Significance of the Title 1984 by George Orwell
Table of Contents
Views of Charles H. Kegel
In an article on 1984, Charles H. Kegel made a concentrated study of the question: “why did George Orwell choose the exact date 1984 for the title and setting of his nightmarish novel about a future totalitarian society?” According to C. H. Kegel the dating chosen by Orwell would certainly “carry the concept of futurity necessary for his purpose.” C.H. Kegel, then, goes on to explain his stand:
“He was a writer with a serious social purpose, and the raison d’tre for 1984 was his realization of the totalitarian direction which socialism was taking throughout the world. His aim was serious and immediate: he must warn his contemporaries of an evil which awaited them. Not in the twenty-first or twenty-second century, but just around the temporal corner. He wanted his readers to know that this was a future they might live to see. His social purpose, therefore, required that he set his novel within the twentieth century.”
Thus, it seems safe to conclude that what was of the greatest concern to Orwell was the urgency of the warning. He believed that if the totalitarian tendencies were not checked in time, the world was doomed to enter the horrible phase, as portrayed in 1984.
Orwell’s indebtedness to Jack London
Orwell originally thought of calling the novel The Last Man in Europe. But this would have presented Winston Smith‘s rebellious gesture as our civilization’s final, doomed attempt to fight against totalitarian regimes. So he dropped this title in favour of “1984”, and the choice was influenced by Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel.
In his prophecy, London fixed “1984” as the date of the rise of Fascism in the U S.A. Of course, as in nearly all books of utopian, anti-utopian and futurist intentions, the date, 1984, is purely arbitrary. But such dates assume a mystique when the books become classics. (Orwell originally thought of calling the novel The Last Man in Europe. But this would have presented Winston Smith‘s rebellious gesture as our civilization’s final, doomed attempt to fight against totalitarian regimes.) Nineteen Eighty-Four may also be compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, because both Orwell and Huxley are perturbed by much the same features and trends of the twentieth century civilization.”
Another reason for setting the novel in 1984
Orwell presumably set his novel in 1984, only thirty-six years on from the time of writing, so as to make the message more urgent. Perhaps his prophecy was more credible then than now, coinciding as it did with the general movement of reaction against the monolithic state, and the penetration to the British public of the realities of police rule, purges, forced confessions and brainwashing in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless one must ask whether it was plausible to show the triumph of totalitarian tendencies so completely and over such a short period in English conditions; clearly, this is what Orwell wants us to believe has happened, or rather, wants to warn us could happen; but he too, whether consciously or not, must have realized the basic implausibility involved, for he introduced, in passing and without emphasis, an event which must be considered not as a more accelerator of what was already happening, but as a cause in itself. This is a nuclear war, which, it is suggested occurred sometime in the nineteen sixties. Anything is credible after a nuclear war, except the assumption that subsequent developments were a natural continuation of tendencies already existing, which is Orwell’s general contention.
Orwell’s sense of Urgency
This is something which hardly interferes with a normal reading of 1984, but it may have something to do with the feeling of dissatisfaction which the book so often produces. It is one example of how Orwell allowed his sense of urgency to obliterate objections which at another time it was in his character not only to consider but to seek out. In fact, he raised them in an essay on the American writer James Burnham who, incidentally, provided Orwell with the structure used for the world-Society of 1984:
“The slowness of historical change, the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo….”
It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable.
Now Orwell could scarcely be accused of cowardice, nor of admiring power; but he never seems to have able to overcome a strong feeling that power, synonymous with evil, wins in the end a perverse form of worship, if you like. This feeling led him, in 1984, to extrapolate from the present-day situation in the very same way he criticized Burnham for doing.
The psychology of power considered in “1984”
Power is a word that is always occurring in Orwell, yet it is arguable that it is something he never thought about at length or dispassionately. He never analyses the psychology of power in the individual, or the mechanics of power in the working of institutions. Instead, it is always the cosmic, nightmare force, seen from the point of view of the victim who is suddenly and uncomprehendingly crushed. As the hero of 1984 comes nearer to the centre of power, there is built up the expectation that we shall find the final explanation of this apparently senseless terror. At the beginning he writes in his diary:
“I understand How: I do not understand Why.”
Much later he is about to read the explanation in the book of Goldstein the heretic, but instead falls asleep. When he gets up, it is to be arrested and taken to the cellars of the Ministry of Love. Here, from O’Brien, he finally learns why, and for all the rhetoric it is singularly unconvincing :
“But always-do not forget this, Winston-always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless, If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot trampling on a human face-forever.”
The question we want to ask is the very one that worried Orwell in his essay: ‘It is curious that in all his talk about the struggle for power Burnham never stops once to ask why people want power” The important thing, naturally, is not to refute Orwell out of his own mouth-between 1946, the date of the essay on Burnham, and 1948, he may well have come to agree with the American-but to point out his willingness 1984 to ignore objections of which he was demonstrably aware, to rely very uncharacteristically on the sheer emotive power of his writing to carry the reader with him. Again it may be that, as in the early novels, Orwell is the victim of the novel-form. He gives himself no opportunity for critical comment on the situations which he lives so painfully from the inside-except in the long extract from the book of Goldstein, and here, significantly, the reader feels relief at the reappearance of sanity and self-control.