"I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing,” Pritchett wrote after the book’s publication, “and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down."
To answer this, it’s helpful to look at the inspirations for Orwell’s book, a terrifying allegory detailing one man’s attempt to stay sane in a totalitarian state that tortures the truth—and people—to control society.
1. CommunismMany people know Orwell was a socialist for many years. Fewer know that Orwell became skeptical of collectivism, which he came to see as “not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”
While some may quibble over to which degree these states were communist/socialist/fascist, what’s important to understand is that Orwell was modeling his dystopia on socialist states, particularly communist ones.
2. 'We,' a Novel by Yevgeny ZamyatinFew people have likely heard of "We," a piece of dystopian fiction that never gained the traction of "1984." But it’s clear that the book influenced Orwell, who reviewed the work after the death of its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin.
In 1920–21, Zamyatin wrote "We," a dystopian novel set 1,000 years in the future, which explores the pressure to conform in an authoritarian society that has become fully bureaucratized.
"We" struck a nerve in the Soviet Union, and not in a good way.
The book quickly fell under the eye of literary censors, who banned the novel prior to publication—despite Zamyatin’s Party enthusiasm—making it “the first novel officially banned in the Soviet Union,” according to Wilson. The book wasn't published until 1924, when book house E.P. Dutton published an English translation, and Orwell wouldn't review it until more than 20 years later.
"The characters in We are numbered rather than named: its Winston Smith is D-503, and its Julia I-330. Its Big Brother is known as the Benefactor, a more human figure than Orwell's almost mythical dictator, who at one point phones D-503 ("D-503? Ah … You're speaking to the Benefactor. Report to me immediately!"). While Orwell's apartments come complete with an all-seeing 'telescreen,' Zamyatin's buildings are simply made of glass, allowing each of the residents—and the 'Guardians' who police them—to see in whenever they want. We's Airstrip One, or Oceania, is called OneState. Instead of puzzling over 2+2=5, its lead character is disturbed by the square root of –1."
3. The Spanish Civil War’s PropagandaPerhaps the single greatest theme of "1984" is the idea of totalitarians attempting to control speech to shape reality.
“I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened.”
Orwell’s brush with totalitarianism, war, and state propaganda left him terrified that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”
This would be a terrifying prospect at any time, but it was particularly so during the period when Orwell was writing "1984," when the world stage seemed set for a perpetual (cold) war.
Few today are likely to dismiss Orwell’s book as a mere figment of dystopian literature.
"1984" is, after all, largely a story about one man’s attempt to maintain a grip on truth and reality in the face of state power and endless propaganda. In 2022, surely that’s a story we can all relate to.