The novel is set in Oceania, one of three intercontinental superstates that divided up the world after a global war. Orwell used England as a model for Oceania, but every other country was somehow involved in its creation: he based Eurasia on Russia and Eastasia on China. He created a new language called Newspeak to reflect how totalitarian societies try to control everything—including words. It portrays a totalitarian future society where citizens are reduced to nothing more than cogs in the government machine. Big Brother is an omnipresent figurehead whose face appears everywhere, even though no one knows what he looks like and his real identity remains unknown. And yet all of these elements are secondary to what Orwell saw as his primary purpose: to make political writing into an art. The book’s ultimate message is simple: If you want to know where society might be headed, look at where it already is.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is often considered to be a work of science fiction, but it is not primarily concerned with making accurate predictions about the future or extrapolating from current technological trends. Instead, Orwell uses his dystopian world as a means of critiquing and terrifying readers about what he saw as societal and political dangers in Western society. The overriding theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four is totalitarianism—the exercise of total control over individual human beings by an all-powerful state. In fact, every aspect of life in Orwell’s dystopia, from thoughts to actions to movement, is under complete control. This is accomplished through various methods, including constant surveillance (Big Brother), rewriting history (Newspeak), propaganda, censorship, and even torture. Through these tactics, Big Brother attempts to get people to love their servitude. To that end, Big Brother promotes nationalism and patriotism among citizens; if you love your country enough you will allow yourself to be oppressed for its greater good. There are several other themes worth noting: fear vs. hope; doublethink (the simultaneous belief of two contradictory ideas); language manipulation; technology; sex/gender roles; and corruption of language/thought processes via Newspeak (politically correct language).
Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four take on a new meaning as our societies progress, and there’s no better time to dive into George Orwell’s classic than now. In today’s world, where technology is ubiquitous and governments are infiltrated by privacy issues, we should all become more aware of issues in society that could lead to terrible events. The novel itself is based around two main ideas: firstly, how totalitarianism can be achieved through subtle means; secondly, how those who have power can manipulate people’s perception of reality so they believe things that aren’t true. Both are important concepts for us to understand if we want to live in a free society.