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Orwell’s ‘1984’: a seventy-year-old legacy

  • Published at 03:25 pm June 1st, 2019
Orwell's 1984

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According to a Guardian report, 67 years after its publication in 2017, George Orwell’s 1984 became the No 1 best-seller in the US, as sales boosted by 10,000%, while in UK and Australia it rose by 20% compared to the same period of 2016. The Hollywood Reporter rightly called the book, “the hottest literary property in town.”   

A renewed interest in Orwell’s novel started within a few days after the 45th presidential inauguration, held on January 20, 2017. The audience that gathered on the day for Donald Trump was considerably big but, surely, not the largest “to ever witness an inauguration”, as said by his press secretary. The claim was criticized by the public and the press, consequently, with memes comparing pictures from Trump’s and Barak Obama’s inauguration assemblies going viral. The US President’s press secretary is also regarded as a spokesman for the people of America, that’s why many could not bear what Chuck Todd of NBC News described as “falsehoods”. Later, in an interview, when the president’s adviser, Ms Conway, challenged Todd for his comment, arguing that the press secretary made the statement to give “alternative facts”, he replied, “Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.”  

After Conway’s interview, in social media and elsewhere, people who read Orwell’s 1984, related her phrase with the term “Newspeak”—a kind of language that eliminates any independent thought that goes against the autocratic party in 1984. In the book, Winston, the protagonist, gets tortured in “Room 101” for his rebellious acts which include keeping a notebook, reading books and making love to a woman; he is told by an inner party member that, “the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought,” which will make “thoughtcrime literally impossible.” To spread falsehood, the party has the “Ministry of Truth” that also controls history. The party believes, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” So, they use force and make people believe what they want. They make Winston believe “two plus two equals five” and he becomes sane—sane enough to say “I love Big Brother” at the end, and hates the love of his life, Julia—the only rebel that he knows.    

The author of Animal Farm (1945), has presented in 1984 a poverty-stricken dystopian world, divided into three states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, where Big Brothers rule. There humans are enslaved by the two percent that constructs “the inner party” which regulates everything that the people—from both the outer party and “proles” (proletariats, considered as animals)—do, see and even think. Everybody knows they are being watched, as there are posters that say “Big Brother is watching you,” as if everyone is a criminal and free-will has never been an option. The private telescreens broadcast the Party’s propagandas, the “Police Patrol” snoops around, looks at people’s windows, while the “Thought Police” looks for individuals who are not yet being brainwashed.     

In the book, the party also imposes “Doublethink” which means, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” This contradictory stance makes slogans like “War is peace / Freedom is slavery / Ignorance is strength” look sane. Here, Bengali movie lovers would connect the reality of 1984 with that of their favorite Satyajit Roy film Heerak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980), which is the second installment of Gupi Gain Bagha Bain Trilogy. In this film, to stop Udayan Pandit’s school, the king Heerak sends orders to close it, with slogans like “Those who study, starve to death / Learning has no end, hence it goes in vain.” The king promotes the vision: “The more they learn, the more they realize, and the less they obey,” and has his “Mogoj Dholai” machine to brainwash the minds of the civilians. 

Also in 2013, when Barak Obama was the US president, 1984 saw a massive rise in sales, as the scope of the US’s domestic surveillance operations came to light. Edward Snowden told the Guardian that “The N.S.A. (National Security Agency), specifically, targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default.” Thus, the concepts and phrases Orwell used in his book have become an important asset for political language. The word “Orwellian” is one of the legacies that his works have been carrying; it denotes anything dictatorial against a free and open society. It is about everything that “the party” in the novel stands for, and also, according to The New York Times, it is "the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer".   

1984 has been adapted for films, television, radio, and theater. Michael Anderson directed a film that came out in 1956 while Michael Radford directed another released in 1984. Besides its influence in political thinking and uprisings, it also has its influence in various art forms, literary and audio-visual: books, movies, television shows and comics for example. Orwell’s legacy seems to continue more in the current world as it is evident in the exponential growth of dystopian fiction of all forms, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Running from 2011, Netflix’s series Black Mirror, for example, portrays a world which is dystopia in nature and has become an intellectual relief for the audience; its enormous popularity also says so. Why? Are we still living in 1984?

On June 8 this year, 1984—a book that has been resurrected generation after generation—will mark 70 years of its publication. In his article published in The Guardian, “Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Dorian Lynskey has claimed, “It has been adapted for cinema, television, radio, theatre, opera and ballet and has influenced novels, films, plays, television shows, comic books, albums, advertisements, speeches, election campaigns and uprisings. People have spent years in jail just for reading it. No work of literary fiction from the past century approaches its cultural ubiquity while retaining its weight.” 

In a world of technological development, where TVs, computers, internet, surveillance cameras, and satellite control our lives; where everything seems connected and privacy can be hacked, as planned by the companies and the authorities who constitute laws to snatch the rights of the Winstons and Julias: writers, artists, teachers, activists, conscious citizens, or anybody who challenges the establishment, George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 surely makes significant sense.   


Hironmoy Golder is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.