#ANewChapter: 1984 by George Orwell

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent – even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101

Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell’s terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime.

Published in 1949, this novel is generally considered George Orwell’s masterpiece—although C. S. Lewis would definitely disagree, according to one of my all-time favorite scathing reviews. Honestly, I’m with Lewis here, but 1984 has undeniably left its mark on the Western literary world and, like many classics, is probably worth reading for that reason alone.

So come, enter the totalitarian world of Oceania where everything is terrible all the time! Enjoy the literary sensation of a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

Discussion questions below the cut!

For Educators

Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document

Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document

Discussion Questions

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

Question 1

Literary critic Tom Moylan argues that dystopian novels are typically either utopian or anti-utopian. According to Moylan, although all dystopian novels describe a dark vision of the very worst human societies can offer, utopian stories “maintain a horizon of hope” that society can improve while anti-utopian stories reject the possibility that society could ever significantly improve and suggest that trying to a create a utopia is therefore pointless.

  • Do you personally find reading anti-utopian dystopian stories satisfying? Why or why not?
  • How well do you think you would remember historical events from earlier in your life without documents, photographs, or videos to remind you? How well do you think you’d remember those events if everyone else kept insisting something else had happened and kept showing you newspaper articles and photographs that “proved” it?
  • Although novels with positive utopian visions were somewhat popular during the 1960s, dystopian novels are far more common (and far more celebrated!) in the sci-fi genre. Why do you think that might be? Consider both the challenges of telling a good story and how the world around us shapes what we find interesting to read.

Question 2

In the United States, it has been fairly common for people to describe socialism as an economic philosophy that threatens both the individual and society as a whole. This description especially became common during the Cold War (1947-1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was supposed to be a socialist country that would replace private ownership of property with collective ownership instead. However, Josef Stalin’s grab for political power in 1927 soon turned the country into a totalitarian dictatorship with constant surveillance, imprisonment, torture, and executions.

  • In simple terms, socialism is an economic philosophy that argues for collective (group) ownership of property as a way to spread wealth more fairly and treat all people equally. Even a mostly capitalist society like the United States has socialist features, like public schools, public parks, public roads, firefighters, police, and social security. What do you see as the possible advantages of socialism? What do you see as the possible disadvantages of socialism?
  • In simple terms, capitalism is an economic philosophy that argues for private (individual) ownership of property as a way to protect individual freedom and encourage both hard work and new ideas. Under capitalism, companies are owned by individuals instead of the government; these companies are typically “for profit,” trying to make more money than they spend. What do you see as the possible advantages of capitalism? What do you see as the possible disadvantages of capitalism?
  • Consider Winston Smith’s world in 1984. Is his nation a socialist one or a capitalist one? A mix? Use examples from the text to support your answer.

Question 3

George Orwell was a passionate supporter of democratic socialism. Because of his support for socialism, he fought with a communist group during the Spanish Civil War; however, Orwell had to leave Spain to avoid being arrested when a pro-Soviet communist group accused his group of being Trotsky supporters. (Trotsky was a major critic of Stalin and would later be executed by the Soviet national police.) Orwell did not believe that the Soviet Union was a true socialist state, but rather a violent totalitarian one.

In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell stated, “The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it.” Orwell’s other famous novel Animal Farm satirizes Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union, while 1984 draws on details from both Soviet totalitarianism and the British government’s behavior during WWII to show us a possible totalitarian future.

  • A totalitarian government is one that prohibits all opposition and keeps extreme control over both public and private life. There have been and continue to be totalitarian governments around the world. How do you think it’s possible for a totalitarian government to come to power? Feel free to use examples both from 1984 and from real life to explain your answer.
  • How do you think it’s possible for a totalitarian government to stay in power? Feel free to use examples both from 1984 and from real life to explain your answer.
  • How do you think it’s possible for a totalitarian government to be overthrown? Feel free to use examples both from 1984 and from real life to explain your answer.

Question 4

Literary critic Roland Barthes created the phrase “death of the author,” which means that an author’s intent when writing a text matters very little but an individual reader’s interpretation of the text matters a lot. Barthes was arguing against other critics of his time, who often used an author’s biography and intentions in order to assign one “ultimate meaning” to a text. Instead, Barthes suggested that a work should have unlimited meanings and that these meanings should come from a text’s audience, rather than the text’s author.

As seen in Question 3, there are many elements of Orwell’s life that might “explain” his books. For instance, when describing his time in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell said, “No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.” This quote certainly brings to mind many details from 1984.

  • Why do you think it might be important for us to ignore an author’s intentions when we’re reading a text?
  • On the other hand, can you think of any reasons it might actually be important to take into account an author’s intentions when we’re reading a text?
  • An author’s context—what was happening around them when they were writing—is another piece of information we might consider when reading a text. When do you think it might be important to keep in mind an author’s context?
  • On the other hand, when do you think an author’s context doesn’t matter at all?

Question 5

Consider this quote from early in the novel: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. … You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

  • Sci-fi novels will sometimes create an exaggerated version of reality in order to get their point across. Do you think the system of surveillance described in 1984 would actually be possible in real life? Do you think the believability of this surveillance system has any impact on the novel’s effectiveness? Why or why not?
  • The panopticon is a hypothetical prison design in which any prisoner can be observed at any time by a prison guard; however, the prisoner never knows for sure whether they are actually being observed. In 1975, philosopher Michel Foucault used the panopticon to illustrate systems of power, control, and punishment in modern society. In the case of prisons, Foucault argued that we have moved from punishment of the body (through torture and executions) to punishment of the soul as we seek to watch and control prisoners until they begin to police themselves unthinkingly.

    In 1984, although Winston knows he could be observed at any time at the beginning of the novel, he does not police himself “unthinkingly” as Foucault describes. Compare Winston at the beginning of the novel against Winston at the end of the novel. What has changed about him as a character? What strategies did O’Brien and the Ministry of Love use to create this change?
  • Foucault also suggested that the techniques for control developed in prisons can be seen in other public institutions, saying, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

    What similarities do you see between our own modern-day prisons and other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals? Foucault was writing in 1975, but our society and its technologies have changed a great deal since then. What systems of surveillance do you see existing in our own society today?

Question 6

A large part of the Ministry of Truth’s work is endlessly rewriting history through fake or edited news articles, photos, and films. As a result, Winston himself is often confused as far as what did or didn’t actually happen in the past, even when he himself was alive to witness it.

  • How well do you think you would remember historical events from earlier in your life without documents, photographs, or videos to remind you? How well do you think you’d remember those events if everyone else kept insisting something else had happened and kept showing you newspaper articles and photographs that “proved” it?
  • During O’Brien’s questioning, he asks Winston, “… where does the past exist, if at all?” What would you tell O’Brien?
  • In discussing 1984, academic Claude Rozenhof asked, “And how much can we, living in a supposedly free and democratic society, objectively check the verity of what our supposedly Free press tells us?” What would you say to Rozenhof? How do you think we can we confirm that what our news sources tell us is actually true? Do you think it’s possible for us to do this for every piece of news we hear?

Question 7

When Winston says he thought Julia was a “good Party member” at first, Julia replies, “Actually I am that sort of girl, to look at. … Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.”

  • Do you agree with Julia that this is “the only way to be safe” in her society? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel that Julia is behaving immorally by always going with the crowd? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it’s possible to behave morally in a society like the one in 1984?

Question 8

Consider Orwell’s portrayal of women in this novel, both more major characters, like Julia and Winston’s mother, and other women that Winston meets only briefly.

  • Early in the novel, the narration states, “[Winston] disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.”

    When reading, we need to try to separate the beliefs of specific characters from the beliefs of the author. Sometimes the two things are one and the same, but other times they are very different. In this case, do you think this quote expresses only Winston’s beliefs? Or does it also express Orwell’s beliefs? Look at portrayals of women from throughout the novel to support your answer.
  • Julia is the only female character in the novel who we see more than just a few times, as well as the only female character who has a large amount of dialogue. In describing her, the narration states, “With Julia, everything came back to her own sexuality,” while Winston himself tells her, “You’re only a rebel from the waist downwards.”

    Do you think Julia is a strong portrayal of a female character? Is she an individual with her own interests and goals or is she defined entirely by her relationship with Winston? Does her behavior agree or disagree with our society’s female stereotypes?
  • Russian artist Nina Lugovskaya kept a diary as a young woman growing up under Stalin’s totalitarian rule. In it, she wrote, “Often I wonder what other women and girls are thinking—if I knew that, then maybe I’d finally understand myself. We women don’t know ourselves because we have no one to learn from. All the great writers are men and, when they describe women, they look at them exclusively from their own point of view.”

    In the case of 1984, do you think that Orwell describes women solely from his own male point of view? Why or why not? Do you agree with Lugovskaya’s statement in general? Why or why not?

Question 9

When Julia applies makeup for the first time, the narration states, “… she had become not only very much prettier, but, above all, far more feminine.” Julia then tells Winston, “I’m going to get hold of a real woman’s frock from somewhere and wear it instead of these bloody trousers. I’ll wear silk stockings and high-heeled shoes! In this room I’m going to be a woman, not a Party comrade.”

  • Based on Julia’s words, how do you think she defines “a woman”?
  • Why does Julia consider “a woman” and “a Party comrade” to be two different things? Do you think she also considers “a man” and “a Party comrade” to be two different things? Explain your answer.
  • 1984 was published in 1949. If Orwell were writing this book today, do you think this scene would still appear in the novel? Why or why not?

Question 10

In his critique of 1984, author C. S. Lewis stated, “Tragedy demands a certain minimum stature in the victim; and the hero and heroine of 1984 do not reach that minimum. They become interesting at all only in so far as they suffer. That is claim enough (Heaven knows) on our sympathies in real life, but not in fiction. … And the hero and heroine in this story are surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.”

  • Do you agree with Lewis’ statement that Winston and Julia are not interesting? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Lewis’ belief that interesting characters are always necessary in fiction? Why or why not?
  • Do you think interesting characters are more or less important in certain genres of fiction? (Consider: sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, etc.)

Question 11

When Winston reads Goldstein’s book, the narration states, “The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. … The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”

  • Why do you think books that tell you what you know already might be worth reading?
  • Do you agree with Winston that such books are “the best books”? Why or why not?
  • Which types of books do you think are the best books? Explain your answer.

Question 12

When Winston is writing in his diary for the first time, the narration states, “For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary?”

  • Winston answers his own question by thinking, “For the future, for the unborn.” Who do you think we write diaries for? Why might someone want to keep a diary?
  • Why do you think people write nonfiction, such as books, essays, and newspaper/magazine articles?
  • Why do you think people write fiction, such as novels and short stories?

Question 13

According to O’Brien, “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power.”

  • O’Brien suggests that other totalitarian governments—such as the German Nazis and the Russian Communists—also simply wanted power but pretended otherwise, telling their citizens that they were creating “a paradise where human beings would be free and equal.” Do you think any totalitarian government can honestly believe their methods of control and punishment will eventually create a free and equal society? Why do you think many totalitarian governments use this excuse to explain their actions?
  • O’Brien also states, “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” Essentially, O’Brien argues that, although we may give reasons to justify our persecution and torture of other people, those reasons are not the real ones. Do you agree with O’Brien? Consider examples of persecution and torture in the United States, both by the government and by individual people. What reasons do people give to justify these actions? Do you think any reason is ever enough to justify persecution and torture?
  • When O’Brien asks, “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”, Winston replies, “By making him suffer.” Do you agree with Winston? Explain your answer.

Question 14

When discussing how Oceania’s perpetual war allows economic inequality to continue to exist, Goldstein’s book states, “In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

  • What are some different hierarchies that you see in the present-day United States? In other words, who has power and who doesn’t—and for what reasons? (Remember that power is a complex system. A person may have power in one way but not have power in another.)
  • Do you agree with Goldstein’s statement? What do you think supports the hierarchies in our society?
  • Although some people want to break down the hierarchies in our society, other people want to maintain them. Why do you think some people want to keep hierarchies intact?

Question 15

In her speech at the National Book Awards, science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin stated, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

  • In 1984, because Julia has grown up in the world of the Party, she “accept[s] the Party as something unalterable, like the sky, not rebelling against its authority but simply evading it, as a rabbit dodges a dog.” Think about our present-day world. Do you think the same can be said for people who have grown up with capitalism? Why or why not?
  • When explaining the goals of Newspeak, Syme says, “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Do you think lacking the correct words to express a thought actually can limit our ability to think about and imagine certain things? Explain your answer.
  • Elsewhere in her speech, Le Guin said, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.”

    Do you think 1984 is a book that imagines “other ways of being” and gives us “real grounds for hope”? Why or why not?
  • Do you think that 1984 is a book that inspires “resistance and change”? Why or why not?

About #ANewChapter

For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!

If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.

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