Story Symbols and Themes


Language—The power of language emerges early on as a central theme of the novel. The opening chapter introduces the reader to “Newspeak” and “doublethink.” As he prepares to begin his diary, Winston thinks, “To mark the paper was the decisive act.” The Party is essentially trying to put language in a straightjacket. Rebelling against this, Winston is thrilled by the “coarseness” of Julia’s language.

The central linguistic thesis of 1984 is that by narrowing and corrupting language, one can narrow and corrupt thought itself. Accordingly, the objective of Newspeak is to “cut language to the bone.” Orwell had earlier addressed this theme in an influential essay titled “Politics and the English Language.” In the essay, Orwell explored how “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Sloppy and thoughtless language, he wrote, dulls awareness. “And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

History—“Who controls the past,” goes a major Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” One of the things that constantly gnaws on Winston is his inability to know for certain what life was like before the Revolution. His dilemma even extends to events well within his memory. He is certain, for example, that just four years earlier, Oceania was at war with Eastasia, despite the Party’s current claim that it is and has always been at war with Eurasia. If Winston’s knowledge to the contrary exists only in his mind, what good is it? By constantly fiddling with the record of the past (ironically this is part of Winston’s job, even though he himself is curious about and respects the past) and making it an infinitely malleable thing, the Party has effectively killed history. A fluid history is so intrinsic to...

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Essays About 1984