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Culture Re-View: The cultural impact of George Orwell's dystopian classic 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

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By Jonny Walfisz
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On this day 75 years ago George Orwell's dystopian classic‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was published. Many aspects of the English writer and journalist's foreboding tale have passed into everyday language and the book's central message still bears chilling relevance.

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

So goes the famous opening of English writer George Orwell’s seminal dystopian classic ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

Right from the offset, something is askew with Orwell’s world, yet the tone suggests it is treated as completely normal.

It wasn’t a bright cold day in April at all when the first editions of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ hit shops. In fact, it was on this day, 8 June 1949.

Having finished writing the book in 1948, it has been long suggested that Orwell simply flipped the last two digits of the year in order to come up with the novel’s title. This has never been proven though and other theories for how Orwell came up with the book’s date range from literary allusions to just random chance.

Inspired by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 novel ‘We’ and Aldous Huxley’s similarly dystopian classic ‘Brave New World’ in 1931, Orwell wanted to create his own vision of how everything might go wrong. It was a logical step after the success of his previous project, the novella ‘Animal Farm’, published in 1945, which satirised the USSR and the rise of totalitarianism amid communist revolutionaries.

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The plot of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ follows Winston Smith, a civil servant working for the Ministry of Truth, the government’s propaganda department, where he rewrites any historical record that doesn’t fit with the current party line. Except the party line is inconsistent. In Orwell’s vision of the year 1984, the world is at constant intercontinental war. As sides change in the war, history is quickly rewritten to claim that the current goals of the government were always its goals.

Keeping up with the propaganda is essential, otherwise you face being disappeared. A process not unlike the Stalinist purges. While working, Winston meets Julia, another civil servant and their romance takes them to the edge of the resistance movement against Britain’s totalitarian government.

A love story, a political treatise, and a desperate plea for honest governance, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a rare book that contains one of the most realised and terrifying futures ever put to pen.

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It’s also been one of the most culturally influential books of all time. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the things Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ has inspired.

The novel itself has been adapted multiple times, from a US radio adaptation to multiple film versions, including one released in 1984 with John Hurt playing Winston. Orwell’s masterpiece has also been adapted into stage-plays, musicals, operas and ballets.

Terminology from the book has entered into common parlance. “Doublethink” and “groupthink”, Orwell’s terms for the way propaganda twists people into believing things they know are lies, are both terms used regularly in media criticism. Anyone questioning morality censures will likely refer to the book’s “Thought Police”, whether they know of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’s secret service.

One of the most successful media products that nods to ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is the reality TV show ‘Big Brother’. Using the name of the novel’s authoritarian surveillance government, ‘Big Brother’ the show puts contestants into a house to watch every move.

“Room 101” in the novel is the torture chamber used by the Thought Police, but also has given its name to casual references to terrible places and even a British TV show where celebrities banish things they don’t like.

Finally, my personal favourite reference is “2+2=5”, a doublethink mantra in the novel, is the inspiration for one of Radiohead’s most enervating singles.

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