1984 Essay Questions

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Since high school, I’d lived through another decade of the 20th century, including the calendar year of the title, and I assumed I already “knew” the book. Read: Teaching ‘1984’ in 2016So when I recently read the novel again, I wasn’t prepared for its power.The message: “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ”The argument recurs every decade or so: Orwell got it wrong. The week of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when the president’s adviser Kellyanne Conway justified his false crowd estimate by using the phrase alternative facts, the novel returned to the best-seller lists. We don’t live under anything like a totalitarian system.“By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey acknowledges.Lynskey’s account of the reach of 1984 is revelatory.The novel has inspired movies, television shows, plays, a ballet, an opera, a David Bowie album, imitations, parodies, sequels, rebuttals, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Black Panther Party, and the John Birch Society.My local bookstore set up a totalitarian-themed table and placed the new books alongside 1984.They pointed back to the 20th century—if it happened in Germany, it could happen here—and warned readers how easily democracies collapse.The struggle to claim 1984 began immediately upon publication, with a battle over its political meaning.Conservative American reviewers concluded that Orwell’s main target wasn’t just the Soviet Union but the left generally. The title, the adjectival form of the author’s last name, the vocabulary of the all-powerful Party that rules the superstate Oceania with the ideology of Ingsoc—doublethink, memory hole, unperson, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Room 101, Big Brother—they’ve all entered the English language as instantly recognizable signs of a nightmare future.It’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984.

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