burma imperial policeman was required to witness hangings. Orwell witnessed first hand what it was like to execute a man in cold blood and what it was like to have total power over a fellow human being. He viewed the scarred buttocks of people who had been caned, as well as caged prisoners. He grew to hate the regime. Orwell was to recall: "I have been part of an oppressive system and it has left me with a bad conscience... I was conscious of an immense weight that I had got to expiate."
Orwell remained a devoted and committed British socialist. He traveled to Spain to serve on the POUM (Party of Marxist Unification) in the Spanish Civil War to fight against fascism. While in Barcelona, the Communist Party of Spain (and abroad) started spreading rumors about POUM, claiming it was working with the fascists. These rumors were spread in a very personal and unseemly manner and the Communist Party tried to use the opportunity to force out Orwell and POUM.
Being branded as a fascist by the Communists disgusted Orwell and he decided to break his allegiance and join another force altogether. This experience caused Orwell realized the fickle nature of any totalitarian regime. He saw how a fascist state can come from either direction and was not necessarily right or left in nature.
Orwell's novel 1984 tells the tale of a dystopian society called Oceania, a cruel and totalitarian society, which exists under the leadership of "Big Brother." Oceania is a privileged, elite superstate ruled by "the Inner Party." Individualism and free thought are "thoughtcrime" and are violations punished by "the thought police."
Orwell began writing his future classic in 1947 at a very peaceful location- a friend's remote Scottish island farmhouse. It was written during the years 1947 and 1948, mainly on the island of Zura .
Orwell had originally wanted to call his novel 1980. The 1984 came about because it was written in 1948 and the number was simply a re-positioning of the last two figures in this date. The book also had the potential title The Last Man in Europe. Orwell hesitated between the titles; it was his publisher who pushed forward with 1984, believing it to be the more commercial title of the two.
The story's protagonist is Winston Smith, described as a "phlegmatic everyman." Smith's girlfriend is named Julia.
According to all sources, the Oceania in 1984 was, to a great degree, inspired by and based on Joseph Stalin's regime in Soviet Russia. The "2 + 2 = 5" used in the book was actually a slogan used in Stalinist Russia. Two years after launching a 5-year economic plan, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union announced the plan would be completed a year early. The campaign "2 + 2 = 5" was "arithmetic of a counter-plan plus the enthusiasm of its workers."
"Big Brother," a ruthless leader who bears a mustache, was based on Stalin. Winston Smith's name is reputedly derived from Winston Churchill, the "Smith" chosen because it was such a common name. The Winston Smith character was partly inspired by the character Rubashov from Arthur Koestler's 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, especially in his responses and reactions to his interrogation.
Julia, Smith's girlfriend, was based on Orwell's second wife Sonia. Sonia was an assistant at a literary magazine and was "the girl from the fiction department." Sadly, Orwell and Sonia were to marry near the end of his life. Like Winston Smith and Julia in his novel, the couple's love was doomed. By that time, his days were numbered and Orwell died just 14 weeks after they were married.
As Orwell was writing 1984, his health began to deteriorate. Near Christmas of 1947, he was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis. (Orwell was a longtime smoker who rolled his own cigarettes.) His condition only worsened in the following year. He finished writing 1984 in a sanitarium in 1948. On December 4, 1948, Orwell sent the final manuscript to his publishers, Selker & Warburg.
The book was published on June 8, 1949. It was a hit with the public and with most of the critics.
U.S. Pritchett of the new statesman wrote: "I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality and suspense, the speed of writing and the withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down." P.H. Neway for The Listener magazine opined that 1984 was "the most arresting political novel written by an Englishman since Rex Warner's The Aerdome." Positive reviews were added by Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, and Harold Nicholson.
Despite its great popularity, 1984 has also routinely been banned by various forces on grounds of being subversive or ideologically corrupting. Nonetheless, in 2002, it was chosen as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923-2005 by Time magazine. It was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library's 100 best novels- rating at #13 on the editor's list and #6 on the reader's list.
Sadly, George Orwell was not to live to see the huge success and influence of his beloved novel. Orwell died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950, just six months after the book's publication.
After the inauguration of Donald Trump in January of 2017, 1984 returned to the best-seller list, just as it did when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, not to mention George W. Bush's inauguration, Bill Clinton's, et al. It seems we all, regardless of political party or persuasion, fear an assault on our inherent right to free speech, free thought, and free expression. And we all, at least ostensibly, fear censorship by the state.
In this age of living in a greatly divided political nation, George Orwell's 1984 remains a rare force bringing us all together.