Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most profound and important novels ever written. Even if you’ve never read the book, you will have heard of it.
Written by the brilliant George Orwell, the cultural impact of the book is reflected in the number of phrases from it that have entered the public discourse.
Terms such as Big Brother and newspeak are now commonly used, while the term Orwellian is used to refer to a society that is dystopian.
There is no greater sign of how a book punctures the public consciousness than when its ideas become widely used.
Written in 1949, the book is more important than ever given the rise of populism around the world. If you want to understand where this path could lead, Nineteen Eighty-Four offers a chilling example.
This is a book that everyone should read if only to ensure the world described in the book never comes to pass in reality.
Nineteen Eighty-Four summary
Takeaway 1 – Children are the easiest to manipulate
One of the most chilling parts of the novel is when Orwell describes how children have bought into the propaganda pushed by the regime.
They are only too happy to out people who may not be towing the party line and are happy to spy on others to ensure they are complying with the whims of the party.
This is a terrifying look into how a dystopian society could entrench power by manipulating the minds of the young to remain in power for as long as possible.
When you’re young you’re open to ideas. Your mind is like a sponge and soaks up what you see around you.
If your living in an oppressed state, children are the easiest to manipulate as they are still developing and are susceptible to manipulation.
This is a terrifying thought because if you can convince children your regime is great and glorious, then the potential for the party in charge to remain in power ad Infinitum is increased.
Of course, people’s opinions change as they get older, but if you’re living in a totalitarian state, deviance from the party line is not tolerated.
Takeaway 2 – Mass surveillance is dangerous
The common refrain from those who have nothing against mass surveillance is that if you don’t break the law you have nothing to worry about.
The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t justify mass surveillance. If people have nothing to hide then why would you want to trade in your right to privacy?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, cameras track people’s movements and microphones pick up everything that is said. Apart from a few remote spots, nowhere is safe from the scope of the party’s surveillance.
Two-way telescreens exist in people’s apartments so you can be watched at all times. Similar screens are found in workplaces and public places.
They know where you go, they know what you say and they even know what you think. One of the more chilling parts of the book is when the main protagonist Winston enters Room 101 and encounters his greatest fear, rats.
This is when he realises that the party’s surveillance is more all-encompassing than he thought. If the party knows your deepest fears, there’s not much they don’t know about you.
One of the issues with mass surveillance is that encourages people to behave in a certain way. It’s similar to the principle of the panopticon prison. The guard tower in the centre has a 360-degree view of all the prison cells which encourages them to behave as they assume they are constantly being watched even if they aren’t.
When this is extrapolated into society is creates numerous problems. People are not free to act as they wish. If the regime is authoritarian, people will not protest for fear of reprisal.
It leads to many uncomfortable questions and eliminates the freedoms that many of us hold dear.
If left unchecked mass surveillance could lead us down a path where our every movement is tracked and deepest thoughts are no longer unknown to the powers that be.
Takeaway 3 – Fake news should be resisted
Before Brexit and the election of Trump, the term fake news was rarely heard of. Since then, fake news has almost become the norm.
This is a worrying trend for many reasons, but one is that it is harder for the normal person to distinguish between what is fact and what is not.
Nineteen Eighty-Four takes this to the extreme as the party controls all the information that is disseminated and rewrites history to boot.
One of the most infamous passages is the party convinces people that 2+2 =5 simply because they say so. Objective truth no longers matters, all that matters is what the party says.
Another area that is terrifying in the novel is that the party does not allow individuals to keep records of their past. Photographs and diaries are not permitted.
This leads to people’s memories becoming fuzzy and they struggle to remember the past as a result.
All of this plays into the hands of the party who is able to exert greater control over the population as what they deem as the truth is accepted as the truth by the masses because they have nothing else to fall back on.
With the brazen lies by Trump and others of his ilk, Nineteen Eighty-Four should be a reminder that we should be careful what we believe and seek out the objective truth.
There is no such thing as alternative facts, there is only the truth. When we stop critiquing what we are told and willingly accept obvious lies, we run the risk of a dystopian future that none of us wants.
- “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
- “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
- “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
- “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
- “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
- “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four review
This Nineteen Eighty-Four summary has looked at a few aspects of one of the most famous novels of all time.
Along with Animal Farm. this is one of George Orwell’s best pieces of fiction. It may have been written in the 1940s, but it’s more relevant than ever.
Orwell was describing a society similar to the Soviet Union, which he despised. Although there is only North Korea that is somewhat to the Soviet Union, democracy is under threat like never before.
Backsliding on the rule of law has taken place in Hungary and Poland, while America has suffered at the hands of Donald Trump’s presidency.
As How Democracies Die shows, it’s easier than we think for a regime to descend into authoritarianism.
Orwell witnessed during his life, and his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War in Catalonia hardened his thinking on this.
We are lucky that we have not had to witness the horrors of war that our grandparents did. However, threats to democracy and freedom still loom.
The Chinese government runs an authoritarian style regime under the auspicies of technology, which assures safety at the price of freedom of expression.
While western democracies are nowhere near this stage, thinking it can’t happen here is foolish. As history shows, regimes can and will fall.
The lessons of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that we need to be vigilant to protect democracy because the coming technological revolution could usher in a society eerily similar to the one Orwell describes.
Who should read Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Due to the historical moment, we are living through, everyone should read this book.
Orwell is a fantastic writer and the world he portrays is a dark and menacing one. It’s the Soviet Union under the rule of Stalin on steroids.
This is one of George Orwell’s best books and one that needs to be read more than ever.