High School Novels: A Review of 1984 by George Orwell
1984 chronicles Winston Smith in the year 1984, the era of Big Brother. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, spending most of his day falsifying facts and rewriting past articles to correlate lies. He has just committed the first of many illegal acts, buying a diary and writing in it.
Winston's government is controlled by Big Brother, a created figure head of the inner party, known as Ingsoc or the English Socialist party. The government controls every aspect of citizens' lives, installing telescreens in every home to spew propaganda and spy, and microphones in places where telescreens are not plausible.
Winston continues his illegal activities by having a secret affair with a coworker in the Ministry of Truth. They go through elaborate means to keep their romantic escapades a secret, but as with all attempts to boondoggle Big Brother, they fail.
A 1984 analysis shows the novel is much more than a suspenseful adventure. It's a treatise on the dangers of big government and the fine line between truths and lies. It also examines the importance of a nation's history in controlling its people and its future. The following literary elements are present:
- Irony abounds. The Ministry of Truth spreads lies. The Ministry of Love tortures people. The three slogans of the government are: (1) War is Peace; (2) Freedom is Slavery; (3) Ignorance is Strength
- Symbolism brings a deeper meaning to the novel. Big Brother symbolizes the encroachment of government into the lives of its people, made possible by a willing media. The Chestnut Tree Cafe symbolizes those who commit thought crimes and their imminent doom. The encased coral Winston purchases symbolizes the past.
- Foreshadowing: Winston and Julia's eventual doom is alluded to several times throughout the novel. Winston's reaction to the rat entering his room foreshadows his eventual punishment. The eyes of Big Brother constantly following Winston indicate that he is being watched even when he thinks he isn't.
The following teaching ideas facilitate learning.
- Teach the elements of science fiction and discuss whether or not 1984 is science fiction or another genre.
- List predictions Orwell makes in 1984 and how they have come true. Part 2 of this series gives a detailed lesson plan on making predictions in 1984 along with several examples.
- Discuss the role of media and how politicians shape it--The kid glove treatment of Barrack Obama in the 2008 election or Ronald Reagan's masterful use of media in the early 80s make excellent discussions.
- This group of four lesson plans on propaganda can be used throughout the unit.
- Big Brother controls people by manipulating language. Have students create their own words in the like manner Ingsoc does, for example, doubleplusungood instead of horrible.
Teaching 1984 does not, however, come without risk. Although I don't think the thought police or an overzealous administrator will charge into your room with blinding lights and torture you, you may get an objection from a parent--probably one who's never read the book--on account of the love affair between Winston and Julia. You may wish to send home a "warning" letter (similar to the one I made for Of Mice and Men), depending on the school climate, in advance.
1984 Review Assignment
This 1984 Book Review can be used as a lesson plan. Have each student do the following after reading the book:
- Write a brief summary of the novel, 100-200 words.
- Write a brief 1984 analysis, extolling its literary merit, 150-200 words.
- List teaching ideas for the novel, 3-4 ideas in a bulleted list.
- Give each section a rating of 1-5 stars.