1984: Far-fetched Fiction or Terrifying Reality?

George Orwell’s famed dystopian novel, 1984, has long held a spot as a modern classic, often cited as a go-to read for high-school English classes around the world since its publication in 1949.

However, Orwell’s famous novel has recently seen an increase in demand, with reports of it being sold out on American Amazon at the end of January. The sudden ascent in popularity has been attributed to none other than Donald Trump and the current political state in America. Trump advisor and famed campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, coined a new term-“alternative facts”-at the start of last week in a failed attempt to explain why Press Secretary Sean Spicer had made an overwhelmingly false statement on behalf of the administration. When various press outlets began to refer to Conway’s comments as “Orwellian,” inciting comparisons between Trump’s America and 1984’s Airstrip One, the novel’s sales began to surge.

The novel’s publisher, Penguin, the largest publishing house in the industry, is now struggling to fulfill this new demand for the book, even with substantial reprints of the British masterpiece. According to Nielson BookScan, an independent agency that measures most book sales in the US, over 47,000 copies of 1984 have been sold in the States since Trump’s election. Excluding this recent rise in sales, this demonstrates an increase of over 30 per cent from the same period in previous years. Interest in Orwell’s masterpiece has become so large that a musical production of the novel will be appearing on Broadway in the coming months.

Orwell’s novel narrates the life of Winston Smith: a dissatisfied citizen under the control of a violent, totalitarian government. In a society where love is forbidden and every action is watched, Smith finds solace in a forbidden love affair; a small act of rebellion in a world he cannot control. It is within Smith’s journey of defiance, as he becomes a target of the government, that Orwell weaves his own political analysis.

He identifies the cyclical power struggles occurring throughout history, before concluding that “every new political theory […] led back to hierarchy and regimentation.” This is eerily familiar: Trump’s recent appointments of an elitist staff and implementation of exclusive immigration laws imply that his government seems to be following in the steps of Orwell’s imagined government. When 1984 was first published during the aftermath of the second world war, it became clear that George Orwell was issuing a warning to a world that had barely escaped the Nazi totalitarian regime; his warnings are becoming increasingly relevant today.

By taking a particular focus on media, Orwell’s novel warns of the power of technology in influencing a population. From the daily propaganda broadcasts inciting a hateful crowd mentality, to a film depicting “a ship full of refugees being bombed”, it becomes clear why readers today are identifying with this dystopian novel to such an extent. In our own modern society, abuse via social media, fake news, and ‘alternative facts’ are becoming the norm.

1984 has had a long history of appearing in popular culture; thus, in many ways, the comparison made with Trump’s presidency is far from unexpected.

Perhaps most notably, Orwell’s novel was referenced in one of the most well-known Superbowl commercials of all time, that of Apple in 1984. Directed by Ridley Scott, the advertisement’s imagery depicted a dystopian, industrial setting full of grey tones and mass conformity, not unlike the reality portrayed in the novel. A nameless runner adorned in colour, played by English athlete Anya Major, carries a large brass hammer as four policemen dressed in all black chase her. Eventually, she throws the hammer towards a monstrous screen on which an Orwellian “Big Brother” preaches a “pure ideology”, shouting: “We shall prevail!” The screen is destroyed in a fit of smoke, and a voiceover announces: “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Popular culture has followed suit, with countless films, books, and musicians referencing Orwell’s classic in both blatant and subtle manners (and let’s not forget where the long-running reality show, Big Brother, got its name from).

Although the genre of dystopian literature may have very well begun as sheer entertainment, it has recently become a harsh reality. As a modern culture, we must look to Orwell’s 1984 as a cautionary tale for what the future may hold.

Only time will tell if Trump will become the contemporary “Big Brother” and if his America will live up to Orwell’s bleak dystopia.

Photo credit: James, Flickr

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