Imagine this, a perfect world of complete harmony and justice. There is no wrong, and there is no right. There is only utopia. It might be the perfect place where people want to live, or the place that people dream about. It might even be the picture of the future. However, this Utopian world is revealed to have flaws. It lacks many of the qualities of life that exist today. Thus the Utopian world isn’t so Utopian anymore. And the more that is revealed about the world, the more horrible it becomes. Soon, it becomes a nightmare, a world of illusions, of lies. That is the dystopic world that authors such as Bradbury and George Orwell pictures in their books, a world that exists under the image of utopia, and yet to the reader seems like a foreign, inhumane residence dominated by an all-powerful government.
George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts two different dystopic worlds. The settings of both books are different and the characters are unique; however, both of these books are also very similar. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are similar dystopic literatures by a common theme of censorship in which the government withholds or censors information, by a similar thread of a totalitarian government running the dystopic world, and by a common knowledge of the truth that the protagonist and the antagonist both hold.
Censorship is a remarkable simple concept: the ability of the government to withhold or change information that passes into the public. All governments have some form of censorship, and some governments have less censorship than others. Yet censorship can also become a difficult concept to grasp, for censorship allows the government to influence how people think. The less censorship there is, the more people begin to think, which according to standards today, is a good thing. However, totalitarian governments such as the ones in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 do not want people to think. They want people to just do, and thus it becomes a perfect seemingly Utopian world that the reader interprets as a piece of dystopic literature. In Fahrenheit 451, Beatty explains, ” Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it.
White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it” (pp.59). Beatty is declaring that there are many minorities as well as distinct groups of people. A perfect world must satisfy all of them, so if a book comes up that someone doesn’t like, burn it. However, burning is a permanent process. A burned book cannot be recovered. Thus, as more books are burned, more history, information is being erased. People’s minds begin to dull from lack of reading and in the end; people accept the fact that the government controls them and their actions. Similarly, a quote from 1984 explains, “The messages he had received referred to articles or news items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or…rectify…It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech…” (38, 39).
In this quote, Winston works in the Ministry of Truth to change the information that reaches the public. This is also censorship in order to keep the proles, the majority of the population, ignorant. By changing the information, there is no proof that people have against the validity of the government, and therefore people are sedated. In a similar way to Fahrenheit 451, the people come to gradually accepting the censored documents that reach them. They could take one fact one day, and the completely opposite fact another. Thus when the two books of dystopic literature are compared, the similar motif of censorship can be seen to play a huge part in the way the world runs. The government utilizes censorship while the common people accept it. When the reader sees this, it imparts a sense of horror in the seemingly Utopian world, and thus makes the two pieces of literature dystopic.
Another aspect that connects the two pieces of literature together is the idea of a totalitarian government ruling the people. In both works, the government creates the sense of a utopian world. The idea is that the government rules every aspect of the people’s lives, and that is the only way for a utopia to exist. This way of thinking is also twisted in a sense, because totalitarian governments do not care for the well being of its people. The people who rule only want power. That is why the reader realizes that the piece of literature is dystopic. In Fahrenheit 451, the totalitarian government controls the police, mechanical hounds, and the firemen.
The firemen act under the wishes of the government to burn people’s books. An explanation of the firemen is revealed in Beatty’s quote, ” …there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of out peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior: official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me” (58, 59). Beatty is explaining the reason that governments created firemen to burn books. The government can censor information that the public receives with the creation of the firemen, and it is the job to the people and the firemen to do their duties without question. That illustrates the totalitarian government in the society of Fahrenheit 451.
In 1984, the totalitarian government is led by a figure, Big Brother. The Inner Party and the Outer Party are also part of the totalitarian government, only consisting of 15% of the population of Oceania. These people in the Inner and Outer Parties, with the exception to Winston, are devoted to Big Brother. Big Brother is the figure that holds the party and utopian society together, and the propaganda and demonstrations center around the totalitarian form of government. What is really scary about the totalitarian society is that when someone goes against protocol, like Winston did, he/she was not executed immediately. Instead, they are made to love the totalitarian society and show devotion towards it. Then they are killed. This is illustrated in the quote, ” He looked up again at the portrait of Big Brother…the final, indispensable, healing change had never happened, until this moment…
The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain… He loved Big Brother” (297). Winston was tortured at the Ministry of Love in order to love Big Brother. The government never killed him, and finally at the end, Winston loved Big Brother and was finally in bliss. This shows the horrors of the government. The government has total control over the people, and no one can escape from committing a crime against the government. The government will always and forever be. That is one of the reasons why the piece of literature is considered dystopic. It is also a reason why 1984 is a powerful book and serves as a warning to the readers. In conclusion, a similar aspect of both dystopic literatures is the totalitarian form of government in both. That type of government holds the Utopian society together, and it is precisely that aspect that horrifies the reader and makes both pieces of literature dystopic.
A final point that both Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 have in common is that the protagonist as well as the antagonist who know the truth about the type of
society they live in. Unlike the common people, the protagonist realizes that the world they live in is not perfect. The majority of people are content with their society, but Winston, in 1984, and Montag, in Fahrenheit 451, realizes that there could be so much more in the world that they live in. Montag discovers the truth and knowledge that the burned books contain. Montag shows curiosity for books by saying, ” There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing” (51). Montag shows interest at books because he saw a woman voluntarily burn herself alongside her books.
Thus he reasoned that books must contain substance. It also illustrates that Montag is a flaw to the perfect Utopian society. Even his wife shows little care for books or the fact that a woman was burned with her books. However, Montag starts to glimpse the imperfect society he lives in. Winston is also unhappy with how the government is and especially because of how there is little or no privacy. He is driven with the dreams and hopes of a better place, a better government in which to live in. He demonstrates this by writing in a diary, which was against the rules of the government.
He also rebels in a sense by writing in the diary, ” DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (20). Another connection that is shared by Montag and Winston is that both their wives illustrated the perfect form of beings in the society. Winston even stated that he hated his wife because she really didn’t have a mind of her own. This showed that there were only few people in the Utopian society that realized the society and government for what it was, and that the society was terrible.
The antagonists also know the truth of the world they live in. In Fahrenheit 451, the antagonist is Beatty, who has read many books himself. He is very knowledgeable and uses literature to confuse Montag. In the end, the reader gets a sense of Beatty wanting Montag to kill him in order to be free of the acts he is committing and the government he is in. Beatty provokes and pushes Montag to kill him by saying, ” Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger” (119). Although it doesn’t state clearly in the book that Beatty wanted Montag to kill him, it is one way of viewing this matter. In a similar way, O’Brien is the antagonist of 1984. During the part when he interrogated Winston, the reader learns that O’Brien is really with Big Brother, and he has accepted the fate and results of the current government a long time ago.
He even admits that he wants power and control. O’Brien proves both these facts by stating, “They got me a long time ago” (239), and, “The party seek power entirely for its own sake…It is exactly the opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined” (263, 267) O’Brien admits to siding with the current totalitarian government, but also admitting that the current society is flawed and grants power to a select few, at the cost of the other 85% of the population. Thus, the two pieces of literature also share the fact that the protagonists and antagonists know the whole, or part, truth. It is these connections that bring together these two books written about dystopic literature.
And to conclude, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 are both pieces of dystopic literature. Both have many aspects in common. Although the two books are unrelated to each other in the sense of characters and the setting, both illustrate a dystopic world and give similar reasons and ideas about such a world. Both books illustrate how censorship can be used to control the people under the influence of the government. The books also reveal the necessity for a totalitarian government in order for the world to be a utopia and yet to the reader, dystopic.
Finally, both pieces of literature show that there are flaws to this type of world to the protagonist as well as the antagonist in it. However, the way that the authors illustrate the outcome of the protagonist and antagonist is different. In George Orwell’s cruel dystopic world, the protagonist loses all hope and loves Big Brother at the end. In Bradbury’s dystopic world, Montag retains the hope that with his knowledge of books, humans can one day dispel the cruelty and censorship of the totalitarian government.
While Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 can be read and just taken as a fantasy, a book that illustrates what could have happened, but did not. However, the authors of these books did not intend them to be simply read and discarded. What the author wants to impart to the reader is a warning. The warning is that in the future, the world that humans live in might one day mirror the world created by Bradbury or Orwell. If there is one thing for certain, it is a threat that the current world will reflect a world in Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. After all, humankind is evolving with swiftness, and anything can happen. There are many televisions in the world. Only one more step to make them all interact with each other and transmit/receive images, and the telescreens in 1984 exist. Sound, which is a predominant part of the utopian world, is taking up people’s time and thoughts in the real world.
With all of the MP3’s and all of the other music tools that people constantly listen to, life indeed is starting to mirror the worlds of Orwell and Bradbury. Finally, people go at a quicker and faster pace now. Eventually, there will be a point where people have to stop and think about what is truly happening around them and to think about nature. If this does not happen, then indeed the world will be thrust into an unending cycle of chaos, and some may call it utopia when that happens. When a government arises to take power without the question or consent of the people, then is it utopia, or chaos and slavery?
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1953.
Orwell George. 1984. New American Library, NY, 1949.
As they do the exercises below, have them continue to add to the chart. Then, whether they’re writing a final essay or doing some other culminating project, they can draw on these lists of detail, quotes, observations and ideas they’ve recorded.
Pair Some Recent Times Articles With the Novel
Our first choice: Michiko Kakutani’s essay “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read.” It begins:
The dystopia described in George Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old novel “1984” suddenly feels all too familiar. A world in which Big Brother (or maybe the National Security Agency) is always listening in, and high-tech devices can eavesdrop in people’s homes. (Hey, Alexa, what’s up?) A world of endless war, where fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea. A world in which the government insists that reality is not “something objective, external, existing in its own right” — but rather, “whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.”
How many of the parallels that she notes are already on your students’ lists? What new ones would they add?
As the essay reminds us, the specifics are only those as of Jan. 26, when the piece was published — and “of course, all of these developments are being constantly updated, with regular flurries of news and denials and counterdenials — a confusing state of affairs that itself would not have surprised Orwell, since he knew the value of such confusion to those in power.”
Another useful read: “Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying,” by Charles J. Sykes, a former conservative radio talk show host. It begins:
If President Trump’s first tumultuous weeks have done nothing else, at least they have again made us a nation of readers.
As Americans grapple with the unreality of the new administration, George Orwell’s “1984” has enjoyed a resurgence of interest, becoming a surprise best seller and an invaluable guide to our post-factual world.
On his first full day in office Mr. Trump insisted that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever, a baseless boast that will likely set a pattern for his relationship both to the media and to the truth.
Mr. Sykes writes that “All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.” Do your students agree with his analysis, and his worry that, in the Orwellian age of Donald Trump, “the battle over truth is now central to our politics”?
For more on this, you might also check out our recent lesson plan, Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News.
Ask Essential Questions
Essential questions, as most teachers know, are questions that can be applied far beyond one novel or historical period. The best of them, in fact, are questions with which the world is still grappling.
According to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, who explored the concept in “Understanding by Design,” they are also:
questions that are not answerable with finality in a single lesson or a brief sentence — and that’s the point. Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers. They are provocative and generative. By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it.
Here are just a few one might pose in studying “1984” — or while reading the news on the front page of this morning’s New York Times. We welcome your additions to this list. Invite your students to choose one or more and discuss, debate or write about them as they apply to the novel and to their own lives.
What is power, and how is it gained and used?
What constitutes an abuse of power?
Can individuals change a society?
What are the dangers of government-controlled media?
What can citizens do if power is abused by a ruling group or government?
How is technology changing our understanding of privacy?
What Is more important: our privacy or national security?
Can changing language change thought?
How do governments balance the rights of individuals with the common good?
Why do some individuals take a stand against oppression while others choose to participate in it?
Apply Quotes from “1984” to the News Today
Challenge your students to choose one or more of the lines below and apply them to life in 2017 in as many ways as they can — starting, of course, by finding Times articles with which they resonate. (Even if, or maybe especially because, Orwell also once wrote, “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.”)
Big Brother is watching you.
Double-think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.
Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.
For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?
Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.
One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.
Understand the World of 1944:
What was happening when Orwell was writing “1984”?
Though it was published in 1949, Michiko Kakutani writes in “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” that “Orwell had been thinking about the novel that would become ‘1984’ as early as 1944, when he wrote a letter about Stalin and Hitler, and ‘the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible führer.’ ”
Invite your students to read Orwell’s letter, then use Times Machine to get a more visceral sense of the time period. The site allows readers to page through any day’s edition of The New York Times, from 1851 to 2002, and see it as it was originally published. For example, the famous event in the headline above comes from the edition of June 7, 1944. (Remember that events usually become headlines in a print newspaper the day after they happen.)
What would it have been like to be read the daily newspaper as the world was at war? What “sinister symptoms” that “bring totalitarianism nearer,” as Orwell phrased it in his letter, are hinted at in the headlines? And which headlines from the era are especially resonant in light of things happening in 2017?
Create Something New to Show the Novel’s Relevance Today
In our 2010 lesson, “Big Brother vs. Little Brother: Updating ‘1984,’” students first compare “1984 vs. Today”, then create a treatment for a modern film, print or stage adaptation that revolves around current technologies.
Use ideas from that lesson plan, such as pairing up to write and record podcasts in which one plays an interviewer and the other George Orwell, who answers questions about the novel and reacts to the modern world.
Or, consider a few more:
• Here are 42 different covers that have been used for the novel over the years. What might a 2017 update look like?
• “1984” is coming to Broadway. Your students might imagine they are the costume or set designers. What decisions might they make that would visually reinforce the book’s relevance to today?
• This famous commercial, shown during the Super Bowl in January, 1984, advertised the Macintosh computer. How could students use ideas, images or quotes from the novel to advertise something today, whether a product or a public service?
• “1984” isn’t the only suddenly-topical classic flying off the shelves. Invite your students to read about the other novels that seem newly resonant to many, then create a reading list or display for your school library of both fiction and nonfiction that might address what is happening in the world today.
• Our lesson plan “Beyond the Book Report: Ways to Respond to Literature Using New York Times Models” suggests many more ideas, including creating soundtracks, maps, photo essays and more.
Debate How Widely This Book Should Be Taught
After they’ve finished the novel, invite your students to debate whether “1984” should be taught widely right now, perhaps in lieu of other books on the curriculum — or whether it should even be considered for the kind of “one book, one city” initiative in which all citizens in certain place read the same work of literature. (The image above is from one such conversation, the Journalism Education Association’s 2017 #JEAOneBook discussion of “1984” on Twitter.)
At a time when Americans are deeply divided politically, what effects might this have?
In “Teaching “1984” in 2016,” a piece for the Atlantic written in November, Andrew Simmons writes that he is “ecstatic to be a teacher at this time in American history.” He writes:
I have a responsibility — not to transform every liberal parent’s progeny into a slightly sharper copy or radicalize future voters skeptical of politics, but to shore up their critical faculties, to make them more skilled readers, writers, and thinkers. And to also make them decent, compassionate, alert, engaged truth-seekers, neither callous, fearful Party enablers nor complacent, dead-eyed Proles who poke their iPhones and scoff at memes and chirp their discontent in brief blips of coherence. Bravery is something that people can be taught. Books may be the best teachers for what to do when the fireworks veer too close.
Do your students agree? This teacher works in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Do they think teachers in more conservative places would feel the same? Why or why not?
The full text of “1984”
Recent Articles From The Times:
“Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read”
“Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics”
“Trumpian Characters Are the Stuff of Fiction”
Recent Articles From Around the Web:
The New Yorker | “Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Trump’s America”
Wall Street Journal | “Trump: The Reader’s Guide”
The Guardian | “My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985 – It’s Not Orwell, he Warned, It’s Brave New World”
On Orwell and “1984,” from the Times Archives:
1949 Book Review | “Nineteen Eighty-four”
1950 Obituary | “George Orwell, Author, 46, Dead”
1981 | “‘Big Brother’ Is Racing ‘1984’ Deadline”
1984 | “The message for today in Orwell’s ‘1984’”
1984 | “Soviet Says Orwell Vision is a Reality in U.S.”
1985 | “John Hurt in ‘1984,’ Adaptation of Orwell Novel”
1991 | “Decreasing Our Word Power: The New Newspeak”
1998 | “Literary Pilgrimmages: George Orwell”
1998 | “George Orwell’s List”
2003 | “Simpler Terms; If It’s ‘Orwellian,’ It’s Probably Not”
2008 | “What George Orwell Wrote, 70 Years Later to the Day”
2011 | “This Isn’t ‘1984’”
2012 | “George Orwell and the N.C.A.A.”
2012 | “George Orwell’s Diaries”
2010 | “Why Orwell Endures”
On Privacy and Other Orwellian Themes:
2013 | “Judge Questions Legality of N.S.A. Phone Records, Describes as ‘Almost Orwellian’”
2013 | “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls”
2013 | “U.S. Confirms That It Gathers Online Data Overseas”
2013 | “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited”
2013 | “In U.S., News of Surveillance Effort Is Met With Some Concern but Little Surprise”
2013 Op-Ed | “Intelligence for Dummies 2013" | Op-Ed | “Peeping Barry”
2013 | “Teacher Knows if You’ve Done the E-Reading”
2013 | “Staying Private on the New Facebook”
2012 | “‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents”
2012 | “How Big Data Became So Big”
2011 | “Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS”
2011 | “Questions for Amazon on Privacy and the Kindle Fire”
2011 | “You’re Mad! You’re On YouTube!”
2010 | “Little Brother Is Watching”
2010 | “Officials Push to Bolster Law on Wiretapping”
2010 | “Little Brother is Watching”
2010 | “The Web Means the End of Forgetting”
2010 | “How Privacy Vanishes Online”
Related Learning Network Lesson Plans
“Big Brother vs. Little Brother: Updating Orwell’s ‘1984’”
“Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News”
“Dark Materials: Reflecting on Dystopian Themes in Young Adult Literature”
“Where to Draw the Line: Balancing Government Surveillance With the Fourth Amendment”
“Teaching About Cybersecurity: Taking Steps to Improve Online Safety and Prevent Data Breaches”
“Who Are You Online? Considering Issues of Web Identity”
“Literary Pilgrimmages: Exploring the Role of Place in Writers’ Lives and Work”
“It’s All an Allusion: Identifying Allusions, in Literature and in Life”
Related Student Opinion Questions and Student Contest Winners:
“What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?”
“Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ I.D. Cards?”
“Do You Wish You Had More Privacy Online?”
“How Careful Are You Online?”
“Do You Worry About the Lack of Anonymity in the Digital Age?”
“Editorial Contest Winner | Americans Should Defend Their Digital Privacy”
“Student Reading Contest Winner | Internet Surveillance”
More Learning Network Literature Collections
We have many more collections like this one that match Times articles with often-taught authors and works of literature, including:
“To Kill a ‘Mockingbird”
“The Great Gatsby”
Mark Twain and “Huckleberry Finn”
“The Grapes of Wrath”
“The Hunger Games”
“The Kite Runner”
“The Scarlet Letter”
“The Catcher in the Rye”
“Death of a Salesman”
“Lord of the Flies”
“Of”Mice and Men”
“A Raisin in the Sun”
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”
“The Glass Castle”
“The Book Thief”
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