Reading Guide

Joe, Linda, Sarah, Rachel-


Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel written in 1949 by Eric Arthur Blair, Aka George Orwell, this book was a follow on from his earlier great, Animal Farm and received instant critical acclaim for its scary insight into the future and its political theme. However, its reputation as one of the great books of its era was perhaps cemented decades after when many of Orwell’s predictions proved valid, and even to the present day, serves as a constant warning to what one day may occur.

The book is set 35 years after its publication, in a post-apocalyptic world separated into 3 factions: Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. The book is set in the first of these factions, Oceania, a place that is under a totalitarian regime headed by a figure, ‘Big Brother’ and a select group called the party. The regime has banned freedom of speech, expression, and even thought. The ‘Thought Police’ are a mysterious group of spy’s who police the masses and make people who disobey ‘disappear’.

The main protagonist Winston who is a much less powerful member of the party (The outer party), works in the ministry of truth, rewriting news articles to fit the parties ever changing agenda. Tired of the restricted monotonous life he leads as an outer party member, he begins to think about revolution and even starts to journal his thoughts in a diary, both of these actions are punishable by death. Julia, another party member makes contact with him as a rebel of the state and his dreams of revolution grow stronger. His dreams eventually come to an end when he becomes a victim of the thought police and is took to the ministry of truth to be ‘re-educated’.

This guide will give an in depth analysis into Nineteen Eighty-Four. Firstly, by looking at the author himself and his biography, it will then look at the various themes of this book, for example the themes of class and language. This guide will also apply Roland Barthes’ theory The Death of the Author to Nineteen Eighty-Four, while also giving an overview of the theory. Finally the guide will highlight the key criticisms, and examine both the genre, and the form/structure of the book. Throughout the book there will be questions and prompts to for you as the reader to think about and discuss and help you critically think about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Author Biography: George Orwell (1903-1950)

Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell; was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and literary critic.

Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 in Matihari, Bengal, India. His father was a minor British official in the Indian civil service. His mother (of French descent) was raised in Moulmein, Burma. He had two sisters; one five years his senior and one five years his junior. At the age of one Orwell returned to England with his mother and sisters. In 1911 Orwell attended a preparatory boarding school, St Cyprian’s School, Sussex. Orwell’s parents were unable to afford his school fees, he was awarded a scholarship as a result of his uncle’s connections with the school headmaster. Orwell recognised he was from a poorer home in comparison to his peers. Orwell once described his parents’ attitudes as “Landless Gentry, lower middle class people whose pretentions to social status had little relation to their income”[1]. Orwell gained a place at Eton in 1917, he remained there until December 1921. During his time at Eton he co-produced a college magazine, The Election Times.

Family tradition led Orwell to become an assistant district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police in 1922. Whilst on leave in England, 1927 Orwell made the decision not to return to the Indian Imperial Police. Orwell felt shameful of his role as a colonial police officer after witnessing the treatment of the Burmese people (against their will) under British rule. These experiences were recounted in his 1934 novel Burmese Days. Orwell’s experiences in Burma led to him declaring himself a anarchist during the 1930’s. He later described himself as a socialist.[2]

After leaving the Burmese police force Orwell spent time living amongst the poor and homeless in Kent claiming, he wanted to compare the treatment of the English poor in their own country to that of the Burmese poor in their own country. In 1928 he moved to Paris, in 1942 wrote for an American reference book describing this time in his life

“I lived for about a year and a half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish. After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools.”[3]

His non- fiction book Down and out in London and Paris (1933) is an account of his days living rough in England and his financial struggles in Paris.

In 1946 Orwell’s essay Why I Write was published. In it, he explained that he wanted to turn political writing into art. His political convictions are apparent in his books The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).[4]

George Orwell had suffered from lung problems for several years, in 1947 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. On January 21, 1950 aged 46 years he passed away at a London hospital from complications of tuberculosis. George Orwell’s ideas and opinions have lived on through his work, which continues to be studied today.

Five interesting facts about George Orwell

  1. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish civil war– He travelled to Spain and fought on the Republican side against the communists. In 1937 he was shot in throat by a snipers bullet, narrowly missing his jugular.[5]
  2. He had a son and was a single farther- He and his wife Eileen adopted a son in 1944 who they named Richard Horatio Blair. In 1945 Eileen died of a heart attack during surgery, Richard was only ten months old. Orwell refused to put Richard up for adoption after his wife’s passing, with the help of his housekeeper he became a devoted farther to his son.[6]
  3. He was a fan of junk shops- Orwell wrote about his love of junk in his essay Just Junk- But Who Could Resist it? (1946). [7]
  4. He almost got sucked into a whirlpool- During a camping trip at Glengarrisdale Orwell, his son and 4 others encountered the Corryvreckan whirlpool whilst in a dingy. The boat overturned. All of the group managed to escape unharmed.[8]
  5. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed- In 1944 Orwell’s home was struck by a doodlebug whilst he and his family were away from the home. He returned to his home and began to sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers. After hours of searching he managed to retrieve the manuscript.[9]

Roland Barthes- The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes 1967 essay, profoundly titled The Death of The Author is a poststructuralist essay that no longer looks to the author as a genius original creature, but more of a mediator who assembles their influences and of other works from the past. Peter Barry, in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, says that Barthes is “Asserting the independence of the literary text and it’s immunity to the possibility of being unified or limited by any notion of what the author might have intended, or ‘crafted’ into the work.” This means that a literary text should no longer viewed just in a biographical sense ass this takes away much of the potential surrounding the text.

Although the title of the essay is quite shocking, it’s important to note that the death which Barthes is talking about is a metaphoric one, this is because he does not see the figure of the author as a genius of an original creation, but compares them instead to a mediator or a shaman who is more famed for their articulation than their creation. He begins the essay by using an extract from Sarrasine to explain that there are multiple ways to interpret the text.

Barthes writes about the ‘Author-God’ and when referring to the author always gives it a capital A, this is Barthes suggesting the notion of the author he’s referring to is “Like the God of Christianity, the author does not equivocate or beguile.”[10] Meaning that the author leaves only one possible avenue when considering a meaning for a text. Burke argues however that to place the attributes of omnipotence and omnipresence to an author would be foolish as there are authors who don’t issue ‘single theological messages, and there are authors who don’t restrict their texts to only having one voice or meaning.[11]

Barthes continues, “Writing can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation, ‘depiction’ (as the classics would say); rather, it designates exactly what linguistics (…) call a performative, a rare verbal form in which the enunciation has no other content than the act by which it was uttered.”[12] Barthes is saying that now, because writing is no longer original such as the classics, it should now be considered as a piece with no other content surrounding it, an utterance, for example ‘I declare’ or ‘I sing’. Barthes states that without the ‘Author-God’ text is a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” and that “the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.”[13] And that the reader is now the source from where meaning is gained, and through the death of the author, the reader is born, however the reader must detach themselves of all history and must engage with the text objectively


Does this theory, stifle or improve how this book can be read?

Where can this theory prove problematic?

Applying Barthes’ Theory to Nineteen Eighty-Four

According to Barthes in The Death of the Author, ‘to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing’[14]. This suggests that reading Nineteen Eighty-Four with the idea of Orwell as the Author would limit the meaning of the text and reduce potential interpretations.

Therefore to read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the way that Barthes intended, the reader must ignore all context surrounding Orwell and the writing of the text, instead finding all meaning from the text itself. It can be considered difficult to disassociate the text with its Author in this case, with ‘the book’s title and many of its concepts, such as Big Brother and the Thought Police… instantly recognized and understood, often as bywords for modern social and political abuses’[15] before even reading the text. It is also widely known that this was the last novel written by Orwell before his death.

  • Is it possible to read Nineteen Eighty-Four with a complete disregard for Orwell?
  • Does the reputation of the book prevent Bathes’ theory from being fully applied?

With Nineteen Eighty-Four being such a well-known text and with Orwell being so closely associated with its creation, the task of removing the Author from the work is not an easy one. However, The Death of the Author does encourage the reader to be active, describing how ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’[16]. Barthes suggests that it is the role of the reader to find meaning in the text, that the meaning is not already predetermined by the Author.

In the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reader must therefore ignore Orwell’s intention of the text being a warning against totalitarianism, as well as ignoring any knowledge or Orwell’s political beliefs. It would be difficult to argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four is an apolitical text, but Barthes does not suggest that the reader can forcefully impose their own meaning anyway. For example, it would be difficult to view sections of the text such as the ‘two minutes hate’ as anything but political and as a direct nod to the propaganda of totalitarian regimes. Therefore Barthes’ theory can be applied to Nineteen Eighty-Four, though it is difficult for the reader to find innovative readings or fully remove Orwell’s influence.

  • Does Nineteen Eighty-Four allow for multiple interpretations?
  • Are there any sections of the text that Barthes’ theory can be effectively applied to?

Alternative Perspective

Academics and critics have long debated the significance of authorial intention in relation to a texts meaning. Traditionally literary criticism respected the concept of authorial intent. The concept of authorial intention dramatically changed during an era of post-structuralism, emphasis on reader interpretation was key to deciphering a texts meaning. This change is reflected in Roland Barthes progressive essay The Death of the Author (1967). He suggested that preoccupation with the interpretation of author intention, may in fact; hinder the reader’s ability to understand and interpret the meaning of a text.[17]

As with any debate, counter arguments exist. Numerous essays have been published in response to Barthes essay The Death of the Author (1967), which contests his theory. In 2017, Luke Edley published the satirical essay, Why is authorial intent so important?. His essay acknowledges the importance of reader interpretation and that each reader will have a different interpretation of a texts meaning but, it champions authorial intent. Edley suggests that a writer will have a particular set of ideas that they want to introduce before they start penning their work. The words they painstakingly choose to express these ideas are an indication of how the author intends their work to be interpreted by the reader.[18] Edley does acknowledge that authorial intent does not always translate to the reader in the way intended and that this mistranslation does not indicate authorial intent does not exist. He indicates that Barthes theory which regards the reader as the “sole beneficiary of any written work”[19]; suggests that authorial intent is inconsequential. Edley concludes that disregarding authorial intent is disrespectful to a writer’s craft, as each writers work “[…] captures the essence of who they are, how they feel and what they think.”[20]

To read Why is authorial intent so important? By Luke Edley in full please visit

  • Is authorial intent important as a reader, to interpreting a texts meaning?
  • Is Orwell’s text 1984 suggestive of authorial intent? If so, how can we identify his authorial intent?

Criticism of the Text

Despite the success of Orwell’s hugely influential narratives, he has been the subject of much political and literary criticism both in life and since his premature death. It could be argued that Orwell’s critics have, in the attempts to depreciate his work, ensured that he has maintained his status as one of the most lauded and persuasive literary figures of the twentieth century in spite of his somewhat ambiguous political stance.

Novelist and journalist Will Self, renowned for his use of unnecessary verbosity, recently delivered a scathing attack on Orwell, branding the author as a ‘supreme mediocrity’ in a BBC Radio 4 programme A Point of View[21]. Self’s criticism was essentially a response to Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language[22] through which he defined several rules for writers to follow to ‘cut out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally’. Orwell’s guidelines included ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out, never use a long word where a short one will do’ and ‘never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent’, all of which are incessant, prominent features of Self’s productions. Self interprets Orwell’s recommendations as an antiquated approach to authorship by responding:

“The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don’t like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped. In this respect they’re indeed small “c” conservatives, who would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language.”[23]

Rather than rejecting modified, contemporary language, Orwell advocated creativity in the use of the abundant and rich variety of Standard-English to impede the development of reductive terms that serve only to complicate language structures that ostracise the majority. Orwell’s concerns for the future preservation of the English language are a significant feature of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The official language of Oceania is Newspeak, a system of vocabulary dictated by Big Brother and instilled to promote the ideology of the establishment whilst reducing the communicative capabilities of those other than members of the inner party. Orwell’s Politics and the English Language rules promote expression in an inclusive and accessible way that contradicts Self’s prefabricated, wordy and jargon-punctuated narratives, attainable only to a limited or extremely dedicated section of society.

Form and Structure

The form and structure of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen as straightforward. The work takes the form of a novel, which is then divided into three parts. These three parts are then divided further into chapters. ‘Part One’ serves to provide a description of the life of Winston under the rule of the Party, detailing his work and routine as a member of the Inner Party. ‘Part Two’ details his relationship with Julia and follows their affair and rebellion against the Party. ‘Part Three’ concludes with the capture of Winston and Julia by the Thought Police, following Winston as he enters the Ministry of Love.

  • Consider the significance of the division of the novel into three parts. In what ways does each part explore Winston’s relationship to the Party?
  • The length of each part is not equal, with ‘Part Two’ being the longest and ‘Part Three’ being the shortest. Is this significant? If so, in what ways?

It is also important to consider the use of the appendix within the novel. On page six there is a footnote that states: ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania. For an account of its structure and etymology see Appendix.’[24] The appendix is separate from the rest of the novel and allows for a greater understanding of the language employed throughout.

  • Would the absence of the appendix affect the ability to understand the text?
  • Is it important that the appendix is read when we are signalled to do so, or could it be read upon finishing the text?

The novel also has elements of intertextuality. Throughout the text there is reference to the character of Goldstein, the leader of a rebellious group called The Brotherhood. It is also suggested that Goldstein has written a book known as either The Book or The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. The book acts as a manifesto of sorts, to be used as a handbook for rebelling against the Party. In chapter IX Winston reads sections of the book and later reads parts to Julia.

  • What is the effect of reading The Book first-hand as opposed to being informed by Winston of its contents?
  • How does the inclusion of The Book alter the pacing of the text?
  • How does the information discovered in the book alter the perception of the Party?


There can be few argument when it comes to the main genre of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The majority of it’s features point to the genre of the book being a dystopian fiction novel. But what are the key features of a dystopian fiction novel? Here are the main characteristics that will help you make the distinction between a dystopian story and other stories:

  • Usually set in the future (not too distant)
  • Focuses on the subjects of oppression, mass poverty and anarchism.
  • Usually post-apocalyptic, or set in the aftermath of a disaster.
  • Look to give a critique of a society, or push the author’s ideologies.

Looking at these points, how many of them correlate with 1984?


It’s clear to see why Nineteen Eighty-Four is seen as one of the most famous dystopian novels ever written as it hits all of the aspects a book of this genre requires. For example, other than the obvious fact it’s set in the future, the main story is based upon the oppression caused by Big Brother, and how their restrictions in terms of free will and free thought are used to control the masses. This in turn causes our main protagonist Winston to attempt to rebel and dream of revolution, which therefore covers another key element. This book is quite obviously a critique of society in 1949, as around that time there was an increasing concern around the rise of communism in the western world and the fear of what might become of the world if it were to become the main political ideology. It would be more than fair to assume that Big Brother is representative of communism and the dangerous potential people believed it harnessed at the time of the book. As we can already assume from Orwell’s past work, Animal Farm, Orwell was firmly against the Russian revolution and clearly firmly believed that communism was dangerous, and in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four attempted to not only critique communism, but also to preempt how the future will look under Bolshevik rule.


Attempt to imagine what you believe/fear society will be like in the near future, how will the world be ran? What technology will there be? Would life be better or worse?

Then share with a friend or in a group to see the similarities and differences in each other’s futures.


One of the themes explored throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four[25] is class or social inequality. These class distinctions are defined in the novel as:

  • The Inner party, constituting less than 2% of inhabitants and characterised as the dominant elite.
  • The Outer Party of 18-19% of society who are typically educated, employed and conformist to the ideology of Big Brother.
  • The remainder and vast majority of Oceanic occupancy are referred to as The Proles, primarily sustaining a feral existence under the dictatorship of, yet not complicit to Big Brother.

Winston Smith is demonstrative of an archetypal Outer Party member through his occupation as a Clerk at the Ministry of Truth and his continually monitored existence by the Inner Party. His living conditions are meagre yet relatively comfortable in comparison to the ‘Brown coloured slums with battered doorways’[26] that Winston observes when he ventures into prole territory as he endeavours to discover unaffected individuals who can accurately recall history. Orwell portrays the inhabitants of the ‘rat-holes’[27] as unintelligent, possessing savage, animalistic traits as they ‘shoot into doorways like rabbits’[28] and ‘momentarily stiffen as if at the sight of some unfamiliar animal’[29] as Winston makes his way through the ‘sordid swarming life’[30] of the prole community. Social theorist Raymond Williams[31] suggests that Orwell’s sympathies are reserved for the underdog, exploited by politicians and oblivious to the plight of the middle class ‘rebel intellectual’[32] who is exiled from the whole political system.

Orwell is documented to have spent time living in squalid and destitute conditions in Paris, London and the north of England to immerse himself in the experience of poverty stricken living.[33] His encounters with a dog-eat-dog environment, generated by a post war reaction to loss of liberty, rationing and hardship are evident in his somewhat judgemental representation of the residents of deprived areas. Although his ancestry was from aristocratic descent Orwell described his upbringing as ‘lower-upper-middle class’[34] with his civil servant British father and half-French mother. It was, perhaps, his father’s involvement with the exportation of opium during the Blair families’ residency in India that formed Orwell’s inquisition of class distinctions and the social inequalities endured by the proletariats at the mercy of the bourgeois.

  • Does the complexity of the language cause confusion? Is it important to refer back to the appendix throughout the text?

It is also important to consider that the main divisions of the Party all have names deriving from Newspeak. The Minipax, Minitrue, Miniluv, and Miniplenty are all named with compound words, however they all seem to indicate the opposite of the division’s purpose. For example, the Miniluv deals with law and order enforcement and is later revealed to be a place of torture and punishment. There is a contradictory element of Newspeak that allows for details of meaning to be easily confused or overlooked. Without a thorough understanding of the language, it is easy to misinterpret many words.

  • Think about the names of the divisions of the Party. What is the purpose of their contradictory names?
  • Is Newspeak crafted in a way to isolate the ‘proles’ or lower classes in the text?

In what ways does it prevent them revolting?


Language plays a very important role in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Orwell creating a new language specifically for the text. The language of Newspeak is described as the official language of the Party and follows the principles of English-Socialism, the ideology of the Party. The aim the language is to reduce the English language to as few words as possible by combining words and removing all variations of words that are still necessary. An example of this is that ‘words such as honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science and religion had simply ceased to exist.’[35] The purpose of this is to reduce independent thought and allow only for thoughts that comply with the ideology of the Party.

  • How effective is Newspeak at preventing unorthodox thought?
  • Does Newspeak alone prevent freedom of speech or is it the Party that enforces this?

The language of Newspeak aims to simplify language but can be considered to be complicated and hard to follow. The compound words or ‘B words’ do not follow set rules and ‘were not constructed on any etymological plan’[36]. There is a detailed explanation of common ‘B words’ in the appendix and words that are described here such as goodthink appear frequently throughout the rest of the novel.

  • Consider the use of Newspeak in the novel. Does it disrupt the flow of the text or appear unnecessary?

[1] George Woodcock, “George Orwell.” Britannica, 2020, Accessed Feb 22, 2020.

[2] Woodcock, “George Orwell.”

[3] Bernard Crick, “Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell]”, OxfordDNB, Sep 01, 2017. Accessed Feb 26, 2020.

[4] British Library, “George Orwell”, British Library, Accessed Feb 27, 2020.

[5] Bean Shadow, “Twenty-Five Facts About George Orwell,” Writeasiplaese, Nov 01, 2013. Accessed Feb 28, 2020.

[6] Shadow, “Twenty-Five Facts About George Orwell.”

[7] Shadow, “Twenty-Five Facts About George Orwell.”

[8] Shadow, “Twenty-Five Facts About George Orwell.”

[9] Emily Petsko, “13 surprising facts about George Orwell,” MentalFloss, Jun 24, 2019. Accessed on Feb 28, 2020.

[10] S. Burke, The Death and Return of the Author (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992)23.

[11] Burke, The Death and Return of author, 24.

[12] S. Burke, Authorship, 128.

[13] S. Burke, Authorship, 128.

[14] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Authorship: From Plato to the Post-Modern, ed. Sean Burke (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), p.128.

[15] Cathy Lowne, ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed March 8th 2020.

[16] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Authorship: From Plato to the Post-Modern, ed. Sean Burke (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), p.129.

[17] Roland Barthes. The Death of an Author. Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2006. P.130.

[18] Luke Edley, “Why is authorial intent so important?” Why it’s important to discover your authorial intent. 2017. Accessed Mar 06, 2020.

[19] Edley, “Why is authorial intent so important?”

[20] Edley, “Why is authorial intent so important?”

[21] Will Self, Why Orwell was a Literary Mediocrity,, Accessed on 29th February 2020.

[22] George Orwell,, Accessed on 4th March 2020.

[23] Will Self, A Point of View,, Accessed on 29th February 2020.

[24] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p.6

[25] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books, London, 2000.

[26] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. 85.

[27] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. 86.

[28] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. 87.

[29] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. 86.

[30] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. 88.

[31] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1958.

[32] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1958.279

[33] Peter Davidson, Orwell’s England, Accessed on 28th February 2020.

[34] John Rodden, The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007. 4.

[35] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p.349

[36] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p.347