14 Things You Might Not Know About Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell endured a case of tuberculosis and a near-death experience while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
George Orwell endured a case of tuberculosis and a near-death experience while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. / Ivan Radic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has given us a whole slew of shorthand phrases for dystopian or oppressive governments and surveillance, but even if you’ve already read about Winston Smith’s struggle against Big Brother, there are a few facts, stories, and theories about the novel that are worth a closer look.

1. It almost wasn’t called Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell was wracked with indecision about it. For a while, he considered the title The Last Man in Europe.

2. George Orwell had trouble deciding what year to set the story in.

Before assigning his fearful prognostications to the year 1984, Orwell based the novel in both 1980 and 1982.

3. Before criticizing propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell worked as a propagandist.

During World War II, Orwell worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation. His role with the BBC Empire Service involved creating and supervising programming that the nation would feed to Indian networks to encourage a pro-Allies sentiment and spark volunteering.

4. George Orwell modeled Room 101 after an office at the BBC.

Nineteen Eighty-Four’s most horrifying setting is Room 101, the Ministry of Love’s torture chamber in which victims are exposed to their worst nightmares. What readers might not know is that Orwell modeled the chilling locale on an actual room.

As a propagandist, Orwell knew that much of what the BBC said had to be approved by the Ministry of Information, possibly in the BBC’s Room 101. He probably drew the name of his nightmare room from there. Curious about what the dreadful room looked like? The room has since been demolished, but in 2003 artist Rachel Whiteread created a plaster cast of the room.

5. George Orwell was being watched while he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Twelve years before he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell released the nonfiction piece The Road to Wigan Pier, an exploration of poverty and class oppression in England during the 1930s. Thanks to the investigative research he had conducted for Wigan Pier, which included the documentation of labor conditions in coal mines, and because he attended Communist Party meetings, Orwell was placed on a watch list by the government’s Special Branch and kept under tight surveillance for over a decade. His official file noted Orwell’s "advanced communist views" and that he "dresse[d] in a bohemian fashion."

6. Big Brother’s regime borrowed practices from world governments.

Orwell didn’t limit his sights to a single tyrannical power when designing the oppressive regime showcased in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The author borrowed a number of elements from the Soviet Union, including the "2 + 2 = 5" slogan from the so-called "five-year plan" for national development starting in 1928 (though the phrase had been used for decades before that), while the NKVD police force likely provided the model for most of the Thought Police and Ministry of Love’s activity. Additionally, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s treatment of Thought Crimes resembled how the Special Higher Police, a special Japanese policing service during World War II, condemned unpatriotic thoughts during their self-styled "thought war."

7. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Julia is believed to be based on George Orwell’s second wife.

Many scholars have speculated that Julia, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s female lead and romantic interest to protagonist Winston, was modeled after Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell. The comparison might not have been all that flattering, though. Orwell describes Julia as a "rebel from the waist downwards" and ultimately has Winston betray her to aid his own liberation.

8. George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four while struggling with tuberculosis.

While most of us would use the opportunity of a mild cold to take a week off from work, Orwell did not let a 1947 bout with tuberculosis shift his focus away from his latest novel. After a stay in a hospital he kept working—supposedly collapsing after he finished his second draft.

9. One of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s translations didn’t “get” the opening line.

Although it’s common for a text to undergo changes during translations, the original Italian version of Nineteen Eighty-Four did quite a number on the ominous tone leavened by the book’s famous opening line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

An unnamed translator altered the sentence to read, "… and the clocks were striking one," ostensibly unaware that Orwell had intentionally included an hour not present on most analog clocks. As 24-hour clocks were more common in Italy than in other parts of the world, the translator apparently saw no special value to Orwell’s original hour.

10. George Orwell nearly drowned while working on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Much of the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four was done in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell found himself to be most productive. Even in this setting, he was hardly exempt from bouts of procrastination—some of which were particularly disastrous. Taking a break from his writing one day in the summer of 1947, Orwell led his son, niece, and nephew on a boating expedition across the nearby Gulf of Corryvreckan. During the trip, the family’s dinghy capsized unexpectedly, tossing the lot of them overboard without life jackets. Luckily, all four survived, but the event was hardly helpful to Orwell’s already delicate medical state.

11. George Orwell died only seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published.

Although Orwell had seen success as a broadcaster, journalist, nonfiction writer, and as the author of Animal Farm, he unfortunately never got to witness the incredible influence that his most popular piece would have on the world. Orwell died on January 21, 1950, due to complications from tuberculosis.

12. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a favorite novel of many famous faces.

Both Stephen King and Game of Thrones star Kit Harington have listed the novel as or among their favorite books.

13. David Bowie wanted to turn Nineteen Eighty-Four into a musical.

Also among Nineteen Eighty-Four’s famous fans was David Bowie, who had planned to adapt the book into a musical in the mid-‘70s. Unfortunately, Orwell’s widow wouldn’t grant permission for the project, but Bowie did write some music for it.

14. Nineteen Eighty-Four is already in the public domain in some countries.

Orwell’s novel is in the public domain in Canada, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Oman. The book became public domain in the 28 nations of the European Union, as well as in Russia, in 2021. It will be so in the United States in 2044.

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!