Common Reading 2021-22
Intellectual honesty is a discipline as well as a matter of personal integrity. In either sense of the phrase, Eric Arthur Blair had it. By 1933, when he was 30 years old, Blair began writing under the pen name of “George Orwell,” as he considered a world seeming unglued economically, socially, and politically. The Great Depression was devastating his British homeland, as it was doing everywhere. Capitalism, to many, appeared to be in such a state of disrepair that socialism or communism seemed the obvious “wave of the future.” In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the U.S. Congress in a sweeping reconsideration of the federal government’s role in nearly every facet of life; meanwhile, a Germany still reeling from the catastrophic loss of the 1914-1918 World War was grappling with over 50% unemployment—and many accepted fascist Nazi rule under Adolph Hitler. The 1930s saw the Imperial Japanese increasingly seeking to expand their sway in Asia. Meanwhile the Soviet Union perceived the real struggle lay within societies: they were focused on a vision of an ultimate world-wide revolution, as workers seized the “means of production” in an unalterable sequence of events.
Blair volunteered to fight in 1936 for the “Loyalists” during the Spanish Civil War against the fascist forces led by Franco, even though his interests were more turned toward a socialist future than continued monarchy in Spain. He hoped for a republic to be established in Spain and a modification of society allowing for broader government involvement to revive a crushed economic world. As a “democratic socialist,” he sought a nuanced approach to the overwhelming problems of the 1930s. However, while in Spain, he encountered murderously dogmatic Stalinist ideologues who answered any challenge to deterministic communism with physical violence. Consequently, as George Orwell, Blair returned to Britain a committed opponent of Stalin’s Soviet totalitarianism—which sought state-imposed “equity” at the expense of essential individual liberties.
In something of a first literary shot of the Cold War, Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945. While remaining a democratic socialist, Orwell opposed totalitarianism in all its guises. Unlike a vast number of socialists and communists in the West who either condoned or excused Stalin’s bloody reign in the Soviet Union, Orwell artfully and directly denounced it. Both Animal Farm and 1984 were thinly veiled critiques pointing out the duplicity and destructiveness characterizing Soviet tyranny.
The questions that George Orwell confronted in the 1930s-1940s have simply changed in degree and context, and not in importance. Defining the role of government and the individual liberties of any group of people in a country, have the consequence of determining how “free” a society truly is, or is not. Those questions remain with us today and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Every free society must guard against “Big Brother,” or each one of us is potentially Winston Smith.
We invite you to join us in reading (or rereading as the case may be) George Orwell’s classic; and in doing so to recognize the dangers of totalitarianism no matter the guise in which it presents itself.
Questions to Consider As You Read
- What do you make of the title, 1984?
- How realistic are the characters that Orwell creates? How does he reveal character and why are the characters drawn as they are?
- What are the uses of irony or sarcasm that Orwell uses to demonstrate the falsity of the party?
- What symbols does Orwell use? How effective are they?
- What is the role of war in the novel? Could the Party maintain power without a war?
- What is the role of capitalists in the novel?
- What techniques are used to control the party members?
- How effective are these techniques? Could they be employed today?
- What means of thought control are described in the novel? Are these examples of thought control realistic?
- What is doublethink? Do you see signs of that kind of thinking in our society today?
- What is the role of technology in the novel? Does it possible with today’s technology?
- Do you observe any evidence of an increasing tendency toward totalitarianism in America?
- Does the novel end as you expected? Does it accomplish its purpose?
- What if anything about Orwell’s dystopian future frightens you?
- Artsem — Newspeak for artificial insemination, the preferred means of procreation in Oceania.
- Black Market — The practice of trading for any of the “good quality” materials, such as real coffee, sugar, razors, etc. All of which are illegal in Oceana.
- Doublethink — Newspeak is a word with two mutually contradictory meanings. Referring to an opponent it means habitually contradicting plain facts. Referring to a Party member it means the loyalty to believe contradictory statements when the Party demands it. This allows altering the past.
- Hate Week — This is a week of hate mongering against enemies of war. It is supported by massive rallies and organized by the Ministry of Truth and is designed to rally Party members to the cause of Oceania and Big Brother and in opposition to all contrary ideas and people.
- Ingsoc — Newspeak for English Socialism.
- Junior Anti-Sex League — A youth organization advocating complete celibacy for both sexes and encouraging artsem. Julia is a member as indicated by wearing the symbolic scarlet sash.
- Jus primae noctis — A supposed fact about capitalism that by law all capitalists had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of their factories.
- Ministry of Love (Miniluv) — This is the arm of the Party ostensibly designed to maintain law and order, which is protected with great force. Only those who are on official Party business can enter. It is also referred to as “the place with no darkness” because the lights are always on. It is here that dissidents are taken here to be tortured and reformed, or killed.
- Ministry of Peace (Minipax) — This is the arm of the Party responsible for the Party’s management of issues surrounding war.
- Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty) — This is the arm of the Party responsible for the Party’s economic affairs. The name like that of all of the other ministries is an obvious oxymoron.
- Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) — This is the arm of the Pary responsible for all Party news, entertainment, education and fine arts. It is not concerned with truth but is the Party’s propaganda machine.
- Newspeak — The official language of Oceania and the new language of the Party, devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc (English Socialism). It was designed to reduce the English language to the fewest words possible. Removing words removes ways to define anti-Party feelings and the ability to disagree. Of course, it also make people seem simple or maybe it actually makes them simple.
- Party Slogans — These are examples of the Party’s distortion of truth and logic, for example, “War is Peace”; “Freedom is Slavery”; “Ignorance is Strength.”
- Proles — These are the 85% of the Oceania population that are not Party members and who live in poverty. They are loosely regulated to weed out the overly intellectual and to protect the Party.
- Reclamation Centers — These are the colonies for homeless children and as is typical in the novel the name is almost the opposite of the actual practice of the colonies.
- Spies and Youth League — The Party encourages children to spy on and report their elders to the Thought Police. This youth organization indoctrinates children into the Party and distories the viability of the family.
- Telescreen — An oblong metal plaque that looks like a dulled mirror and acts like a television, a camera, and a listening device for the Inner Party and Thought Police. There is no way to shut it off completely, and it keeps tabs on all Party members. It is the ultimate in the loss of privacy rights by citizens.
- “The book” — A book titled “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” supposedly written by Goldstein. It contains the story of humankind and the Revolution and holds out hope for a better future without the Party.
- Thought Police — The arm of the Party that seeks out those who oppose the Party or Big Brother even in their innermost thoughts. It forces everyone to live as though they are always being watched or listened to, because mostly they are.
- Thoughtcrime — Any thought contrary to those approved of by the Party such as doubting its facts or its motives.
- Two Minutes Hate — This is a daily requirement for all Party members. They much watch the Party’s presentations on a telescreen denouncing Goldstein and war enemies (either Eastasia or Eurasia), and celebrating Big Brother. Each party member is expected to exhibit dramatic signs of hatred at representations of the enemy.
- Vaporized — This is the fate of those who commit Thoughtcrimes. Not only are they killed but all evidence of their existence is removed.
- Victory products — These are the sarcastically named Party-made products, such as gin, cigarettes, clothing, food, and even housing. All are of poor quality.