“1984” is set in London, the chief city of Airstrip One and the third most populous of Oceania’s states. Oceania is one of the world’s three great powers – the others being Eurasia and Eastasia – and is constantly at war with at least on of its neighbors. Although the roles of enemy and ally change regularly, the change is never officially acknowledged : if Oceania is at war with Eastasia, then it has always been at war with Eastasia. The Party rules Oceania through four ministries. These include the Ministry of Peace (which deals with the war effort), the Ministry of Plenty (responsible for economic affairs and shortages) and the Ministry of Truth (responsible for all forms of propaganda – including news, education and entertainment). However, the Ministry of Love – which deals with law and order – is the really scary one. Heavily fortified and guarded, it is home to the dreaded Thought Police and is impossible to enter except on official business. Oceania’s official language is Newspeak, an updated version of English with a vastly reduced vocabulary. Without the words to express an ‘undesirable’ thought, ‘thoughtcrime’ will become literally impossible. It is expected to have totally replaced Oldspeak, or standard English, by 2050.
The Party is led by Big Brother, and all good things come as a direct result of his leadership. His image stares down from every wall, and he is widely viewed as a savior and protector. His nemesis is Emmanuel Goldstein, who was once a leading member of the Party before betraying the cause. He is now the ‘Enemy of the People’, and commander of the Brotherhood : a mysterious army dedicated to he overthrow of the Party and State.
The book’s hero is Winston Smith – he is reasonably sure he is thirty-nine, and that the year is 1984 (though that is not entirely certain). A member of the Party, he works in the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth and lives at Victory Mansions. Although his position brings certain perks – certainly in comparison to the proles – life is bleak. Many items – including food, razor blades and boots – are in short supply, and his home – despite its name – is an old, rundown block of flats. In every room throughout Airstrip One, telescreens are installed. Although similar to televisions, they can only be dimmed but never switched off. They not only receive programmes, but also transmit to the Ministry of Truth – meaning the Thought Police can monitor whoever they like whenever they like. Winston is officially married, although he has been separated for nearly eleven years. Marriages between Party members have to be approved by a committee, though any attraction is apparently frowned upon. Sex is an act widely viewed with disgust, while sexual immorality is known as ‘sexcrime’. Winston’s life changes when he starts keeping a diary. This is not technically illegal, though – when caught – he knows it could be punishable by death.
Generally, I don’t like making blanket recommendations, but “1984” is one of the few exceptions. While it is a grim book, everybody should read at some point. Some see it, like “Animal Farm”, as a satire on the USSR – Big Brother does seem to look like Stalin, there are constant references to ‘Three Year Plans’ and people call each other ‘Comrade’. However, it applies to any form of totalitarian government – or indeed, any government that has too much control over an individuals life.