George Orwell and the Notion of Relative Reality


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In Orwell’s novels, there is a commitment to showing the potential of a totalitarian government to deliberately challenge the notion of the real. All of us, and perhaps especially young people, are afraid that we live in a world in which notions of reality are slipping. Orwell shows that reality can be manipulated through both language and torture.

A man, sitting at a table, and speaking into the mic surrounded by two other men.
Political speech consists, according to George Orwell, largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. (Image: AnnaStills/Shutterstock)

Language and Reality

Orwell was deeply committed to clear language as is evident in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. However, Big Brother; the thought police; Doublethink; these neologisms were introduced in Orwell’s most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the book, he primarily highlights the power of language and its inherent ability to shape our thoughts—good or evil.

It explores the devastating potential of language to destroy both personal and cultural identity as well as memory and history, when used to preserve a totalitarian system of government. From Orwell’s concern about the manipulation of language by a totalitarian regime sprouted Hannah Arendt’s astute observation on its intent.

A German-born political theorist, Arendt felt that the trouble with totalitarian regimes was not that they play power politics in an especially ruthless way, but that behind it was hidden an entirely new concept of power and an unprecedented concept of reality. The leader of a totalitarian movement, for Arendt, “assumes the ultimate victory of lie and fiction over truth and reality.”

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Idea of Hyper-reality

This new reality might look like the Ministry of Truth in Orwells’ Nineteen Eighty- Four which was responsible for updating history and bringing it in line with the present. Another utopian scholar who addresses new notions of reality most provocatively, is Jean Baudrillard, and one of his most intriguing explorations of this concept was his study of Disneyland.

Baudrillard, a French philosopher and cultural critic, has written about the end of history as an end of utopian thought. He posits the idea that we live in a kind of hyper-reality in which our representations are often of other representations rather than of anything we would really agree upon as real.

For him, Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.

Learn more about Utopia: the perfect nowhere.

Truth and Reality in Orwell’s Oceania

Orwell goes on further to explore what is truth and if it exists in real, concrete terms. His book Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in the super state, Oceania. According to the bureaucracy of Oceania, if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth. Orwell, thus, questions truth and reality, its empirical nature and contemplates if truth itself is a social construction, something that exists only because we all agree that it exists.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Doublethink could be seen as the dystopian version of language in contrast to the utopian vision Orwell sought, in which he emphasized that clear language really matters. Not just using effective rhetoric and accurate grammar to improve your representation of yourself and your arguments, but having a deep commitment to connecting language to reality.

A picture of George Orwell holding a BBC mic in his hand.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell produces a language with no euphemism or cloudiness at all: Newspeak. (Image: BBC/Public domain)

Political Language in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell was interested in how knowledge is constructed and communicated. At the same time, however, he was equally aware of the real historical moment in which he was writing. There was a specific anxiety about totalitarian rule.

For Orwell, unclear language was not just a matter of linguistic evolution or cultural decadence—it was rhetorical. He was particularly concerned with the language used by politicians and analyzed the motivations for the current state of political language.

He felt that political speech and writing were largely written as a defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus, political language consists, according to Orwell, largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Newspeak: A Different Language

For Orwell, it was not like this euphemistic approach to language didn’t matter. If thought corrupts language, he says, language can also corrupt thought. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he produces a different kind of language, a language with no euphemism or cloudiness at all: Newspeak.

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of English Socialism. The appendix provides a sort of linguistic analysis of the language, explaining its elimination of redundant words, so that in Newspeak one would say that chocolate, for example, or Big Brother, is doubleplusgood, instead of having to choose adjectives that might introduce unnecessary shades of meaning.

It’s one of the most wonderful moments of satire in a novel where sinister reality—or unreality—is the go-to mode of describing a stark, totalitarian future.

Learn more about Thomas More and utopian origins.

The Notion of Relative Reality

It goes back to the genre of dystopian novels. The literary conventions they employ that work together to create a compelling, if rather dark, narrative. It’s easy to say that dystopia functions as a fundamentally cautionary tale. Be careful, people—if you allow X, Y will follow.

Be careful not to create an army of technical writers whose job is to daily rewrite history in accordance with the wishes of a political elite whose face is that of Big Brother and whose surveillance apparatus includes a two-way telescreen in every home.

These things might seem absurd. But with Orwell, it isn’t the details that make up the cautionary tale. What really concerns Orwell is the notion of relative reality. The caution is not to avoid specific technological or political changes. It’s to avoid the cognitive slippage where we can no longer be quite sure of what we consider real.

Common Questions about George Orwell and the Notion of Relative Reality

Q: What neologisms did Orwell introduce in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Big Brother, the thought police and Doublethink were the neologisms introduced by Orwell in his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Q: What according to Orwell were the motivations behind the current state of political language?

According to Orwell, political speeches and writing were largely written as a defense of the indefensible.

Q: What is Newspeak?

In the book Nineteen Eighty- Four, written by George Orwell, Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.

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