1984: The Power of Words

The element that makes 1984 one of the best novels of the 20th-century and a science fiction masterpiece is the way the novum is treated in it. Technically, the novum is the element in a science fiction story that changes something, generates conflict, or provokes tension. Examples of a novum are laser sables, the teletransporter, a time machine, a time stopping clock, human alike robots, etc. The novum can be immaterial too, such as erasing memories, the software in The Matrix, or the case of time-traveling in the Time Traveler’s Wife.

So what’s the novum in 1984? If we do not pay much attention it seems that the novum is Big Brother, the ubiquitous leader. Or on any case, the telescreen, the panoptic TV-camera device on every home that monitors each movement of the citizens’ private lives. But nope, none of these are the novum.

The novum in 1984 is two-folded, it is the State and the language.


The State is a novum because it uses the telescreen and Big Brother on a never before seen manner, while language is also distorted to be a tool to execute power. French philosopher Michel Foucault asserts with clarity something that Orwell gives as settled: that who controls language, that who controls the narrative, that who controls the speech is who exercises power (i.e.: the State through Big Brother). In order to exercise power you need to have all the information available (just as the telescreen allows). Orwell summarized this as: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.

The control Orwell is referring to is the control of history, but history is only made through language, only through the interpretation of the events. It is only through language that we can construct ourselves, our past, and our goals (future). If nobody describes and explains an event the event simply did not happen. In 1984 the government of Oceania has created a new language called Newspeak—a variation of English containing only the basic number of words that need not to be interpreted, that do not allow any room for discussion because there should be no discussion at all.

This is the magic of 1984. The novum is the State, it is not a machine nor a condition, but a whole interpretation of human relations under a new reality. It does not matter that Big Brother exists or is nonexistent, the fact that he exerts power through the state makes him the only law. Furthermore, as everybody is subjected to him, he becomes true. But the only thing Big Brother controls in reality is language, the discourse, and no one is allowed to go against it, against its interpretation of reality.

In 1984 the State went beyond any totalitarian system and created a language for discussion, it does not try to control the press, because it can control language from its root. This State has a power no one ever dreamed about, as it controls language in an absolute manner, not only through interpretation but from the availability of words and  grammar. As a result the State controls what can be thought and defines truth.

This is the Foucauldian Triangle: law-truth-power. In 1984 power, truth and law flow and feed themselves eternally. There is no way to jump out of the triangle because we would be under a false premise, outlaw, or without the sphere of power, such as saying something inconceivable. State and language together are the masterly novum in George Orwell’s novel.


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