“‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’” And so, the Party depicted in 1984 asserts total control over its citizens in a post-World War II, post-atomic war era. The novel takes place in former Great Britain, now known as Airstrip One, under the nation of Oceania, which encompasses Britain, North and South America, Australia, and parts of southern Africa. The world is divided into 3 zones: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. All zones are constantly at war with one another, with no clear winner ever emerging.
Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, or “middle class”, who is a records editor at the Ministry of Truth, finds himself arguing with the slogans of the Party in Airstrip One, and taking serious issue with how they handle “truth.” He starts a diary that he hides from the two-way telescreen by writing in a small alcove in his apartment. His possession of the diary, along with his musings of “Down with Big Brother”, are instances of thoughtcrime, for which he could be instantly arrested and sent to the Ministry of Love, which maintains law and order.
Winston is being watched at work by a young brunette in her twenties. Winston becomes increasingly suspicious of her, and begins to suspect she is following him. One day, she hands him a note that reads, “I love you.” This act is in itself a crime, as Winston is technically married (albeit to a woman he has not seen in several years), and people are not allowed to choose their spouses or love interests. In fact, any intimate act not committed within the confines of marriage and with the sole purpose of procreation is known as sexcrime. Winston meets the woman, Julia, and they begin an affair that Winston sees as striking a political blow against the Party.
In the meantime, Winston frequents a shop in the prole district, where he purchases the journal and then finds himself purchasing a paperweight with beautiful coral in it. Mr. Charrington, the shop owner, brings Winston upstairs to a room with no telescreen. Winston begins to muse if he can rent the room for privacy, and eventually, it becomes a secret hideaway for him and Julia to escape to. It is barely furnished except for a bed and a picture on the wall of a church called St. Clement’s Dane.
Winston feels as if he and Inner Party member O’Brien have a connection. He had a dream about O’Brien many years ago where O’Brien told him, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” O’Brien seems to be making eye contact with Winston at work, and eventually approaches him to invite him over to look at the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary. When Julia and Winston arrive at O’Brien’s apartment, they are overwhelmed by its luxury. Many things are afforded to Inner Party members who only make up the top 2% of the population, not unlike the “capitalists” that are demonized in the Party’s propaganda. One luxury that O’Brien has is the ability to turn off his telescreen for complete privacy. He then reveals to Winston and Julia that he is involved in the underground resistance called the Brotherhood, spearheaded by the man named Emmanuel Goldstein, whom all Party members are taught to hate from a young age. O’Brien warns Winston and Julia that they will only be able to fight from the dark, and that if they are captured, there will be no one to help them. He arranges to have a copy of the book, Emmanuel Goldstein’s manifesto, sent to Winston soon.
The book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, is filled with a history of Oceania, and how the world in its present state came to be. The two chapters Winston chooses to read from are titled with two of the Party’s slogans: “Ignorance is Strength” and “War is Peace.” Chapter 3, “War is Peace”, concerns itself with telling the purpose of having the three superstates, Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania at constant war with one another: it distracts the people. The war fought between the states is impossible to decide, and because they are all so evenly matched, none can be conquered. Goldstein writes, “The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognized and not recognized by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living.” The purpose of war is to use up the surplus of resources, and to keep people suspended in a general state of perpetual fear. “A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This-- although the vast majority of Party members understand it only in a shallower sense-- is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: WAR IS PEACE.”
Chapter 1, “Ignorance is Strength”, concerns itself with explaining the hierarchy of society. Throughout history, the high, middle, and low structures of society have always existed. In particular, it focuses on Big Brother being at the top of this chain of command, or chain of being, but Goldstein states, “Nobody has ever seen Big Brother… We may be reasonably sure that he will never die… Big Brother is the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world.” This is especially shocking to any member of the Party who sees Big Brother’s picture, speeches, and directives day in and day out. The chapter goes on to talk about how the Party members are expected to have no private emotions and the alteration of the past is necessary. It finally asks the question, “Why should human equality be averted?” and Winston stops reading. He becomes frustrated because the book hasn’t taught him anything he doesn’t already know. He understands the how: he needs to know the why. Why does the Party exist, and what is its aim? Nonetheless, he does feel validated in many of his questions about the history of the Party. He muses over how the proles, which make up 85% of the population, are the only hope to overthrow this tyranny. As he and Julia discuss this, a voice comes from behind the painting of St. Clement’s on the wall. It turns out, it had been disguising a telescreen, Mr. Charrington was a member of the Thought Police, and Winston and Julia are dragged away to the Ministry of Love.
Winston is brought to a holding cell where he finds his neighbor Tom Parsons, whose daughter had turned him in for saying “Down with Big Brother!” in his sleep. He also runs into a woman who might be his mother. All prisoners seem to fear something called “Room 101”, which many are selected and dragged to. Winston is held there for at least a day, and he holds a vague hope that O’Brien will find some way to send him a razor blade with which he can end this misery.
Unfortunately, O’Brien walks into the holding cell, and Winston discovers that he is not a member of the Resistance at all: he is a member of the Inner Party, and he has played Winston and Julia from the very beginning. He personally oversees Winston’s “re-education”, which includes weeks and months of torture and starvation. The torture sessions consist of O’Brien asking Winston for the “truth” of things, such as, has Oceania always been at war with Eastasia? Winston, of course, knows that this is not true, and his hesitant answers lead to more torture. O’Brien’s ultimate aim is to ensure that Winston embraces everything the Party tells him. O’Brien posits the question that the slogan “Freedom is Slavery” can be reversed to “Slavery is Freedom.” If Winston would just dedicate himself fully to believing everything the Party tells him, if he becomes a slave to Big Brother, he will be free. Winston progresses, but maintains one thing in his heart that he feels the Party will never be able to touch: his love for Julia. He also believes that to die hating the Party was the ultimate freedom.
O’Brien knows that Winston has been harboring deceptive thoughts from him, and he knows it’s finally time to bring Winston to Room 101. In Room 101 is every person’s worst fear. For Winston, it’s rats. O’Brien has a cage filled with starving, vicious rats, that will fit over Winston’s head and trap him so that the rats devour his face. Winston realizes there is only one way to get out of the situation: to betray his final private loyalty. He tells O’Brien to put Julia’s head in the rat cage instead. He screams for him to do it to Julia instead; he doesn’t care what they do to her, as long as they let him go.
A while later, Winston sits in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, the same place where revolutionaries Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford had once sat after their capture and “re-education.” He sips Victory Gin mindlessly, and thinks back to seeing Julia after their stints in the Ministry of Love. They were both greatly changed, and neither of them had feelings for one another any more since their betrayals of each other in Room 101. Finally, the reader gets the meaning of the song playing in the Chestnut Tree Cafe: “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me--.” Winston and Julia part without ever seeing each other again. Every once in awhile he remembers things from his childhood, happy memories, which he now calls false memories.
He plays chess and listens to the telescreen, and finally looks up and into the eyes of Big Brother. After forty years, he finally understands: he had to win a victory against himself. Now that he had, he loves Big Brother.
Essential Questions for 1984 by George Orwell
- What are some of the essential warnings readers should take from this novel?
- How can changing vocabulary also change thought?
- Why is government-controlled media so dangerous?
- Can individuals influence change in their society or government?
- What are some warning signs for when a ruling group or government is becoming too powerful and overstepping its bounds?
- Why is propaganda dangerous? How can it define a society’s beliefs?
- Why is maintaining individual privacy so important?
- Why is it important to question many leaders, laws, and systems, rather than to always willingly accept them?