Physical Control and Psychological Manipulation in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell’s contribution to universal literature is undeniable, and its impact on the political sphere, not only when it was published but even today, is an immutable truth. As proof of this assertion, we are free to make this statement, an aspect which is some of the food for thought that Orwell has served through his famous political works Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. So intricate and magnificently composed, they have provided entire generations, an outstanding number of readers, with the chance to understand the phenomenon of totalitarianism, the political plague that swept through the 20th century, whose aftermath is, on some levels, visible. Orwell has offered the chance to experience literature not as „art for art’s sake” but as a piece of writing that is endowed with depth, meaning and a valuable message about the past, the future, how precious human individuality is, and most importantly, how precious the fact that we are allowed our human individuality is.

The intertwining of elements inspired by the actual political situation of the last century, inspiration which Orwell gained through his active implication and close observation enabled by his profession during the War, and the author’s creativity let loose in the creation of the „perfect” dystopia, are what we find fascinating about the Orwellian novel. Although a work of fiction, it is, at the same time, so profoundly anchored into reality by illustrating the dangers that society can impose on its people that it exceeds the boundaries of fiction and becomes even more riveting.

The theme of control and manipulation of the masses and the individual through the various elements of the INGSOC dictatorial regime is of interest from the perspective of the enormous effects it can have on human lives, both collectively and individually.


Written on the background of a distressed world following the Second World War, in the middle of a century burdened with world wars, fear of the future and regress instead of progress, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) has quite often been interpreted as a premonition or prophecy about what the rapidly spreading Soviet communism would bring to the world. However, 1984 was written, as explained by Orwell himself, as a warning on the potential effects of a centralized economy in a totalitarian society, be it leftist or rightist, in which the government uses invasion of privacy and suppression of interpersonal relationships in order to subdue its people and maintain absolute power. The current paper exploits the theme of physical control and psychological manipulation as illustrated in Orwell’s novel through the central tenets of INGSOC – surveillance, control over interpersonal relationships, pain, the manipulation of language, doublethink, and the mutability of history.

The 1940s saw the rise of totalitarian regimes across the world, and especially in Europe, with the spreading of Soviet communism under the lead of Joseph Stalin. In 1943, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met at the Tehran Conference to decide the world’s fate following the Second World War, establishing what would become spheres of influence. This episode marked the coming into being of James Burnham’s idea in his 1941 novel, The Managerial Revolution – that of a world divided and controlled by three superstates governed by totalitarian regimes, which would be in a permanent state of warfare with each other. This served as a starting point for the writing of Orwell’s political novel 1984, whose intention is detailed in one of his letters to his editor, included in his work George Orwell: A Life in Letters, edited by Peter Davison:
What it is really meant to do is to discuss the implications of dividing the world into zones of influence (I thought of it in 1944 as a result of the Teheran Conference), & in addition to indicate by parodying them the intellectual implications of totalitarianism. (Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, p.427)

As the online Merriam-Webster dictionary explains, a totalitarian form of government is based on „the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority”. The action in Nineteen Eighty-Four takes place in the dystopian Oceania, in a post-nuclear war era, after which the world is divided into continents governed by three superpowers in a constant, well-plotted state of warfare. Just as in the case of all the totalitarian regimes we learned throughout the 20th century, the power of INGSOC, the ruling Party, and its legitimacy rely on an extremely high degree of control over the population. This comes in the form of physical control and psychological manipulation, illustrated in numerous and various ways, some of which bear the mark of fiction, others very much identifiable in reality as we know it.

1. Physical control

One of the modus operandi that the Party uses to subdue its people is physical control, which plays a significant role in portraying Oceania even from the very first pages. Being subjected to physical control, the individual does not have the chance to develop healthily, which serves the Party perfectly. This is because a human who is not under constant observation and constant regulations is free to develop a personality, bond with similar people, and, most importantly, think for himself, thus becoming more susceptible to political disobedience.

To begin with, the most significant part of the suppression of individuality is played by permanent surveillance, based on the Panopticon model. Panopticon is a type of penitentiary subjected to constant monitoring and control of the inmates, without their knowledge, invented by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and later elaborated by Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish. The Birth of Prison. Its presentation and its function are depicted in the following excerpt:
to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (Foucault, p. 201)

In Orwell’s Oceania, panopticism is made possible by telescreens – big electronic screens incorporating microphones that all members of the Outer Party and their Inner Party have in their homes, monitoring everything in their range at all times, thus leaving virtually no space for privacy. In this constant monitoring, every element of body language, facial expression, and sound received by the telescreen are closely observed and analyzed so that any insignificant gesture that might indicate thoughts that the Party disapproves of is immediately and inevitably punished. This is the role held by the Thought Police – to find any thought crimes committed and punish the individual. Telescreens are also used to deliver propaganda, transmit announcements, indications and for programmes of indoctrination that are meant for the entire population to participate in. For instance, the ‘Physical Jerks’, mandatory daily work-out programmes instructed and also supervised by a female voice, or the ‘Two Minutes Hate’, also a daily activity, in which the members of society have to watch a movie by Emmanuel Goldstein, the Party’s main enemy, and then for two minutes, they have to overtly, loudly express their hatred. Another tool that serves the purpose of surveillance is represented by the ‘Junior Spies’, a children’s organization, in which they are encouraged and rewarded for spying on their parents and denouncing them.

Physical control of the population is also exerted to the extent of preventing interpersonal relationships, including sexual impulses, basically suppressing any human interaction that is not to the benefit of the Party. The only kind of loyalty permitted is the one towards Big Brother. The sole purpose of marriage (which also has to be approved of by the Party beforehand, on the basis that no sexual attraction exists between the two) is that of „producing a child” as a „duty to the Party”. This type of physical control over individuals naturally has a significant psychological impact as well – through the prohibition of such interactions and the Thought Police chasing off any hint of deviancy, the mass is reduced to perceiving this situation as laws of nature. This is what fuels the undoubted efficiency of the Junior Spies and the Junior Anti-Sex League, as explained in the following excerpt:
The children were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become, in effect, an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately. (Orwell, 153)

Another device which serves the purpose of preserving power through physical control is ultimately pain. In the third chapter of part III, while Winston is held in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien explains to him why inflicting physical pain is one of the essential devices of the Party: „Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your choosing” (Orwell, p. 305). Pain is, therefore, a means of erasing every trace of human individuality and consciousness, of willpower and feelings towards another human being, and the ultimate tool of directing the human capacity of love and devotion towards Big Brother. Pain enables the Party to gain absolute control over the body, mind and soul of its people, individually and collectively, to reprogram them into believing that „2+2=5”.

2. Psychological manipulation

As a subtheme of the manipulation of society under the totalitarian ruling of INGSOC, subduing using psychological manipulation is even more complex. It appears in almost every aspect of the Party’s political agenda. From a macro perspective, enforcing power through the grand scheme of brainwashing is more effective over the population than any means of physical control because instead of maintaining authority by force, you can mentally reprogram people into not willing to rebel at all.

One of how mind control is illustrated in the novel is through the manipulation of language. Language is seen as a vehicle of crucial importance in mind processes because it enables us to represent thoughts and emotions, and there is a direct proportion between this ability to represent them and their intensity in the human mind. In the Orwellian dystopia, this situation is used and manipulated in favour of the Party using Newspeak. Newspeak is the official language of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania, having theoretically replaced the standard English used before the Revolution. However, it is only by 2050 that it is expected to factually replace’ Oldspeak’, as English is now called, as it is still being perfected to serve the interests of the Party as well as possible by basically reducing the ability of the human mind to produce heretical thoughts. Its fundaments and purpose are detailed in the Appendix of the novel, as follows:
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgot, a heretical thought (…) should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. (…) This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings (…). (Orwell, p. 343)

The Appendix gives examples of words such as’ free’, which can only be used to denote the idea of lack of something, not in the context of political freedom or intellectual freedom. Newspeak is, therefore, another vehicle for reprogramming the human mind from scratch into a mould carefully created by the Party to ensure its power.

‘Doublethink’, or” reality-control” in Oldspeak, is a political concept strongly connected to language manipulation. Doublethink is the term used to describe the phenomena of being able to hold two mutually contradictory thoughts simultaneously and believing each of them – „WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (Orwell, p. 6). One clear example of this notion in the novel is the names given to each Ministry – the Ministry of Truth is the place where, among other things, people work on falsifying records of the past; the Ministry of Peace ensures the permanent state of warfare; the Ministry of Plenty deals with maintaining the state of poverty and low life standards; the Ministry of Love is the place where they torture and eliminate heretics. Everyone knows it, yet no one has any objection to their validity. It is implanting thoughts which have no consistency and no roots in reality. For instance, there are people whose designated work is to modify public records, such as publications about wars. They change historical records from black to white, and still, no one has a hard time believing in the truth of what they have just made up. In the last chapter of the novel, sometime after having been released from the Ministry of Love, Winston suddenly gets a childhood memory of himself and his family playing a board game; moments later, he pushes this memory away and claims it is a false memory, that sometimes your mind plays tricks on you and you have to be aware that some of the things you remember have happened in reality, while others have not. The intrusion of the Party into the collective and individual minds goes to the extent that they are deprived of any trace of logic or factual perception of reality as we know it – O’Brien explains to Winston that „Nothing exists except through human consciousness” (Orwell, 304).

Emerging based on doublethink – reality control – another instance of psychological manipulation in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the mutability of the past, that is, the manipulation and erasing of history to preserve political power. This is one of the INGSOC tenets that was very present in the world of the 20th century, specifically in countries ruled by totalitarian regimes, and which is still present even today at a certain level, especially if we were to refer to today’s North Korea (which still bears striking resemblance to Orwell’s dystopia). Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth is concerned with the forgery of public records and the deletion of any evidence of the past to suit the Party’s ends, despite the vague memories which some people still have of the past times and even despite recent, present-day memories, or better said, certainties of the present, palpable world, until that forgery becomes truth. An essential aspect of the entire theme of psychological control, but especially of the manipulation of history, is the difference between what is seen as truth and what is factual. One element constantly modified to suit political needs is the state of War between the three superpowers. At this moment, Oceania could be at War with one enemy, and at the next moment, it will be stated that Oceania has never been at War with that state. The reality of the present is fact, which is subjective because reality is subjective. The reality imposed by the Party – the lie that is told for enough time – becomes truth: „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.’ Who controls the past, ran the Party slogan,’ controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” (Orwell, p. 40)


The English modern classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, in a sociopolitical context heavily affected by World War II and the emergence of authoritarian political regimes, deals with an impactful subject in an expository manner. This has not only made the novel extremely controversial, facing banning from states such as Soviet Russia, but it has also triggered immediate success, representing, together with Animal Farm, the literary peak of Orwell’s career.

Foucault, Michael. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. Penguin, 2013.
Orwell, George. George Orwell: A Life in Letters. Edited by Peter Davison, Liveright/ W. W. Norton, 2013.
Quinn, Edward. Critical Companion to George Orwell. Facts On File, 2009.
Rodden, John. The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language, 1945.
Accessed on: Merriam-Webster, 2011.
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prof. Lorena Maria Irimia

Colegiul Național Emil Racoviță, Iași (Iaşi) , România
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