Big Brother Is Watching You: How George Orwell Defined The Dystopian Genre

Do you love a good dystopian novel as much as we do? In honor of George Orwell’s birthday, we’re taking a look at the ‘1984’ author’s impact on the genre!

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“Big brother is watching you.” The ominous warning is repeatedly given to the people living in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain). The totalitarian super-state is ruled by “The Party,” headed by the mysterious big brother. Using constant surveillance, the Thought Police enforce the strict laws of the regime and brutally purge anyone who doesn’t conform. George Orwell’s 1984 establishes an oppressive authoritarian government in a style that has made him one of the best-known dystopian authors of all time.

The term “Orwellian” has become synonymous with totalitarianism in literature. A staunch socialist, Orwell’s novels frequently incorporated themes of anti-fascism. But how have his novels shaped the modern dystopian novel? A leader of the genre, George Orwell’s writing has had an undeniable influence on subsequent dystopian works. Let’s take a look at the impact George Orwell’s writing has had on later authors in the genre.

What is a dystopian novel?


Dystopian and utopian fiction novels explore social and political structures. Specifically, dystopian novels establish a setting that intentionally disagrees with the author’s ethos or character. These often have elements of mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, and a police or military state. Additionally, dystopian novels often explore why things are the way they are. Many times these elements act as a social commentary, reflecting the state of society at the time it was written.

Orwell’s 1984 incorporates all of these elements into a dark, futuristic novel. He imagines a war-ravaged society under the control of an oppressive government that dictates its citizens’ thoughts and actions. The protagonist, who dreams of overthrowing the regime, receives a book supposedly detailing how the citizens can do it. Before he can finish reading it, however, the man who gave him the book reveals himself to be a member of the thought police. He then arrests the protagonist and tortures him until he pledges allegiance to The Party.

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

George Orwell, 1984

George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, though satirical, also incorporates elements of the dystopian genre. The beast fable tells of a group of farm animals who revolt against their human farmer to be equal, free, and happy. Like in 1984, the novella sees a powerless group of beings attempting to overthrow the governing power. This is another key element of dystopian literature.

How has George Orwell influenced the genre?


Orwell’s 1984 alone had a huge impact on the public’s vernacular. The novel introduced terms like “big brother”, “room 101”, “thought police,” “newspeak”, “unperson”, and “groupthink,” which are still widely used today. Additionally, the themes of ubiquitous surveillance and invasion of privacy were a major topic of discussion in 2013 when it was found that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been secretly storing and monitoring global internet traffic. The event saw sales of Orwell’s novel increase by up to 7 times.

A number of authors have cited George Orwell and his work as inspiration. Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, Dave Eggers, and Suzanne Collins all incorporated and adapted themes and literary forms found in Orwell’s work. He depicts a totalitarian government that has created vast inequities. The governing body exploits innate human weaknesses to keep citizens unhappy and in a constant state of conflict. Both of these elements make Orwell’s work, 1984 in particular, a defining example of a dystopian novel.

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

George Orwell, Animal Farm

Dystopian novels, which are usually written as a reflection of the social climate of the time, have increased wildly in popularity recently. The genre often involves erasure of identity, state power, surveillance, and control. A number of recent authors, including Veronica Roth, Patrick Ness, Maggie Gee, and Will Self, have incorporated these themes into their own work. In fact, it’s difficult to find a dystopian novel written after 1950 that doesn’t incorporate themes established by George Orwell.

What other dystopian novels should you be reading?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic dystopian novel set in America, now the Republic of Gilead. The monotheocracy reverts to the repressive intolerance of the Puritans in response to social unrest and declining birthrates. It is a society that takes the book of Genesis at its word and establishes harsh punishments for its citizens.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore


V for Vendetta is a dystopian graphic novel set in the near future. England is run by a corrupt, totalitarian regime. V, a masked vigilante, is the only one who opposes them. Throughout the story, he attempts to free England’s citizens through acts of terrorism. The novel, illustrated by David Lloyd, drew a strong influence from Orwell’s 1984.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Bradbury is another author who drew influence from Orwell’s writing in his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In this story, a fireman named Guy Montag is responsible for burning books and the houses they are found in. He doesn’t question his job but returns every day to his wife, who spends all day with her “television family”. When a woman named Clarisse moves in next door, she introduces him to a past where the people don’t live in fear and a present where books are vessels for ideas that improve the world rather than the mindless chatter of television.

The Giver by Lois Lowry


In this novel, Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy, lives in a seemingly idyllic and colorless world. He is chosen to receive special training from a man called “the Giver”, who tells him his role in society is to carry all of the memories from all of history. As Jonas begins the lengthy process of receiving those memories from the Giver, he realizes his community is not initially what he thought it was.

Dystopian fiction is especially relevant now more than ever. As politics become more radicalized, the themes of this genre become all too real. George Orwell, who arguably produced some of the best and most famous dystopian works of all time, has had an undeniable impact in shaping the genre.

For more dystopian reads, check out our article here!