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75 Years Since George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is Published

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Authored by Laura Wales
Published on 8th June, 2024 8 min read

75 Years Since George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is Published

Today (08/06/2024) marks 75 years since the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was Orwell’s ninth and final book, published less than a year before his death on 21 January 1950. The text serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of totalitarianism, government surveillance, and the manipulation of truth. Orwell modelled the novel’s authoritarian state, led by the all-seeing “Big Brother”, on the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.[1] According to the historian George Enteen, “Orwell’s novel has obvious reference[s] to a historical entity (Stalinist Russia) and we also have the author’s word that Nazi Germany was not entirely removed from his mind”.[2]

Nineteen Eighty-Four imagines a future where the world is divided in to three states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. There are deadlocked in a perpetual war. It is thought that Orwell took inspiration from the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944, where he was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world”.[3] The novel provides no reason for the war—the real purpose of the conflict is to keep the states’ economies productive without adding to the wealth of their citizens, who live in a state of fear and deprivation. The war goes unquestioned by the citizens of Oceania, where the story takes place.

Oceania is home to Airstrip One, previously Great Britain, which is ruled by the omniscient Big Brother, a dictoral leader supported by a cult of personality manufactured by “Ingsoc”, the ruling Party, and maintained by its “Thought Police”.[4] Residents are under constant surveillance via two-way telescreens, hidden cameras, and microphones, all of which endeavour to extinguish individual freedom of thought. Those who pose a threat to the Party become “unpersons”, who typically disappear with “every record of everything you had ever done…abolished, annihilated: vaporized”.[5]

The novel’s protagonist Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, a deliberate misnomer, as the department is responsible for the falsification of historical events. His job entails revising past copies of The Times, altering details so that they are in line with the state’s ever-changing version of history. He then destroys the original documents by depositing them in “memory holes”.[6] The Party’s slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future…who controls the present controls the past”, demonstrates how the regime retains its power through the manipulation of history.[7] By negating past events that may undermine its supremacy, the Party is able to present itself as wholly righteous. This strategy strengthens its totalitarian grasp on the minds of its subjects. Thus, Orwell highlighted the importance of preserving history in order to protect the freedom of the future.

Winston despises the Party and dreams of rebellion, which he enacts in his own small way by keeping a forbidden diary in which he records his inner thoughts and hatred for Big Brother. He understands that “if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death”, yet he continues with his act of self-expression.[8] The diary gives Winston space to recall his childhood, little of which he can remember, as well as the vague fragments of history that he can recall that have subsequently been airbrushed out by the Party. The historian Malcolm Thorpe has noted that “Winston’s mind contains memories that not even the Party can eradicate”.[9] Despite the Party’s efforts to achieve omnipotent rule, Winston’s memories undermine its legitimacy as he can remember events that Ingsoc have denied.

“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull”.[10]

Winston meets Julia, “a bold looking girl” who he “disliked…from the very first moment of seeing her”, as he assumes she is one of the most “bigoted adherents of the Party”.[11] It transpires, however, that she too hates the regime, which Winston discovers when she hands him a love note and they begin a covert affair. For the pair, “love and its sexual expression are a secret defiance” which they indulge in when they rent a room above the antique shop where Winston bought his dairy.[12]

Winston and Julia are summoned by a member of the Inner-Party, O’Brien, who tells them that he is part of a secret resistance organisation called the Brotherhood. He inducts them into this movement and gives them a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s book. Goldstein is Big Brother’s most dangerous opponent, who the state presents as “the Enemy of the People”.[13]

It turns out that O’Brien is a Party spy who pretends to be a member of the Brotherhood to trap Winston. The pair are seized and subjected to months of torture until, eventually, they renounce each other. In the final line of the novel, Orwell informs his readers that Winston “loved Big Brother” after all.[14] It is what Winston sees in Room 101 that pushes him over the edge. Thorp explains that “Winston’s secret phobia – rats – is discovered by this intricate spy network that seems not only to monitor outward behavior but also able to probe into the inward depths of the psyche”.[15] In this way, the Party are able to penetrate, and thus manipulate, the minds of its subjects. The inevitability of the novel’s ending reflects Orwell’s anxieties regarding the prospect of totalitarianism.  

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a product of the author’s disillusionment with the world’s post-war political landscape. Orwell, the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, was a journalist who had harboured the idea of a dystopian novel since he fought as a volunteer for the socialist cause in the Spanish Civil War. In an article in The Guardian, Robert McCrum wrote that the “circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell's dystopia”. [16] Orwell wrote the novel on the Scottish Island of Jura. He was battling TB, alone on the island following the death of his wife Eileen, which had left him a single parent to their adopted son, Richard.[17] Richard was born in 1944, the same year as Winston, who “believed that he was born in 1944 or 1945”.[18] As Thomas Pynchon pointed out in his introduction to the 1949 Penguin edition of the novel, it is “not difficult to guess that Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was imagining a future for his son’s generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against”. [19]

1984, the legendary year of Orwell’s imagined future, sits 40 years after the birth of his son, and 40 years ago from today. We are as far away from Orwell’s future as he was when he began thinking about the world he envisaged for the next generation.

Orwell and his son, Richard.

 [1] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1949), 3.

[2] George M. Enteen, “George Orwell and The Theory of Totalitarianism: A 1984 Retrospective,” The Journal of General Education 36, no. 3 (1984): 206-215, 206.

[3] Robert McCrum, “The masterpiece that killed George Orwell,” The Guardian, 2009, accessed 8 May 2024, available at

[4] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 4.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Malcolm R. Thorp, “The Dynamics of Terror in Orwell's "1984",” Brigham Young University Studies 24, no. 1 (1984): 3-17, 12.

[10] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 32.

[11] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 12.

[12] Lillian Feder, “Selfhood, Language, and Reality: George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four",” The Georgia Review 37, no. 2 (1983): 392-409, 403.

[13] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 14.

[14] Ibid., 342.

[15] Thorp, “The Dynamics of Terror in Orwell's "1984",” 10.

[16] McCrum, “The masterpiece that killed George Orwell”.


[18] Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 9.

[19] Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1949), xxiv.

Authored by Laura Wales

Laura Wales

Laura Wales is a Marketing and Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is an English Literature graduate from Durham University. She has a particular interest in the history of the First World War, along with the legacies of historical literature in contemporary writing.

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