George Orwell's 1984, like many works of literature, unmistakably carries with it literary traditions reaching back to the earliest of storytellers. Among the literary traditions that Orwell uses is the concept of utopia, which he distorts effectively for his own purposes. Utopia, or Nowhere Land, is an ideal place or society in which human beings realize a perfect existence, a place without suffering or human malady. Orwell did not originate this genre. In fact, the word utopia is taken from Sir Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1516. The word is now used to describe any place considered to be perfect.
In 1984, Orwell creates a technologically advanced world in which fear is used as a tool for manipulating and controlling individuals who do not conform to the prevailing political orthodoxy. In his attempt to educate the reader about the consequences of certain political philosophies and the defects of human nature, Orwell manipulates and usurps the utopian tradition and creates a dystopia, a fictional setting in which life is extremely bad from deprivation, oppression, or terror. Orwell's dystopia is a place where humans have no control over their own lives, where nearly every positive feeling is squelched, and where people live in misery, fear, and repression.
The dystopian tradition in literature is a relatively modern one and is usually a criticism of the time in which the author lives. These novels are often political statements, as was Orwell's other dystopian novel, Animal Farm, published in 1945. By using a dystopian setting for 1984, Orwell suggests the possibility of a utopia, and then makes very clear, with each horror that takes place, the price humankind pays for "perfect" societies.
Orwell wrote 1984 just after World War II ended, wanting it to serve as a warning to his readers. He wanted to be certain that the kind of future presented in the novel should never come to pass, even though the practices that contribute to the development of such a state were abundantly present in Orwell's time.
Orwell lived during a time in which tyranny was a reality in Spain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries, where government kept an iron fist (or curtain) around its citizens, where there was little, if any freedom, and where hunger, forced labor, and mass execution were common.
Orwell espoused democratic socialism. In his essay, "Why I Write," published in 1947, two years before the publication of 1984, Orwell stated that he writes, among other reasons, from the "[d]esire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after." Orwell used his writing to express his powerful political feelings, and that fact is readily apparent in the society he creates in 1984.
The society in 1984, although fictional, mirrors the political weather of the societies that existed all around him. Orwell's Oceania is a terrifying society reminiscent of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union — complete repression of the human spirit, absolute governmental control of daily life, constant hunger, and the systematic "vaporization" of individuals who do not, or will not, comply with the government's values.
Orwell despised the politics of the leaders he saw rise to power in the countries around him, and he despised what the politicians did to the people of those countries. Big Brother is certainly a fusing of both Stalin and Hitler, both real and terrifying leaders, though both on opposite sides of the philosophical spectrum. By combining traits from both the Soviet Union's and Germany's totalitarian states, Orwell makes clear that he is staunchly against any form of governmental totalitarianism, either from the left or the right of the political spectrum.
By making Big Brother so easily recognizable (he is physically similar to both Hitler and Stalin, all three having heavy black mustaches and charismatic speaking styles), Orwell makes sure that the reader of 1984 does not mistake his intention — to show clearly how totalitarianism negatively affects the human spirit and how it is impossible to remain freethinking under such circumstances.
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