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3 Real-Life Inspirations for George Orwell’s 1984


More than 70 years after its 1948 publication, Orwell’s masterpiece remains one the most relevant novels in the world.

Image Credit: Flickr-Ivan Radic | CC BY 2.0

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

British literary critic V. S. Pritchett could have been speaking for many in his review for the New Statesman:

"I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing;” wrote Pritchett after Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication; “and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down."

More than 70 years after its 1948 publication, Orwell’s masterpiece routinely tops Amazon’s list of overall best selling books. (In January 2017, Penguin Random House ordered 75,000 new copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four following a 9,500% spike in sales, according to The New York Times.)

Today it’s not unusual to find influencers on both the right and the left invoke Orwell’s book to decry the actions taken against them or to attack political opponents. In 2021, conservative US Senator Josh Hawely said Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel his book deal “could not be more Orwellian,” while left-leaning media consistently claimed that former President Donald Trump was Big Brother personified.

Some parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four we see today are downright chilling, while others seem silly. The question is, how does one separate breathless hyperbole from genuine threats?

To answer this, it’s helpful to look at the inspirations for Orwell’s book, a terrifying allegory detailing one man’s attempt to stay sane in a totalitarian state that tortures the truth—and people—to control society.

Here are three real-life inspirations for Orwell’s dystopian novel.

1. Communism

Many people know Orwell was a socialist for many years. Fewer know that Orwell became skeptical of collectivism, which he came to see as “not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”

This is why there is general agreement that Orwell “modelled the totalitarian government in the novel after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany,” two collectivist states hostile to private property and economic freedom.

While some may quibble over to which degree these states were communist/socialist/fascist, what’s important to understand is that Orwell was modeling his dystopia on socialist states, particularly communist ones.

Orwell himself makes this perfectly clear in a letter he wrote to Sidney Sheldon, the man who purchased the stage rights to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“[Nineteen Eighty-Four] was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism,” Orwell replied to Mr. Sheldon, “but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office.”

2. WE, a Novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Few people likely have heard of WE, a piece of dystopian fiction that never gained the traction of Nineteen-Eighty Four. But it’s clear the book influenced Orwell who reviewed the work after the death of its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Born in Lebedyan, Russia in 1884, Zamyatin was an enthusiastic socialist who became a member of the Bolshevik Party and participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the October Revolution, which he witnessed firsthand after returning from England, Zamyatin “threw himself headlong into party work, sitting on the boards of literary organizations and offering lectures on the craft of fiction,” writes Russian literary scholar Jennifer Wilson in The New York Times.


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