1984 by George Orwell, Part 1: Crash Course Literature 401


In which John Green returns for a dystopian new season of Crash Course Literature! We’re starting with George Orwell’s classic look at the totalitarian state that could be in post-war England. Winston Smith is under the eye of Big Brother, and making us think about surveillance, the role of government, and how language can play a huge part in repressive regimes.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi I’m John Green and welcome to season 4 of CrashCourse literature.
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Today, we’re transporting you to one of my favorite (slash least favorite) dystopias,
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George Orwell’s 1984.
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I feel like that eye is looking at me.
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The book starts like this: It was a bright cold day in April and the
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clocks were striking thirteen.
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Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped
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quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent
00:28
a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
00:32
(1) Of course it’s not just a swirl of gritty
00:34
dust traveling with Winston; like everyone in 1984, he’s never really alone.
00:40
In Orwell’s dystopian future 1984, which was published in 1949, the world is vile and
00:45
gritty and the clock strikes 13 and citizens are under near constant government surveillance.
00:51
But you know what?
00:52
Orwell did not correctly predict the future; our clocks still stop at 12.
00:56
Also, in the novel 1984, people routinely disappear and evidence of their existence
01:00
is erased from public records, and that doesn’t happen much.
01:04
Yet.
01:05
1984 is an indictment of specific governments.
01:07
But it’s also a warning about the importance of free thought and speech, and in today’s
01:11
episode, we’re gonna discuss the historical context in which 1984 was written and also
01:15
its use of oppressive language.
01:17
I want to think about whether Orwell suggests, within the logic of this novel, that the written
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word can significantly alter the society in which it is produced.
01:26
And I mean that on at least two levels: Can the novel 1984 change the actual world in
01:31
which we live, and are characters in the novel ultimately controlled by the language they,
01:37
and their government, use?
01:39
Spoiler alert: We’re all doomed.
01:41
I’m just kidding.
01:42
I mean, I hope I’m kidding.
01:43
The truth is, as usual, it’s complicated.
01:53
INTRO George Orwell’s protagonist, the wind-blown
01:58
Winston Smith, shares a first name with Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United
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Kingdom from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955.
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And by replacing a lofty, aristocratic surname (that evokes Churches.
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And Hills) with a common one (a Smith is a metal worker), Orwell puts the fate of England
02:18
in the hands of a working man, although this one bends words, not metal, since he is a
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writer.
02:24
As for whether Orwell’s Winston will prevail as Winston Churchill did in World War II …of
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course not!
02:29
Now, some dystopias end with the overthrow of the horrible government, but Orwell’s
02:34
tend to end with the bad guys and/or pigs winning.
02:37
And 1984 is very much a dystopia — a dehumanizing society in which “there seemed to be no
02:43
color in anything” and posters of a “black-mustachio’d face gazing down from every commanding corner”
02:50
bearing the now-famous caption, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (2).
02:54
In this world, the government endorses something called “doublethink,” which links contradictory
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beliefs.
03:00
So you see slogans like: “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE
03:05
IS STRENGTH” are commonplace.
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The problem isn’t that citizens are told the opposite of what is true.
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The real issue is that their experiences have become so limited that they lack the perspective
03:15
and the language to differentiate between major concepts.
03:19
But, let’s back up for a second and talk about George Orwell.
03:22
Here’s some “doublespeak” for you: George Orwell is not George Orwell.
03:26
He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 to English parents in Bengal, near the border with Nepal.
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His father worked in “quality control” for opium, which is used to make morphine,
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codeine, and heroin, and the British held a monopoly on the trade of opium for years
03:41
and exported it to China, both for financial gain and to subdue Chinese citizens.
03:46
Although the Chinese government tried to get the British to dismantle the India-China opium
03:50
trade for 150 years, and there were wars fought about it, they weren’t successful until
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1910.
03:56
Basically, this was one of the largest (legal) international drug cartels in history.
04:01
Ah, Colonialism: The Original Dystopia.
04:04
I guess the original dystopia was actually hunting and gathering.
04:07
I mean, at least for those of us who hate the paleo diet.
04:09
God, I love processed carbohydrates.
04:11
What were we talking about?
04:12
Oh, right!
04:13
Eric Arthur Blair, soon to be George Orwell!
04:15
So as a kid, Blair moved to England and was eventually sent to Eton, a prestigious boarding
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school.
04:20
In 1922, he joined the imperial police in Burma.
04:23
In “Why I Write,” he explains that he rejected imperialism after spending five years
04:27
in the “unsuitable profession” of working in the imperial police force and experienced
04:32
poverty himself when he returned to England.
04:35
Sensitized to the evils of colonialism, and now “fully aware of the existence of the
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working classes,” Blair was on his way to forming what he called a “political orientation.”
04:45
He changed his name to George Orwell when he published Down and Out in Paris and London
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in 1933.
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But he still hadn’t identified where he “stood” politically.
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Then in 1936, he declared that he was “against totalitarianism and for democratic
05:00
socialism, as I understand it.”
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Democratic socialism basically uses democratic means to create a political and economic structure
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that supports socialist goals.
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You might think of it as being a rejection of unfettered capitalism.
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Orwell found the “real nature of capitalist society” abhorrent because:
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“I have seen British imperialism at work in Burma, and I have seen something of the
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effects of poverty and unemployment in Britain….
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One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays
05:35
into the hands of our always-active enemies.”
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Orwell was against Stalin and totalitarian strains of Communism as well.
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For instance, in 1936, when he went to Spain to fight the Fascist leader, Francisco Franco,
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he joined the Marxist group, POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista).
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He didn’t join the main communist party.
05:53
In Homage to Catalonia, he explains: “the Communists stood not upon the extreme
05:57
Left, but upon the extreme right.
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In reality this should come as no surprise, because of the tactics of the Communist parties
06:04
elsewhere.”
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These tactics, as seen in the USSR, include the conscious use of propaganda, the repression
06:10
of individual freedoms, and also state-sponsored murder.
06:14
But the point I want to make here is that it’s not quite accurate for either the contemporary
06:18
left or right to “claim” Orwell–his most famous novels are anti-communist; but they’re
06:24
also anti-capitalist.
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Mostly, they seek to show the ways that many government structures are prone to totalitarianism,
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and they chart the slow, almost unnoticeable descent into that totalitarianism.
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But in 1984 specifically, Orwell explores the difficulty of retaining individual freedom
06:41
within the confines of an oppressive society.
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In the book, the earth is divided into three zones–Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia–which
06:49
are constantly at war with one another.
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And Winston lives in London, the main city of Airstrip One, which is a province of Oceania.
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He’s legally married to the stiff, brainwashed, and desireless Katherine.
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Unable to produce children, they live separately and are forbidden from remarrying.
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Winson’s primary pleasures include itching a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, drinking
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shots of a “sickly, oily” Victory Gin (which provides “the sensation of being
07:14
hit on the back of the head with a rubber club”) and writing in a “thick, quarto-sized
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blank book with a red back and a marbled cover” (1, 5, 5).
07:22
So you know, his pleasures are scant.
07:24
Any life where one of the chief pleasures is scratching an actual, literal itch, is
07:29
not, like, a great life.
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I mean, it’s a good life for a dog, but not a great life for a person.
07:35
Then Winston’s pleasures, and anxieties, experience a significant uptick when he begins
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an affair with the young, vital and beautiful Julia.
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Despite being “ten or fifteen years younger,” Julia boldly declares her love for Winston.
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Winston is incredulous: “I’m thirty-nine years old.
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I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of.
07:55
I’ve got varicose veins.
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I’ve got five false teeth.”
07:58
And the reader may have doubts as well.
08:00
I mean, when Julia replies, “I couldn’t care less,” Orwell seems to acknowledge
08:04
(but not apologize for) this particular breed of middle-aged male fantasy.
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(122).
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But you know, it’s also a romance that serves a plot.
08:12
So, Winston and Julia meet secretly for months.
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They rent rooms from an antiques dealer named Mr. Charrington in the plebian quarter of
08:19
London.
08:20
They confess their affair and anti-party beliefs to O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party
08:24
who seems to be sympathetic to their cause.
08:27
And they begin reading a book that is allegedly written by the underground resistance leader,
08:32
Emmanuel Goldstein.
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They know that they’ll be discovered, tortured, and (very probably) executed.
08:38
Their victories–and yes they have some–come from small moments of consciousness, human
08:43
connection, and personal freedom.
08:45
And these moments are tiny.
08:47
For Winston, some of these moments include: procuring a pen with a real nib “simply
08:51
because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on” (7); succumbing
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to the ”balminess of the April air” to stroll through the “labyrinth of London”
09:03
(84); Winston also purchases a glass paperweight
09:06
containing coral, and all of this leads to a cool point:
09:09
despite the authoritarian nature of Ingsoc (the perversion of socialism that dominates
09:13
Oceania), moments of personal freedom like these are commonplace.
09:17
There’s even a word for them in Newspeak, the new language that the government is developing:
09:22
“ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity” (84).
09:26
But of course, the line between experiencing an “ownlife” and engaging in political
09:32
subversion is really thin.
09:34
I mean, when Winston gives in to his “animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire”
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to have sex with Julia: “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.
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It was a blow struck against the Party.
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It was a political act” (128-9).
09:49
There’s no ambiguity there.
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Making your life yours, making your choices yours, is political.
09:55
And also, having your own thoughts is political.
09:58
I mean, The Party doesn’t just suppress subversion through surveillance, and arrest,
10:02
and torture, and execution, those oldies but goodies from Totalitarianism for Dummies.
10:07
In 1984, the government also suppresses individualism by limiting language.
10:12
Just four pages into the book, an asterisk appears after the first mention of “Newspeak”:
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This asterisk interrupts the narrative flow, breaking any bond that the reader may be (or,
10:21
let’s be honest, may not be) forming with Winston.
10:24
And it entices the reader towards an appendix, narrated by a scholar living long after Winston.
10:29
The appendix explains that Newspeak had been “devised to meet the ideological needs of
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Ingsoc” (309) and that its vocabulary has been designed: “to make speech, and especially
10:39
speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness”
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(319).
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In other words, it’s meant newspeak seeks to make it nearly impossible to express, and
10:51
maybe in turn maybe even to THINK, revolutionary thoughts.
10:55
Let’s go to the Thought-bubble: Newspeak has three main categories of vocabulary:
11:00
The A vocabulary contains blunt words for daily functions, like eating, working, and
11:05
sleeping.
11:06
These words don’t have multiple meanings.
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(The examples listed include “hit, run, dog, tree, sugar, house, field”)
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The B vocabulary contains compound words that blend a noun and verb to express a limited
11:19
number of political or ideological concepts.
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Like, “Goodthink” means orthodoxy to party policy.
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“Crimethink” is its opposite.
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And the C vocabulary is scientific and technical.
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It contains jargon accessible only to workers in a particular field.
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The idea is that no individual will be able to synthesize knowledge from multiple fields.
11:40
So people will be able to do their work, but not be able to understand the context in which
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that work is happening.
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And that’s one example of how, by trying to limit what people can say, the government
11:49
is hoping to constrain what they can think.
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And an interesting feature of the Appendix is that it explains th contained many superfluous
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words and archaic formulations which were due to be suppressed later” (309).
12:05
This foreshadows that language will become increasingly oppressive…
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Which, of course, is bad news for Winston and his peers.
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But there is some good news for the rest of humanity.
12:14
Because you will notice that the appendix is written in Standard English.
12:17
As many readers (including Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood) have pointed out, this
12:22
suggests that free thought and its expression will ultimately prevail, and that language
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will once again be rich and complex and free.
12:32
Thanks Thought Bubble.
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So how do we get back to free language?
12:35
Well I’m a writer, and as such I’m almost professionally obligated to believe in the
12:39
power of language–and next week we’ll go into more detail about the complicated relationship
12:43
between thoughts and language, but I think it’s worth mentioning now that while we
12:47
don’t think entirely in words, language does help give form and expression to complex
12:53
ideas within us.
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I mean, that’s part of what books attempt to do, but it’s also something we’re all
12:57
doing all day, because we think in language.
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It’s one of the primary ways we communicate our feelings and experiences to other people,
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but it’s also one of the primary ways we communicate that stuff within us.
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And I think in 1984 Orwell argues that the restriction of language is ultimately a form
13:13
of restricting thought itself.
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It’s encouraging that Newspeak may ultimately fail, but it does make me wonder: what thoughts
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can’t I think because of the language that I’ve inherited?
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Next time we’ll also address a question that should be on your mind (since you’re
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watching this video on something very like a telescreen, possibly while in a government-funded
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school where the government is deciding at least in part what you learn about):
13:35
What can 1984 teach us about our current political context and our relationship to what many
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have called “surveillance” society?
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And in a world where so many of us volunteer so much of ourselves to the public sphere,
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is there value in private life?
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Spoiler alert: I think so.
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But we’ll talk more about that next week.
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Thanks for watching.
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I’ll see you then.


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