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“The main function of the brutality and oppression, rather, was to radically change human behavior, to transform normal human beings with their selfish concerns into willing servants of their rulers. The goals and methods of these governments were so extreme that they were often described as ‘total’ or ‘totalitarian’” (James A. Gregor, ‘The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century’, pp.99-100).

Before immersing the aim of this paper, it is necessary to understand the historical background of the period in which the book was written, namely the ‘1949’. George Orwell, an enchanting figure, was considered to be a democratic socialist. Feeling oppressed and outraged by the dictatorial control over the society, he desired a more egalitarian and fairer civilization. Socialism, in his opinion, consisted of all the values that Soviet communism despised and rejected, specifically democracy, equality and liberty. “Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. […] In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me, it deeply attracted me” (Orwell, George, ‘Homage to Catalonia’). This was George Orwell’s ideal of perfect society. However, in opposition to his perception of the world, there was the imperialistic regimes such as Stalin in URSS, Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, which took over the entire Europe. These regimes are known as ‘totalitarian dictatorships’. The novel ‘1984’ was written after the horrific event which took place in the world known as World War I, as a reaction against these regimes and author’s hatred of totalitarianism. Before we take the journey through the depiction of this term in the novel, it is essential to offer some information about this ideology, the main theme in the novel, in order to understand the deep nature of it.

Totalitarianism is described as the total control of the state or a government over the society. Their ideal is to encompass all the information of the individuals and to gain control over their entire lives. Hannah Arendt defines in her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ that totalitarianism movement “aim at and succeed in organizing masses – not classes, not citizens with opinions about and interest in the handling affairs” (Arendt, Hannah, p.308). Terror was the primordial characteristic of this regime. It was asserted that propaganda was an important element during the dictatorship, going hand in hand with terror. “Terror without propaganda would lose most of its psychological effect, whereas propaganda without terror does not contain its full punch” (E. Kohn-Bramstedt, ‘Dictatorship and Political Police: The Technique of Control by Fear’, p.341). Hannah Arendt completes this point of view saying: “What is overlooked in these and similar statements, which mostly go around in circles, is the fact that not only political propaganda but the whole of modern mass publicity contains an element of threat; that terror, on the other hand, can be fully effective without propaganda, so long as it is only a question of conventional political terror of tyranny. Only when terror is intended to coerce not merely from without but, as it were, from within, when the political regime wants more than power, is terror in need of propaganda” (Arendt, Hannah, p.341).

George Orwell himself criticized the idea of totalitarianism in his essays, supporting his anti-totalitarian thought: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it” (Orwell, George, ‘Why I Write’).

Totalitarian ideology is absolutely antithetical to the concept of open society. People were gradually losing privacy and control over their personal life. Their freedom was compelled slowly, but surely. Totalitarian ideologies manifest where there is no civil society at all, where no one has any intimate life and everything is under the control of the state. Totalitarianism is governed by a political ideology that legitimizes these approaches. The essential feature of this regime is the absolute political control of society. It is a system that unites and harmonizes state and society together in an integrated manner and imposes a common world view on civilization. In these totalitarian systems, people are controlled by subordinating it to the plan and program in an ideological integrity.

George Orwell manages to encapsulate indirectly, in a fascinating way, the foremost aspects of totalitarianism in an incredibly dystopian novel, manipulating the utopian tradition. He succeeded in warning the reader about the atrocities of this regime, outlining the life during dictatorship, a life full of terror, fear, anxiety, despair, oppression and deprivation. ‘1984’ seeks to underline a future society which is led by surveillance and repressive bureaucracy in order to dismantle the power, the thoughts and even the life of an individual.

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It is important to point out the new realism, the background Orwell had of this period, such as hunger, living in miserable conditions, repression which happened in reality because of the utmost governmental policies of totalitarian countries. Everything in the society of ‘1984’ is forbidden, both psychological and physical restrictions. The state controls people and their thoughts. They have thoughts, imagination, but they aren’t theirs. They live “in a world based on imagination, but it is of somebody else’s imagination” (Silas, Mary, ‘In the Hands of the Geeks: The Impact of Technologies on Social Aspects of Millenium Life’). The novel was received by many critics and studied with great importance in a variety of thesis and articles. What makes this novel so consequential is the rules that still guide our society and the applicability it gives us through its themes.

The action is set in the country called Oceania and follows the degradation of the protagonist, Winston Smith, in a totalitarian era. The citizens have offered their lives to a giant bureaucratic apparatus known as ‘telescreen’. They are under constant surveillance by microphones, cameras, helicopters flying over the country in order to keep an eye on them. They are monitored by this huge bureaucratic attitude on a daily basis. The most important figure is Big Brother, the omniscient figure who permeates citizen’s consciousness due to his emergence all around the city, in the form of posters plastered on the buildings ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’. Moreover, the Party’s slogans such as ‘War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength’ emphasize the authority’s power of control over the people. These catchphrases are the keywords of the entire regime, strongly controlling the minds of citizens without even realizing. However, Big Brother is the image which can easily enter people’s mind due to its ambiguity and undefined characteristics. He is the symbol of the Oceania and the authority which observes every move of every citizen. This situation, namely surveillance of the city by the authority can be compared to a prison, pointing out the relationship of between the prisoners and the guards. The prisoners have no liberty, guards keeping an eye on them.

Michael Foucault explains in his book ‘Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)’ that the prisoners should obey while authorities keep an eye on them. His explanation emphasizes the idea of panopticon developed by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century. This organized approach presupposes an architectural structure in which the prison authority stays in the center of the building watching the prisoners which are placed around him, in circular cells. From the watchtower comes a light in order for the guard to be able to see the prisoners, but the reverse is not possible because the inmates are not capable of seeing their watchers due to the light. If we employed this system in society as a whole, it would reverse the traditional pattern of transparency/privacy between state authorities and private individuals. Foucault asserts that the power is paradoxically exercised through invisibility, which proves to be the case of controlling minds and information through hidden methods in ‘1984’. Totalitarian authority is depicted as some type of hidden figure which operates from behind, acquiring his power through mass powerlessness and unconsciousness. Big Brother acts in his own style of inspiring terror: “The hypnotic eyes gazed into his own. It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you – something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses” (Orwell, George, ‘1984’, p.102). Orwell makes a depiction of him through the emblematic character Emmanuel Goldstein, who asserts that Big Brother is infallible and all powerful. Nobody has ever seen Big Brother. He is a face on the hoardings, a voice on the telescreen. Big Brother is the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world.

Totalitarianism can be portrayed as a process of mind controlling through different methods. One of the methods was already developed, the psychological control of the mind and the influence of a terrific authority known as Big Brother. But this is not the end. There are other forms of exploiting the privacy and individuality of a person, namely the control of information and history. ‘1984’ is a perfect example in order to demonstrate this theory. The Party rewrites the history, controls all the newspapers and does not allow citizen to keep record of their past. By controlling the present, the Party is able to control the past and manipulate the masses. People cannot have a memory of their past and this makes them more vulnerable and prone to fall in the manipulation’s trap set by the Party.

Language is an essential part of the novel because it is the most prominent verbalization of thoughts and ideas. But this is noxious for the entire totalitarian movement. Language is a form of expression and is gradually transformed by the Party in a new language called Newspeak. It was introduced in order to replace the English, being constantly improved by the authorities, Newspeak being the ultimate goal to conceptualize totalitarianism and the Party’s total power. The aim of this new language is to limit the vocabulary and to reduce the words, transforming it in a controlled and restricted language whose scope is to limit the freedom of thought and identity. A characteristic of Newspeak is double signification and the systematic association of two different words into one, so that the concept of one can no longer be dissociated from the other.

In conclusion, these are some of the most important features of totalitarian movement in the novel which managed to metamorphosize the protagonist, Winston Smith, from his initial state which presented a disdain for totalitarianism “down with Big Brother” (Orwell, George, ‘1984’, p.26) and “thought crime does not entail death, thought crime is death” (Orwell, George, ‘1984’, p.36) to a total change manner of thinking achieved by mind controlling and through torture procedures. There is an antithesis between the Winston at the beginning and Winston at the end of the novel when he became the slave of totalitarianism: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” (Orwell, George, ‘1984’, p.376). George Orwell succeeded in depicting the totalitarianism in a futuristic dystopian novel and managed to display in a wonderful manner, the features of the abominable characteristic of this horrific period. After he wrote the novel, he claimed: “My recent novel is not intended as an attack on socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in communism and fascism. … The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere” (Orwell, Sonia, and Angus, Ian, ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’, p.502).


  1. Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando, Florida, Harcout Brace and Company, p 308.
  2. E. Kohn-Bramstedt. Dictatorship and Political Police: The Technique of Control by Fear, London, 1945, p.175.
  4. James A. Gregor. The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 99-100.
  5. Orwell, George. 1984. Planet Ebook.
  6. Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Consulted on 3rd February, 2018.
  7. Orwell, George. Why I Write. Gangrel (Summer) 1946.
  8. Silas, Mary. In the Hands of the Geeks: The Impact of Technologies on Social Aspects of Millenium Life. West Virginia University Philological Papers (2002).
  9. Orwell, Sonia, and Angus, Ian (Ed.). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Vol.IV, Secker & Warburg (1969), p.502.

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