As one of the greatest works in Britain’s literary canon, Nineteen Eighty-Four sounds a chilling warning about the dangers of censorship.
Now staff at the University of Northampton have issued a trigger warning for George Orwell’s novel on the grounds that it contains ‘explicit material’ which some students may find ‘offensive and upsetting’.
The advice, revealed following a Freedom of Information request by The Mail on Sunday, has infuriated critics, who say it runs contrary to the themes in the book.
Published in 1949, Orwell’s dystopian story – set in a totalitarian state which persecutes individual thinking – gave the world phrases such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Newspeak’ and ‘thought police’.
Its plot centres on Winston Smith, a government employee who is arrested and tortured over an illicit love affair, but it also makes powerful points about what can happen to a society that doesn’t cherish academic freedoms or its own history.
Yet it is one of several literary works which have been flagged up to students at Northampton who are studying a module called Identity Under Construction. They are warned that the module ‘addresses challenging issues related to violence, gender, sexuality, class, race, abuses, sexual abuse, political ideas and offensive language’.
In addition to Orwell’s book, academics identify several works in the module that have the potential to be ‘offensive and upsetting’ including the Samuel Beckett play Endgame, the graphic novel V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said: ‘There’s a certain irony that students are now being issued trigger warnings before reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our university campuses are fast becoming dystopian Big Brother zones where Newspeak is practised to diminish the range of intellectual thought and cancel speakers who don’t conform to it.
‘Too many of us – and nowhere is it more evident than our universities – have freely given up our rights to instead conform to a homogenised society governed by a liberal elite “protecting” us from ideas that they believe are too extreme for our sensibilities.’
Orwell biographer David Taylor said: ‘I think 13-year-olds might find some scenes in the novel disturbing, but I don’t think anyone of undergraduate age is really shocked by a book any more.’
The seminal novel has regularly been adapted for stage and screen, including an acclaimed film starring John Hurt.
Northampton has also issued warnings over other modules on its English degree course. Students are alerted, for example, that Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time includes ‘death of an animal, ableism and disability and offensive language’.
References to ‘gender, sexuality, abuse, violence, self-harm, suicide’ are also flagged up in Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which was adapted for a successful BBC series in 2020 starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
Northampton, which gained full university status only in 2005, is ranked 101st in a list of the UK’s 121 universities.
A spokesman said: ‘While it is not university policy, we may warn students of content in relation to violence, sexual violence, domestic abuse and suicide. In these circumstances we explain to applicants as part of the recruitment process that their course will include some challenging texts. This is reinforced by tutors as they progress through their programme of studies.
‘We are aware some texts might be challenging for some students and have accounted for this when developing our courses.’
Earlier this month, The Mail on Sunday reported how Salford University students have been given a ‘trigger warning’ over Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
English literature undergraduates are warned of ‘scenes and discussions of violence and sexual violence in several of the primary texts’ that they may find ‘distressing’.