“Nineteen Eighty-Four” and the Genre of Dystopia


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

Written by George Orwell in the year 1948, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most compelling masterpiece in the genre of dystopia. The novel carries with it an enormous sense of urgency. The sinister world Orwell describes feels almost real. It exhibits not only good writing but the power of his prose style: spare, stark, completely visceral.

A silhouette of a  large leg pressing down a man who is also pushing down the back of another man.
Nineteen Eighty-Four explores, how, within a totalitarian structure, an individual is kept powerless. (Image: Prazis Images/Shutterstock)

Winston Smith, the Protagonist

There is a frame narrative, which although crucial to many utopias, is equally important in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith is the main protagonist of the novel. His name itself is a clear reference to Winston Churchill and Adam Smith. Winston Smith provides the perfect perspective on the world of Oceania, constantly at war with either Eurasia or East Asia, and constantly allied with the other.

Winston’s is the only perspective we ever get in this dystopic novel. Yet, it is a perspective which, for the reader, is immersive. One almost begins to feel and think like him.

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

Immersiveness of a Dystopia

Winston thinks some very subversive things—dangerous things. This is particularly interesting because Winston seems like such an ordinary guy. He is 39 years old and long been separated from his wife, with whom he had a loveless marriage. He lives alone in a modest room that always smells faintly of other people’s cooking, especially the never-ending cabbage concoctions favored by his neighbors, the Parsons.

One wonders why does Orwell provide the reader with such specific and, honestly, mundane details about his protagonist’s life. It probably is a part of the immersive capacity of dystopia. Winston isn’t just a mind thinking through the best or worst ways to organize a society, he is a person with a body, a body that suffers from the aches and pains of middle age, a body that reacts—kind of to Winston’s surprise—to Julia, a much younger woman who takes an unexplained erotic interest in him.

Learn more about origins of utopia.

Power in a Dystopia

Primarily, Nineteen Eighty-Four is all about power in a dystopia.  It delves deep into the question of how does power function and what elements of a culture are most involved in its creation and perpetuation. It further explores, how, within a totalitarian structure, an individual is kept powerless in the face of the state.

Now, Winston isn’t completely powerless. After all, he is a member of the Party. He always wears overalls, a former symbol of oppression that the Party has rebranded by making it the uniform of the ruling class.

Yet, as an embodied narrator in a complex relationship to power—the power of the state and the power of Julia’s sexuality—Winston is vulnerable; deeply, deeply vulnerable. And that makes the reader feel vulnerable too, which makes us turn the page. Orwell, just like Zamyatin and Huxley, explores the idea that sexuality is a key means of both control and rebellion in a dystopia.

Adjustment to Reality

Winston works at the delightfully ironically named ‘Ministry of Truth, Records Department’, and he’s good at his job, which is to correct errors in the historical record. If, say, the chocolate ration of 30 grams per week, is suddenly lowered to 20 grams per week, what Winston’s office would do would be to go back and change the record to show that the chocolate ration had always been at 20 grams. That way no one can complain.

Not only can no one complain—at a certain point, when the historical record of a society is constantly being updated with accuracy toward the present, it’s not just that no one can complain; it’s that no one can remember. So, what might seem dishonest or inaccurate is really just an adjustment to reality.

O’Brien: Orwell’s Sinister Character

A photograph of the author Anthony Burgess.
A famous example of Doublethink is
2 + 2 = 5 used by Anthony Burgess for his novel 1985. (Image: Zazie44/Public domain)

Orwell forces us to think how it could be possible for Winston to do that work without being to some degree contaminated with knowledge. The answer to that question lies with O’Brien, one of the most wonderfully sinister characters in the book.

O’Brien initially approaches Winston as a friendly, a fellow subversive who gives Winston a book allegedly written by a member of the Brotherhood, a rebel group.

But it’s O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, whose Party affiliation is in question for the first two parts of the novel. It is also through his character that Orwell explains the concept of Doublethink.

Doublethink in a Dystopia

Doublethink is a concept that assimilates two mutually contradictory beliefs points in a dystopic society, and merges them into one. Orwell shows that, for O’Brien, squaring the circle, being in charge of changing history and believing the changes, is easy. Anyone can do it with enough practice.

The most famous example of Doublethink, however, is 2 + 2 = 5. Anthony Burgess uses this one for the epigraph of his novel 1985, in which he imagines a different but complementary view of the world one year after Orwell’s vision is set.

Except Burgess, is a bit too clever. The epigraph in full reads:

2 + 2 = 5. A notice put up in Moscow during the first Five Year Plan, indicating the possibility of getting the job done in four years, if workers put their backs into it.

Learn more about utopian technologies.

Language and Reality in a Dystopia

Nineteen Eighty-Four embodies the power of language in a dystopia to shape thought for good or for ill, and explores the devastating potential of language to destroy both personal and cultural identity, what we might call memory and history, when used to preserve a totalitarian system of government.

According to the bureaucracy of Oceania, the super state in which the novel is set, if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth. It toys with the very notion of truth and reality. It questions what if truth isn’t empirical and is a social construction, something that exists only because we all agree that it exists.

The novel, thus, focuses on some really important issues and contributes to the genre of dystopia, substantially. This is what makes dystopia so popular even till today. Orwell’s novel, however, doesn’t provide an answer to the question of how can the dark future be avoided.

Yet, he still holds out hope when Winston finally understands that “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power”. Hence, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s approach to the genre of dystopia is underlined by Orwell’s concerns about the notion of truth and reality and a deep commitment to connecting language to reality.

Common Questions about Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Genre of Dystopia

Q: What is the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four primarily about?

The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is primarily about power in a dystopia and questions how power functions and what elements of a culture are involved in its creation and perpetuation.

Q: What is Doublethink?

Doublethink, in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a concept that assimilates two contradictory logical points in a dystopic society, and merges them into one.

Q: What idea does Orwell, Zamyatin and Huxley explore?

Orwell, just like Zamyatin and Huxley, explores the idea that sexuality is a key means of both control and rebellion in a dystopia.

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