Context Guide: 1984 by George Orwell

Welcome to the one-stop context guide of George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eight-Four. Throughout this guide you will learn not only about the events and ideas that influenced the production of Nineteen Eight-Four, but also the ways in which to apply them in a functional essay-style and HSC-based manner.

Nineteen Eighty Four

Welcome to the one-stop context guide of George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eight-Four. Throughout this guide you will learn not only about the events and ideas that influenced the production of Nineteen Eight-Four, but also the ways in which to apply them in a functional essay-style and HSC-based manner.

How does the Common Module affect Context?

Each Module will have a unique focus upon context. Before delving into the content of Nineteen Eight-Four it is worth considering the conceptual ways in which the rubric encourages students to consider context. An explanation of this is provided in the table below:

Human Experiences How it relates to context
Individual and collective human experiences Human experience is often influenced by external factors that we can generally categorise under 'context'. The common module requires you to examine this for both individuals (either within the text, the composer or yourself) and more widely in groups.
The role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures Culture forms an enormous part of context. This leaves the discussion open to considerations about how the process of storytelling is influenced by many aspects of context - whether it be literature, politics, art, music, dance, religion, sport.
Informed judgements about how aspects of these texts, for example context...shape meaning The relationship between context and meaning is essential. The rubric is encouraging students to consider how human experience and ideas are inextricably connected to the context in which they were formed.
Personal experience Considering personal experience forces students to reflect upon how modern context can influence the ways in which responders view texts (i.e. the realisation that interpretations of a text can change over time as a consequence of a shift in contextual values)

Contextual Content

The table below is a list of ideas/concerns (i.e. themes) that are prominent in Nineteen Eight-Four and Orwell's thinking. However, these are by no means the only ideas/concerns present in the novel - in fact, there are many others. But as per the aim of this guide the table has been kept concise, highlighting themes that are rich in contextual value, relevant to the rubric and those that would be used by the majority of students.

Idea / Concern Contextual Examples
Totalitarianism/Control English Socialism (IngSoc)
The Party holds many similarities to the regimes of Orwell's time including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Italian Fascism. Common to these ideologies was a supreme leader; Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini - hence the mystical presence of Big Brother.

Cold War
- The Cold War (a term coined by Orwell himself) was just beginning when he was writing Nineteen Eight-Four. Orwell preempts the enduring conflict through the unending fighting between Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania.
Facism vs. Communism vs. Capitalism
- There is a fierce debate as to which political ideology Orwell was seeking to condemn at the time, but that is beyond the point. Essentially, Orwell had become disillusioned with all systems that attempted to control the masses through weakening their right to liberty, sexuality, creativity and free-thought. In Orwell's world, totalitarianism was a force that spanned across both sides of the political spectrum. Despite having no ideological commonality – indeed, Stalin represented the antithesis of Franco and fascism – they both adopted and maintained totalitarian leadership. Orwell himself was a democratic socialist, as we can see in his representation of class, the masses, and the 'proles.'

World Superpowers
The Three Superpowers of Nineteen Eight-Four are inspired by the Tehran Conference - a meeting between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D.Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Essentially, Orwell expounds that international treaties are always temporary and that there is a powerful few who control the lives of an extraordinary majority.

Orwell's Experience
Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer for the socialist forces. However, when the Communists attempted to betray their socialist left-wing allies he was left disillusioned about political ideology. The despair and hopelessness which Winston feels in relation to the Party is thus autobiographical of Orwell's state of mind.

The Masses
Winston and Orwell also share the belief that the mass of society (i.e. the proles) are the key to overcoming the despotic reign of the Party/establishment. This was inspired from the time Orwell spent living with homeless people in London and Paris during the late 1920's.
Identity and Language Modernism
The zeitgeist of Orwell's time was modernism - he cites authors such as T.S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and W. Somerset Maugham as some of his profound influences. Broadly, the themes of Orwell's writing can be drawn back to the Industrial Revolution, to the anxieties which were produced from a rapid acceleration in technological advancement.

Atomic Warfare
Atomic warfare had been experienced for the first time in WWII and Orwell predicts that the A-Bomb could be what catalyses his dystopian prediction. In a world where mass extinction is a distinct possibility, Orwell perceives that fear will lead people to surrender their autonomy.

Doublespeak and Trump
Doublespeak is a concept not explicitly present in Nineteen Eight-Four, but inspired by Orwell's concepts of doublethink and Newspeak. Essentially, it is the use of euphemism or deliberate distortion of meaning in order to disguise one's true intentions. Recent examples include the infamous phrase 'alternative facts' used by U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway when talking about the attendance at President Trump's inauguration. It has since been a phrase rapidly adopted by the conservative side of politics, especially in regards to climate change.
Surveillance, Propaganda and Censorship Thought Police
The Thought Police in Orwell's novel hold striking similarities to the Nazi 'Gestapo' - ruthless and with almost mythological surveillance powers, they are the primary fear of the public.

Orwell took great inspiration from James Burnhams's 'The Managerial Revolution' which critiqued the "managers" of society, empahsising that the essential distinction between the ruling class and the mass of society was not so much ownership, but control over the means of production. During World War II, the role of technocrats become more prominent than ever with the rise of figures such as Albert Speer.

Communal Activities
In Nineteen Eight-Four, the idea of a wholistic and communal acceptance of ideology is essential. Every minute of every day is based on IngSoc - from the morning exercise routines, to the Two Minutes of Hate and the Three Year Plans. The Soviet Union had the same mandatory exercise and Stalin's 'Five Year Plans', which were designed to increase productivity, always delivered despite Russia delving into unrelenting poverty. Even Parson's children reflect those which were produced by the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls in Nazism. Fundamentally, the Party creates a population that is self-regulating and relies upon the people's fear to betray each other.

Book Burnings
In 1933, Germany university students burned over 25,000 "un-German books" - those with Jewish sentiments or anything that challenged Nazi ideology. It affirms not only the idea of self-regulating censorship but holds strong similarities to Winston's role as a records editor in the Ministry of Truth.
Despotism Communism
Communism was a huge worry for the Western world in the aftermath of WWII. Phrases such as the "Iron Curtain" and "Red Scare" became extremely popular with pro-capitalists as they attempted to instill images of anarchism taking over society. Nineteen Eight-Four became adopted with this intent soon after its release, as Orwell protested in vain that was not his intent or message.

Post World War II
There was a general melancholy which took hold of Europe in the post-war era. Populations were exhausted after the two biggest wars in history took place within a span of 30 years. The UK and Germany suffered incredible economic difficulty. Many also began to question the role of God and religion. They reflected the suffering of the last 30 years and wondered two things - why had it happened and what did it achieve?

Extra Reading

This section is dedicated to expanding your broader knowledge about the context of Nineteen Eight-Four. This is especially recommended for students who are looking to achieve a high-end band 6. There is a brief description of each article/paper attached which outlines what students will likely gain from it (they have also been placed in suggested reading order).

'Nineteen Eighty Four and the politics of dystopia' by Roger Luckhurst

A well considered and structured article, this is great for understanding the literary context which Orwell was a part of. It has a great section on the personal context of Orwell, with some fascinating revelations.

British Library: 20th Century Literature - 1984 and the politics of dystopia

'1984:George Orwell's road to dystopia' by David Aaronovitch

This is an easy to read article which outlines where Orwell's views of political ideology likely sprung from. The writer also provides a personal link between Orwell and his own life experiences, similar to what the rubric requires.

BBC News Magazine: 1984: George Orwell's road to dystopia

'The Dynamics of Terror in Orwell's "1984"' by Malcom R. Thorp

The first few pages of this paper are fantastic in regards to how Orwell viewed society during the Second World War. After this, it delves into a detailed analysis of the novel in relation to idea of terror and how that effects individuals. It is definitely worth a read. You might have to create a free account to read this one but it is well worth it.

Friday Reads - George Orwell's 1984

'Crisis? Whose Crisis? George Orwell and Liberal Guilt' by Rob Breton

A discussion about how Orwell challenged the conventions of liberalism in the twentieth century - the article is helpful in the sense that it provides context to the social divide of England which Orwell grew up in. It also has plenty of interesting ideas but is quite dense. Mainly for those who are willing to sift through some dry material for a few nuggets of gold. This may also require creating a free account to read.

Friday Reads - George Orwell's 1984

'The Managerial Revolution' by James Burnham

A novel which is mentioned in the first article, 'The Managerial Revolution' by James Burnham is clearly something that profoundly impacted Orwell and a book he critically reviewed. While it may not be necessary to mention Burnham or the specific book itself, the ideas of how class division was developing in a modern world are certainly worth discussing.

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