• Read TIME’s Original Review of <i>Nineteen Eighty-Four</i>

Read TIME’s Original Review of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nov. 28, 1983

G eorge Orwell was already an established literary star when his masterwork Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on this day in 1949, but that didn’t stop TIME’s reviewer from being pleasantly surprised by the book. After all, even the expectation that a book would be good doesn’t mean one can’t be impressed when it turns out to be, as TIME put it, “absolutely super.”

One of the reasons, the review suggested, was Orwell’s bet that his fictional dystopia would not actually seem so foreign to contemporary readers. They would easily recognize many elements of the fictional world that TIME summed up as such:

In Britain 1984 A.D., no one would have suspected that Winston and Julia were capable of crimethink (dangerous thoughts) or a secret desire for ownlife (individualism). After all, Party-Member Winston Smith was one of the Ministry of Truth’s most trusted forgers; he had always flung himself heart & soul into the falsification of government statistics. And Party-Member Julia was outwardly so goodthinkful (naturally orthodox) that, after a brilliant girlhood in the Spies, she became active in the Junior Anti-Sex League and was snapped up by Pornosec, a subsection of the government Fiction Department that ground out happy-making pornography for the masses. In short, the grim, grey London Times could not have been referring to Winston and Julia when it snorted contemptuously: “Old-thinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc,” i.e., “Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.” How Winston and Julia rebelled, fell in love and paid the penalty in the terroristic world of tomorrow is the thread on which Britain’s George Orwell has spun his latest and finest work of fiction. In Animal Farm (TIME, Feb. 4, 1946,) Orwell parodied the Communist system in terms of barnyard satire; but in 1984 … there is not a smile or a jest that does not add bitterness to Orwell’s utterly depressing vision of what the world may be in 35 years’ time.

Decades later, as the real-life 1984 approached, TIME dedicated a cover story to Orwell’s earlier vision of what that year could have been like. “That Year Is Almost Here,” the headline proclaimed . But obsessing over how it matched up to its fictional depiction was missing the point, the article posited. “The proper way to remember George Orwell, finally, is not as a man of numbers—1984 will pass, not Nineteen Eighty–Four—but as a man of letters,” wrote Paul Gray, “who wanted to change the world by changing the word.”

Read the full 1949 review, here in the TIME Vault: Where the Rainbow Ends

LIST: The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time

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1984 by George Orwell, book of a lifetime: An absorbing, deeply affecting political thriller

The novel creates a world so plausible, so complete that to read it is to experience another world, says jonathan freedland, article bookmarked.

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film version of 1984

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So much of it has entered the language, becoming a settled part of our common cultural inheritance, that it's easy to forget that 1984 was ever a book at all. From Big Brother to Doublethink, the landscape of the dystopia George Orwell created in 1949 exists in the minds even of those who've never picked up the novel. It has become a shorthand for totalitarianism, for the surveillance state, for the power of the mass media to manipulate public opinion, history and even the truth – and, in the process, has allowed people to forget that it remains a story to be read.

Even those who manage to look beyond its place in the folk memory, and do it the honour of assessing it as a novel, rarely see it for what it is – which is a political thriller. Not just a political thriller, but an exemplar: the very model of the form. It does what every novel in the genre should do – combining the illumination of an intriguing idea and the telling of a cracking story. When people discuss 1984, they tend to talk about Orwell's achievement of the former – his fully realised portrayal of life under a brutal one-party dictatorship – but when people read the book, as I did as a young teenager, what holds them is the fate of its protagonist, Winston Smith, his lover Julia, and their doomed attempt to taste freedom. The book succeeds because it is no manifesto, but an absorbing, deeply affecting story.

It has its defects, of course. Generations of young readers, and not just them, have surely yearned to skip at least some of the treatise by Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky-esque dissident and public enemy whose forbidden work comes into Winston's hands. But little of that matters. The novel creates a world so plausible, so complete that to read it is to experience another world. And what higher goal can fiction reach for than that? And yet it rests on that simple, two-word question on which most political thrillers are built: what if? Orwell asked himself what Britain would look like if it fell prey to either one of the totalitarian creeds that dominated the mid-20th century. From that basic inquiry, 1984 was born.

Robert Harris's Fatherland sprung from asking, "What if Britain lost the war?" Michael Crichton created Jurassic Park by wondering, "What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?" My new novel asks, "What if China dominates the world? What will life be like?" It's not only journalists who should be in awe of George Orwell. Anyone embarking on a political thriller should look to 1984 – to see how it's done.

Jonathan Freedland's new novel 'The Third Woman' is published by HarperCollins

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George Orwell

The masterpiece that killed George Orwell

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell's masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as "Big Brother", "doublethink" and "newspeak" have become part of everyday currency, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

"Orwellian" is now a universal shorthand for anything repressive or totalitarian, and the story of Winston Smith, an everyman for his times, continues to resonate for readers whose fears for the future are very different from those of an English writer in the mid-1940s.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell's dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the second world war. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, "The Last Man in Europe", had been incubating in Orwell's mind since the Spanish civil war. His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian fiction We, probably began to acquire a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife, Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was "convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world" at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor's Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell's "absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency", and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell's creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated "fairy tale". It's clear from his Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. Soon after Richard was adopted, Orwell's flat was wrecked by a doodlebug. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received the news that his wife, Eileen, had died under anaesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife's premature death. In 1945, for instanc e, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Now Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, that Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell's response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was "almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage".

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleaker even than wartime, and he had always suffered from a bad chest. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. "Smothered under journalism," as he put it, he told one friend, "I have become more and more like a sucked orange."

Ironically, part of Orwell's difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. "Everyone keeps coming at me," he complained to Koestler, "wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc - you don't know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again."

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions but the promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides came with its own price. Years before, in the essay "Why I Write", he had described the struggle to complete a book: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's personality." Then that famous Orwellian coda. "Good prose is like a window pane."

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after "a quite unendurable winter", he revelled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. "I am struggling with this book," he wrote to his agent, "which I may finish by the end of the year - at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn."

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cosy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered here as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

The locals knew him by his real name of Eric Blair, a tall, cadaverous, sad-looking man worrying about how he would cope on his own. The solution, when he was joined by baby Richard and his nanny, was to recruit his highly competent sister, Avril. Richard Blair remembers that his father "could not have done it without Avril. She was an excellent cook, and very practical. None of the accounts of my father's time on Jura recognise how essential she was."

Once his new regime was settled, Orwell could finally make a start on the book. At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: "I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can't quite shake it off."

Mindful of his publisher's impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: "Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job." Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed "rough draft" by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. But then, disaster.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura was that he and his young son could enjoy the outdoor life together, go fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being "bloody cold" in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favours. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with "The Last Man in Europe" continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with "wretched health", Orwell recognised that his novel was still "a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely".

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with "inflammation of the lungs" and told Koestler that he was "very ill in bed". Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: "I still feel deadly sick," and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, "like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor - I wanted to get on with the book I was writing." In 1947 there was no cure for TB - doctors prescribed fresh air and a regular diet - but there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Richard Blair believes that his father was given excessive doses of the new wonder drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails) but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. "It's all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff," Orwell told his publisher. "It's rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works."

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in his coffin. "It really is rather important," wrote Warburg to his star author, "from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible."

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising Warburg to deliver it in "early December", and coping with "filthy weather" on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: "I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it's awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn't conclusive."

This is one of Orwell's exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as "a Utopia written in the form of a novel". The typing of the fair copy of "The Last Man in Europe" became another dimension of Orwell's battle with his book. The more he revised his "unbelievably bad" manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, "extremely long, even 125,000 words". With characteristic candour, he noted: "I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied... I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB."

And he was still undecided about the title: "I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE," he wrote, "but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two." By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell's health was deteriorating, the "unbelievably bad" manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell's agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy's instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle "the grisly job" of typing the book on his "decrepit typewriter" by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that "it really wasn't worth all this fuss. It's merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can't type very neatly and can't do many pages a day." Besides, he added, it was "wonderful" what mistakes a professional typist could make, and "in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms".

The typescript of George Orwell's latest novel reached London in mid December, as promised. Warburg recognised its qualities at once ("amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read") and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted "if we can't sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot".

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanitorium high in the Cotswolds. "I ought to have done this two months ago," he told Astor, "but I wanted to get that bloody book finished." Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend's treatment but Orwell's specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor's journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated "with a certain alarm". As spring came he was "having haemoptyses" (spitting blood) and "feeling ghastly most of the time" but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering "quite good notices" with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn't surprise him "if you had to change that profile into an obituary".

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognised as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell's health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January he suffered a massive haemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell's burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

Why '1984'?

Orwell's title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London's novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chesterton's story, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill", which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell's American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there's no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair's birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There's no mystery about the decision to abandon "The Last Man in Europe". Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech: How '1984' has entrusted our culture

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Nazi-esque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O'Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation.

Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel's themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and officials - alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

George owes his own adjective to this book alone and his idea that wellbeing is crushed by restrictive, authoritarian and untruthful government.

Big Brother (is watching you)

A term in common usage for a scarily omniscient ruler long before the worldwide smash-hit reality-TV show was even a twinkle in its producers' eyes. The irony of societal hounding of Big Brother contestants would not have been lost on George Orwell.

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101 - rather like those tower blocks that don't have a 13th floor - thanks to the ingenious Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought Police

An accusation often levelled at the current government by those who like it least is that they are trying to tell us what we can and cannot think is right and wrong. People who believe that there are correct ways to think find themselves named after Orwell's enforcement brigade.

Thoughtcrime

See "Thought Police" above. The act or fact of transgressing enforced wisdom.

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy, but with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of "doublethink" when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical - but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate along with their pints in the pub. Oliver Marre

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Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined

What 1984 means today

1984 book review genre

No novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984 . The title, the adjectival form of the author’s last name, the vocabulary of the all-powerful Party that rules the superstate Oceania with the ideology of Ingsoc— doublethink , memory hole , unperson , thoughtcrime , Newspeak , Thought Police , Room 101 , Big Brother —they’ve all entered the English language as instantly recognizable signs of a nightmare future. It’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984. Throughout the Cold War, the novel found avid underground readers behind the Iron Curtain who wondered, How did he know?

1984 book review genre

It was also assigned reading for several generations of American high-school students. I first encountered 1984 in 10th-grade English class. Orwell’s novel was paired with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , whose hedonistic and pharmaceutical dystopia seemed more relevant to a California teenager in the 1970s than did the bleak sadism of Oceania. I was too young and historically ignorant to understand where 1984 came from and exactly what it was warning against. Neither the book nor its author stuck with me. In my 20s, I discovered Orwell’s essays and nonfiction books and reread them so many times that my copies started to disintegrate, but I didn’t go back to 1984 . Since high school, I’d lived through another decade of the 20th century, including the calendar year of the title, and I assumed I already “knew” the book. It was too familiar to revisit.

Read: Teaching ‘1984’ in 2016

So when I recently read the novel again, I wasn’t prepared for its power. You have to clear away what you think you know, all the terminology and iconography and cultural spin-offs, to grasp the original genius and lasting greatness of 1984 . It is both a profound political essay and a shocking, heartbreaking work of art. And in the Trump era , it’s a best seller .

1984 book review genre

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 , by the British music critic Dorian Lynskey, makes a rich and compelling case for the novel as the summation of Orwell’s entire body of work and a master key to understanding the modern world. The book was published in 1949, when Orwell was dying of tuberculosis , but Lynskey dates its biographical sources back more than a decade to Orwell’s months in Spain as a volunteer on the republican side of the country’s civil war. His introduction to totalitarianism came in Barcelona, when agents of the Soviet Union created an elaborate lie to discredit Trotskyists in the Spanish government as fascist spies.

1984 book review genre

Left-wing journalists readily accepted the fabrication, useful as it was to the cause of communism. Orwell didn’t, exposing the lie with eyewitness testimony in journalism that preceded his classic book Homage to Catalonia —and that made him a heretic on the left. He was stoical about the boredom and discomforts of trench warfare—he was shot in the neck and barely escaped Spain with his life—but he took the erasure of truth hard. It threatened his sense of what makes us sane, and life worth living. “History stopped in 1936,” he later told his friend Arthur Koestler, who knew exactly what Orwell meant. After Spain, just about everything he wrote and read led to the creation of his final masterpiece. “History stopped,” Lynskey writes, “and Nineteen Eighty-Four began.”

The biographical story of 1984 —the dying man’s race against time to finish his novel in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura , off Scotland—will be familiar to many Orwell readers. One of Lynskey’s contributions is to destroy the notion that its terrifying vision can be attributed to, and in some way disregarded as, the death wish of a tuberculosis patient. In fact, terminal illness roused in Orwell a rage to live—he got remarried on his deathbed—just as the novel’s pessimism is relieved, until its last pages, by Winston Smith’s attachment to nature, antique objects, the smell of coffee, the sound of a proletarian woman singing, and above all his lover, Julia. 1984 is crushingly grim, but its clarity and rigor are stimulants to consciousness and resistance. According to Lynskey, “Nothing in Orwell’s life and work supports a diagnosis of despair.”

Lynskey traces the literary genesis of 1984 to the utopian fictions of the optimistic 19th century—Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888); the sci-fi novels of H. G. Wells, which Orwell read as a boy—and their dystopian successors in the 20th, including the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). The most interesting pages in The Ministry of Truth are Lynskey’s account of the novel’s afterlife. The struggle to claim 1984 began immediately upon publication, with a battle over its political meaning. Conservative American reviewers concluded that Orwell’s main target wasn’t just the Soviet Union but the left generally. Orwell, fading fast, waded in with a statement explaining that the novel was not an attack on any particular government but a satire of the totalitarian tendencies in Western society and intellectuals: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you .” But every work of art escapes the artist’s control—the more popular and complex, the greater the misunderstandings.

Lynskey’s account of the reach of 1984 is revelatory. The novel has inspired movies, television shows, plays, a ballet, an opera, a David Bowie album , imitations, parodies, sequels, rebuttals, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Black Panther Party, and the John Birch Society. It has acquired something of the smothering ubiquity of Big Brother himself: 1984 is watching you. With the arrival of the year 1984, the cultural appropriations rose to a deafening level. That January an ad for the Apple Macintosh was watched by 96 million people during the Super Bowl and became a marketing legend. The Mac, represented by a female athlete, hurls a sledgehammer at a giant telescreen and explodes the shouting face of a man—oppressive technology—to the astonishment of a crowd of gray zombies. The message: “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ”

The argument recurs every decade or so: Orwell got it wrong. Things haven’t turned out that bad. The Soviet Union is history. Technology is liberating. But Orwell never intended his novel to be a prediction, only a warning. And it’s as a warning that 1984 keeps finding new relevance. The week of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when the president’s adviser Kellyanne Conway justified his false crowd estimate by using the phrase alternative facts , the novel returned to the best-seller lists. A theatrical adaptation was rushed to Broadway. The vocabulary of Newspeak went viral. An authoritarian president who stood the term fake news on its head, who once said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” has given 1984 a whole new life.

What does the novel mean for us? Not Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, where Winston is interrogated and tortured until he loses everything he holds dear. We don’t live under anything like a totalitarian system. “By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four ,” Lynskey acknowledges. Instead, we pass our days under the nonstop surveillance of a telescreen that we bought at the Apple Store, carry with us everywhere, and tell everything to, without any coercion by the state. The Ministry of Truth is Facebook, Google, and cable news. We have met Big Brother and he is us.

Trump’s election brought a rush of cautionary books with titles like On Tyranny , Fascism: A Warning , and How Fascism Works . My local bookstore set up a totalitarian-themed table and placed the new books alongside 1984 . They pointed back to the 20th century—if it happened in Germany, it could happen here—and warned readers how easily democracies collapse. They were alarm bells against complacency and fatalism—“ the politics of inevitability ,” in the words of the historian Timothy Snyder, “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” The warnings were justified, but their emphasis on the mechanisms of earlier dictatorships drew attention away from the heart of the malignancy—not the state, but the individual. The crucial issue was not that Trump might abolish democracy but that Americans had put him in a position to try. Unfreedom today is voluntary. It comes from the bottom up.

We are living with a new kind of regime that didn’t exist in Orwell’s time. It combines hard nationalism—the diversion of frustration and cynicism into xenophobia and hatred—with soft distraction and confusion: a blend of Orwell and Huxley, cruelty and entertainment. The state of mind that the Party enforces through terror in 1984 , where truth becomes so unstable that it ceases to exist, we now induce in ourselves. Totalitarian propaganda unifies control over all information, until reality is what the Party says it is—the goal of Newspeak is to impoverish language so that politically incorrect thoughts are no longer possible. Today the problem is too much information from too many sources, with a resulting plague of fragmentation and division—not excessive authority but its disappearance, which leaves ordinary people to work out the facts for themselves, at the mercy of their own prejudices and delusions.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, propagandists at a Russian troll farm used social media to disseminate a meme: “ ‘The People Will Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe.’  — George Orwell.” But Orwell never said this. The moral authority of his name was stolen and turned into a lie toward that most Orwellian end: the destruction of belief in truth. The Russians needed partners in this effort and found them by the millions, especially among America’s non-elites. In 1984 , working-class people are called “proles,” and Winston believes they’re the only hope for the future. As Lynskey points out, Orwell didn’t foresee “that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.”

We stagger under the daily load of doublethink pouring from Trump, his enablers in the Inner Party, his mouthpieces in the Ministry of Truth, and his fanatical supporters among the proles. Spotting doublethink in ourselves is much harder. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” Orwell wrote . In front of my nose, in the world of enlightened and progressive people where I live and work, a different sort of doublethink has become pervasive. It’s not the claim that true is fake or that two plus two makes five. Progressive doublethink—which has grown worse in reaction to the right-wing kind—creates a more insidious unreality because it operates in the name of all that is good. Its key word is justice —a word no one should want to live without. But today the demand for justice forces you to accept contradictions that are the essence of doublethink.

For example, many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics and that good politics is a matter of identity. The progressive view of a book or play depends on its political stance, and its stance—even its subject matter—is scrutinized in light of the group affiliation of the artist: Personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value. This confusion of categories guides judgments all across the worlds of media, the arts, and education, from movie reviews to grant committees. Some people who register the assumption as doublethink might be privately troubled, but they don’t say so publicly. Then self-censorship turns into self-deception, until the recognition itself disappears—a lie you accept becomes a lie you forget. In this way, intelligent people do the work of eliminating their own unorthodoxy without the Thought Police.

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Orthodoxy is also enforced by social pressure, nowhere more intensely than on Twitter, where the specter of being shamed or “canceled” produces conformity as much as the prospect of adding to your tribe of followers does. This pressure can be more powerful than a party or state, because it speaks in the name of the people and in the language of moral outrage, against which there is, in a way, no defense. Certain commissars with large followings patrol the precincts of social media and punish thought criminals, but most progressives assent without difficulty to the stifling consensus of the moment and the intolerance it breeds—not out of fear, but because they want to be counted on the side of justice.

This willing constriction of intellectual freedom will do lasting damage. It corrupts the ability to think clearly, and it undermines both culture and progress. Good art doesn’t come from wokeness, and social problems starved of debate can’t find real solutions. “Nothing is gained by teaching a parrot a new word,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “What is needed is the right to print what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side.” Not much has changed since the 1940s. The will to power still passes through hatred on the right and virtue on the left.

1984 will always be an essential book, regardless of changes in ideologies, for its portrayal of one person struggling to hold on to what is real and valuable. “Sanity is not statistical,” Winston thinks one night as he slips off to sleep. Truth, it turns out, is the most fragile thing in the world. The central drama of politics is the one inside your skull.

This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “George Orwell’s Unheeded Warning.”

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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