The power of writing and the danger of thinking in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

By Professor Claire Allen


As we approach the year 2024, what can Orwell’s dystopian warning against totalitarianism teach us about a future he predicted, which is now almost 40 years in our past? Despite problematic and challenging depictions of gender, sexuality and class, Nineteen Eighty-Four [1] remains a vital text to read in relation to the dangers of losing our ability to think critically, and the revolutionary power of the written word to overcome authoritarian regimes.

George Orwell’s final work of fiction is an ever-popular dystopian warning against authoritarian control. The novel ‘has sold and continues to sell millions of copies around the world’ (Johnson, 2017, xvi) [2]. It was popular at the time of original publication, ‘[it] cannot be easily avoided, even if you haven’t read it’ (Chilton, 1983, ‘Intro’ 1) [3] and continues to reach beyond academic circles. The popular press in 2022 described the novel as ‘one of the greatest works in Britain’s literary canon’, noting in particular how ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four sounds a chilling warning about the dangers of censorship’ (Hastings, 2022) [4].

The novel depicts an outsider named Winston, the protagonist, who seems to be the last man left alive able to access his own thoughts in the totalitarian regime of Big Brother; that is until he realises that Julia, a fellow comrade, also has revolutionary tendencies. Simultaneously, he learns more about a revolutionary plot against the government in the form of Goldstein’s book (Emmanuel Goldstein is the principal enemy of the state and leader of the possibly fictitious dissenting group ‘The Brotherhood’). Winston and Julia begin a relationship (something which is strictly prohibited by Big Brother; as are all relationships, apart from for the purpose of procreation in order to serve the Party) and embark on finding out more about Goldstein’s work.

Frightening as the control over personal relationships is, the novel’s enduring power comes from the warning it carries about the power of language to construct and control the world around us, and thus the disastrous consequences of losing our freedom to think critically and to express ourselves freely. Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite the news in order to suit Big Brother’s propaganda, adopting the familiar tone of the Party: ‘Winston thought for a moment, then pulled the speak-write towards him and began dictating in Big Brother’s familiar style: a style at once military and pedantic, and […] easy to imitate’ (p. 49). This highlights how easily the news can be controlled for political means; controlling language plays a big part. Over a lunch break, a colleague of Winston’s called Syme espouses the ideal of Newspeak, the language the Party has invented to eradicate English: ‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it’ (p. 55). Syme thus notes how the Party has identified the power of language, hence why Newspeak is integral to its control of the population. Syme asserts his appreciation of what the totalitarian regime is trying to achieve, even finding it aesthetically appealing, berating Winston: ‘You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words’ (p. 55). However, the horror of the regime is all too evident to Winston, as Big Brother creates a world in which ‘the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth’ (p. 78). Such issues seem of particular importance to our contemporary concerns of ‘fake news’ and the role various forms of media play in misinformation. 

Whilst the image the Party creates of itself is truly terrifying, establishing power through weapons – ‘[t]he ideal set up by the Party was something very huge, terrible and glittering – a world of steel and concrete of monstrous marching and terrifying weapons’ (p. 77) – perhaps what is more alarming is the complete destruction of the individual. Big Brother aims to create ‘a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts’ (p. 77). The notion that thoughts can be controlled and that the population will be replicas of each other, ‘wearing the same clothes and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting’ to the point that they have become machine-like, and have lost their humanity (‘three hundred million people all with the same face’) (p. 77), lies at the heart of the dystopian power of the text. The system, through controlling thought and language, works to eradicate the individual and key aspects of humanity: ‘There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the processes of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed’ (p. 208). Instead, a violent but obedient society is what the Party is striving for: ‘If you want an image of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face ... forever’ (p. 280). As with other dystopian literature, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (D-503 keeps a journal), or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (a transcript of a recording), this book is about the power to express oneself. Winston’s first act of rebellion is to write a diary: ‘He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act’ (p. 8-9); thus the power of the written word is noted by Winston and clearly understood by Big Brother. Once Winston has been captured, ‘[t]hey had given him a white slate with a stump of a pencil tied to the corner’ (p. 288). His ability to express his thoughts in a free-flowing manner is restricted and in contrast to his desire with the ink pen and diary he previously illicitly procured. Now he is only permitted to write the limited words instructed by his captor.

A focus on writing in dystopian novels is a way for characters to find agency in the form of a counter-narrative against the dystopian state: ‘the process of taking control of language, representation, memory, and interpellation is a crucial weapon and strategy in moving dystopian resistance from an initial consciousness to an action that leads to a climactic event that attempts to change society’ (Moylan and Baccolini, 2003, 6) [5]. Thus, Nineteen Eighty-Four critiques indoctrination in all its forms. Dystopian literature has its roots in satire, a form which aims to critique systems such as governments: ‘Dystopia’s foremost truth lies in its ability to reflect upon the causes of social and ecological evil as systemic’ (Moylan, 2000, xii) [6]. Orwell’s novel can be read as calling for action against eroding a society’s capability to think critically, foregrounding the power of language and the written word in maintaining our freedom and humanity.




  1. Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Penguin Classics, 2000.
  2. Orwell, George. Orwell on Truth. Introduction by Alan Johnson. Harvill Secker, 2017.
  3. Chilton, Chris ‘Introduction’, Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984 edited by Crispin Aubrey and Paul Chilton. Comedia Publishing Group, 1983. pp 1–6.
  4. Hastings, Chris. ‘Wokery beyond parody because university slaps a TRIGGER warning on George Orwell’s 1984 as it contains ‘explicit material’ which some students may find ‘offensive and upsetting’ The Mail on Sunday. 22nd January 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10430597/University-slaps-trigger-warning-George-Orwells-Nineteen-Eighty-Four.html
  5. Moylan, Tom, and Raffaella Baccolini. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.
  6. Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Westview Press, 2000.




Claire Allen is Programme Leader for the MA in Contemporary Literature at the University of