In this dystopian novel, the protagonist of the story, Winston Smith, attempts to rebel against a totalitarian government that exercises complete control over all aspects of its citizens’ lives.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In the informational text “Someone Might Be Watching — An Introduction to Dystopian Fiction,” Shelby Ostergaard discusses the characteristics of dystopian fiction and how the genre comments on society.
Introduce this text before students begin 1984, in order to provide them with some background and insight on the genre of dystopian fiction and its history. Have students consider the characteristics of dystopian fiction and discuss their connections to the world they live in. How are fictional worlds able to comment on the real world? What types of connections are typically drawn and what kind of commentaries are made?
This article examines the rationale behind “Stop and Frisk,” a controversial law enforcement tactic, and the impact of its decline.
1984 and this article both consider the difficulty in finding a balance between protecting people’s freedom and keeping citizens safe. In 1984, the totalitarian government allows its citizens no freedom, which they supposedly do in their best interest. Before reading the novel, have students discuss whether or not the government should be able to violate citizens’ freedom if it is in their best interest. What dangers arise when citizens assume that all government actions are undertaken in their best interest? Who gets to decide what is in the citizens’ best interest? In Book One, have students pay attention to the government’s position on sex, food rationing, and thoughtcrime, and how the government’s position affects the lives of its citizens.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American author and humorist. One month after an English teacher at Drake High School in North Dakota decided to teach Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five in his classroom, Charles McCarthy, the head of the school board, decided that the novel’s “obscene language” was not appropriate. Every copy of Slaughterhouse-Five at Drake High School was burned in the school’s furnace. In response, Vonnegut wrote this letter to McCarthy.
Key themes in 1984 revolve around the power of controlling information. In the novel, the government can control people by controlling the information they receive. Introduce this text before beginning 1984, and ask students to discuss why controlling the information that people receive is so powerful. In Book One: Chapter Four, have students take notes on the ways that the government controls information. Ask students to discuss the connection between the central idea of Vonnegut’s letter and the events of the chapter.
Dr. Gregory Burns, a professor of behavioral science, conducted several experiments to study why humans readily conform. ABC’s Primetime recreated these experiments using several unsuspecting people.
In 1984, the reader experiences the “Two Minutes Hate,” where the image of an enemy of the government is portrayed on a screen, and people yell and curse at the image. Although the protagonist initially marvels at how quickly people get upset, he soon finds himself mimicking their actions. After finishing this scene in Book One: Chapter One, ask students to use the information from the article to analyze why the narrator in 1984 involuntarily mimics the actions of the people around him. Identify evidence from the article that supports their claim about Winston’s conformity. How can following the crowd be dangerous for society as a whole?
This article describes life in North Korea under totalitarian government rule. In North Korea, the government has total control over the economy, the military, education, and people’s access to information—and it punishes those who try to change the status quo.
1984 and this article both describe life under a totalitarian government, including the misinformation that the government distributes. The protagonist of 1984 is an employee of the Ministry of Truth, a bureaucracy that distributes misinformation, such as informing citizens that their food rations are increasing in quantity, even though the opposite is true. After finishing Book One: Chapter Four (pg. 48), asks students to compare and contrast the way the totalitarian government in the article and 1984 coerce their citizens into obedience.
“Sonnet 18” is one of Shakespeare’s best-known love sonnets, known for its opening line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
In 1984, the protagonist begins a secret romance with a woman, even though such activity is outlawed. After reading Book Two: Chapter Two (pg. 126), compare and contrast the protagonist’s romance with the one in the poem. How does love affect them both?
In the 1964 Presidential campaign, incumbent LBJ ran a controversial advertisement that used fear as a persuasive tool.
Throughout 1984, the government uses propaganda and fear to influence the minds of its citizens. After finishing the novel, have students compare and contrast the propaganda from the novel with the strategy used in the ad. How are people’s actions and beliefs influenced by propaganda? How does the government, and O’Brien in particular, influence Winston's beliefs through the use of fear and propaganda?
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a piece of philosophy explaining the importance of knowledge in society and for the human soul.
In 1984, the protagonist of the novel attempts to gain knowledge about what is really going on in the world around him, rather than what the government is telling him is true. In the end, he is captured and brainwashed into accepting the government’s tyrannical rule. After finishing the novel, have students compare and contrast the experiences of Winston Smith and those that Socrates discusses in “Allegory of the Cave.” How are the journeys of Winston and the human born in the cave similar? In our modern society, how can we avoid a fate similar to Winston’s?