George Orwell’s 1984 and bed bugs

It had been several years since I had read Orwell and perchance I brought a copy of 1984 along on holidays. As someone rather obsessed with bed bugs over the last few years I was surprised to find five references to bed bugs that contained what I considered pretty reasonable understanding of the bed bug. The large mahogany bed above the antique shop was assumed to have bed bugs both by the shop owner and Julia, bed bugs were assumed to be difficult to eradicate as the shop owner suggested the bed would have value “if they could get the bugs out,” the bugs multiplied more in the heat, came out in full force while napping on the bed, and were probably found behind the picture above the bed. All five bed bug observations were quite astute.

Given that a good understanding about bed bugs has generally disappeared from general knowledge today I wanted to understand what caused Orwell to write relatively intelligently about bed bugs. I noted that 1984 was first published in 1949. Bed bugs were very common in houses before world war 2 and the average person most likely knew a fair bit about bed bug habits and biology from experience. When Orwell wrote 1984 he had a general bed bug knowledge because he most likely experienced them as did his family before him and his grandparents before that. That history gave him a pretty good knowledge base.

It was the advent of DDT that basically wiped out the bed bug by the mid 1950s. Subsequent to that it was the organophosphates and carbamates that gave human kind a 40 year reprieve of bed bugs. Today the bed bug resurgence can be traced, in part, back to the the banning and growing resistance to the 3 chemical classes mentioned above (and also growing resistance to the pyrethroids). I imagine within the next 20 years the general population will have gone back to experiencing bed bugs just like Orwell did. Unfortunately we have forgotten the knowledge base that was common in the 1940s. Perhaps we will relearn what was forgotten with experience.

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