The setting in George Orwell’s 1984 is an integral element in the novel’s underlying theme of the oppression and alienation of humankind by authoritarian rule. The majority of the novel is set in a sterile and gray London, filled with towering monolithic buildings and war memorials. From the single room in which the protagonist, Winston Smith, lives, to the cramped cubicle where he works, his surroundings are bare and colorless. Decorations are limited to political and doctrinal posters, because the government has declared pure aesthetics to be a frivolous distraction for Party members.
The grim visage of Big Brother, the purported leader of the ruling Party, is posted on most surfaces, but no art of any kind is displayed. In contrast to this colorless urban setting, Orwell uses the countryside, both literally as a setting where Winston and his illicit lover, Julia, meet for a tryst, and figuratively, as a fantasy that Winston has about the ‘Golden Country’, to illustrate the connection to nature that human beings have lost. An analysis of Winston’s fantastic ‘Golden Country’ and a comparison of scenes between Winston and Julia in the countryside and in the city, help to explain how Orwell uses images of nature to contrast the artificial misery of modern life with the natural rhythms of the past.
The concept of the Golden Country is introduced early in the novel as Winston fantasizes about meeting Julia in a meadow. “Suddenly he was standing on short, springy turf on a summer evening…The landscape … recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world” (Orwell Pt. 1 Chpt. 3). Nature represents an escape from the daily misery of sensual and emotional privation that makes up Winston’s life. Orwell does not idealize the Golden Country, even in the descriptions of Winston’s fantasies about it. He describes the pasture in his fantasy as being a little ragged and unkempt (Orwell Pt. 1 Chpt. 3). By adding realistic touches to Winston’s fantasy of nature, Orwell grounds the setting as a true source of inspiration and strength, rather than as simply an illusory, escapist dream. It is not just a an idealistic environment where fantasies may take place, but a real location where he may be able to escape from his miserable life for a time.
Winston and Julia meet in an isolated rural spot outside of London for their first sexual encounter. Winston feels awkward and exposed in the natural setting that is so foreign to him. “The sweetness of the air and the greenness of the leaves daunted him. …(T)he May sunshine had made him feel dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin” (Orwell Pt. II Chpt. 2). Gradually Winston starts to relax, and begins to feel a connection with the nature around him. He comments to Julia that this is the Golden Country of his dreams.
Julia, who is accomplished at having surreptitious sexual relationships with other Party members as an act of rebellion against the Party, located the site of their one and only tryst in the countryside. While she does not appear to be as sensitive to the influence of the natural surroundings as Winston does, her character has an elemental, almost ‘wild’, quality that blends in well with the outdoor setting. The outdoor tryst seems more free and rebellious than their later meetings in the room that Winston has rented in the proletarian section of the city. The countryside appears to add a primordial element to their meeting that makes it more of a revolt against the totalitarian regime under which they live, than subsequent meetings in the city. “…(T)he dreary, guarded, ever-vigilant Party lives of Winston and of Julia in London are set against their romantic freedom of expression in the Golden Country, both in Winston’s dream life and in reality” (Stephens 83). This sense of freedom and privacy that they enjoy in the countryside, however, turns out to be an illusion, as the lovers discover when they are arrested by the Thought Police in their rented room. They discover that there were microphones and cameras in their countryside trysting place, just as there are in the room in which they are captured. Even the beauty of a seemingly natural setting may be corrupted by the ubiquitous authoritarian state.
The birds, grass, trees, and stream that Orwell describes in Winston’s Golden Country and in the meeting place in the countryside are not idealized. Winston is even irritated by the birdsong at first, and he describes the scent of the violets as ‘sickly’. The imperfections reinforce the ‘realness’ of nature; it is not just a fantasy, but is a real force acting on human perceptions and behavior. As Winston gets used to being outdoors with Julia during their first meeting, he begins to feel a connection with the nature around him, and to shed some of the neurotic feelings he normally experiencing. Listening to the birds, Winston feels himself becoming part of scene around him, actually becoming one with the sound of the birds and the feel of the sunlight. “He stopped thinking and merely felt” (Orwell Pt. II Chpt. 2).
The grime and oppression of his daily life in the city is lifted by the spontaneous and natural environment in which he finds himself. This type of unselfconscious meditative behavior is not possible in the artificial, sterile and oppressive urban landscape where Winston spends most of his time. Orwell uses the spontaneous, undirected complexity of nature to paint a strong contrast between the grim and narrow existence that Winston must lead under Big Brother’s watchful eye, and the genuine human experience possible when surrounded by nature.