Summary of the Novel
The concepts of free enterprise and individual freedom no longer exist in 1984. Only three superpowers remain to dominate a world of hatred, isolation, and fear. Eurasia and Eastasia are two of these superpowers. Oceania, the other, is always at war with one of them.
Winston Smith is a 39-year-old employee at the Ministry of Truth, London, located in Oceania. His world is shaped by the Party and its dictator/leader Big Brother, whose face is everywhere on posters captioned “Big Brother Is Watching You.” Big Brother controls life in Oceania through the four ministries of Peace, Love, Plenty, and Truth. Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth involves revisions of historical documents and rewrites of news stories to reflect the Party’s infallibility.
The Party, which carries out government policies in Oceania, rations food, issues clothing, and selects social activities. Both chocolate and tobacco are in short supply during this latest war. Winston’s clothing, including his tattered pajamas, is government issued, and his evenings are spent in government-sponsored meetings.
War and hatred dominate Oceania, where the Party monitors every move and expression with telescreens, hidden microphones, and spies. The Thought Police, Big Brother’s secret militia, help the Party quell any sign of revolt by eliminating all who think or behave in a disloyal fashion. Hate Week intensifies feeling against Emmanuel Goldstein, Enemy of the People, while increasing devotion to Big Brother. The Party also preaches that the proles, the majority, are natural inferiors to be kept in check.
The Party, however, does not completely control Winston. He secretly buys an illegal diary in which he writes the heresy “Down With Big Brother.” In doing so, he commits the worst offense, “thoughtcrime,” a Newspeak term for the “essential crime that contained all others in itself.” Many of Winston’s thoughts revolve around his attempts to remember various events and people from his childhood, especially his mother who had disappeared years before. Winston tries to investigate the specifics of life in London before the Revolution, but it seems the Party has been successful in eradicating all remnants of daily life in the past.
Winston enters into an affair with the free-spirited Julia, a fellow employee at the Ministry of Truth. At the beginning they view their desire for one another as a political act against the Party dominated by hate and suspicion. Since promiscuity among Party members has been forbidden, they view their affair as an act of rebellion. As the affair continues, Winston’s feelings for Julia change. Although the couple knows the affair is doomed, they continue to meet secretly in an attic room above a junk shop owned by Mr. Charrington, the man who sold the diary, and later, a coral paperweight, to Winston. The lovers discuss the repressiveness of their lives and the possibility of joining the Brotherhood, the secret underground of Emmanuel Goldstein whose express purpose is to overthrow Big Brother.
At work at the Ministry of Truth, Winston is approached by O’Brien, an acquaintance who seems to share his views. After Winston and Julia visit O’Brien at his apartment, he recruits them as members of the Brotherhood and promises to send them a copy of Goldstein’s book, which details strategies to destroy Big Brother. Winston pledges to do whatever it takes, including murder and suicide, to erode the power of the Party.
The inevitable occurs when Julia and Winston are arrested in their secret room, betrayed by Mr. Charrington, a member of the Thought Police. Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love where he is starved, beaten, and tortured during the next months in an effort to “cure” him. Ironically, his torturer is O’Brien, who confirms his identity as a dedicated Inner Party member. Winston submits after a long struggle when he is taken to the mysterious room 101 and threatened with a cage of hungry rats prepared to devour him. At this point he finally betrays Julia.
Soon Winston is released, but he awaits the bullet he knows will extinguish him. He unexpectedly runs into Julia, who admits that she too had betrayed their love. Surprisingly, Winston feels no desire for her, preferring instead to take his usual seat at the Chestnut Street Cafe where he spends another night in his habitual alcoholic stupor. Winston knows that it is only a matter of time before the Party executes him; nevertheless, when the telescreen barks the news of the army’s latest victory, he weeps with joy. The Party finally controls Winston, whose defeat is summed up in the final sentence, “He loved Big Brother.”
1984 is George Orwell’s most famous and enduring work, with the possible exception of his political fable Animal Farm. The novel has been translated into more than 60 languages, condensed in the Reader’s Digest, made into two movies, and presented on television.
The widespread impact of 1984 is evidenced by the changes in language that it effected. Today, the word “Orwellian” refers to any regimented and dehumanized society. Words like “Newspeak,” “unperson,” “doublethink,” and “thoughtcrime” have become part of the English language. And the familiar phrase “Big Brother Is Watching You” has become synonymous with the concept of a totalitarian state.
1984’s influence on other twentieth-century works has been considerable: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1954) shares the theme of repression and the destruction of a culture (in this case, books), and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) shares a British setting as well as an invented language, much like the Newspeak of Oceania.
Orwell thought of writing 1984 as early as 1940, during World War II but he did not complete it until 1948 when the Cold War was beginning. The anti-Fascist writing of the 1930s and 1940s had a profound influence on Orwell, and is reflected in his writing.
Moreover, events in Communist Russia also impacted the plot and theme of 1984. From 1922 when Lenin suffered a stroke until 1928—four years after his death—there was a power struggle between Leon Trotsky Minister of War, and Joseph Stalin then Secretary of the Communist party. Stalin continued to grow even more influential as a member of the Politbureau, a small group of party bosses where his function was to manage the day-to-day activities of the Communist party. In 1921 Stalin became liaison between the Central Control Commission and the Central Committee; in this capacity he could control the purges designed to keep the party pure. He used this position to his advantage.
Stalin, along with allies Zinoviev and Kamenev, soon proved invincible as they utilized the secret police to put down all plots against them. While resisting Trotsky’s urges to somewhat democratize the party, they eliminated his followers by sending them abroad. Trotsky was forced to resign as Minister of War. He was later expelled from the Politbureau, exiled from Russia, and eventually assassinated by one of Stalin’s secret police.
From 1928 until World War II, Stalin enjoyed supreme power in Russia. Among the changes he brought to Russian life were collective agriculture, industrialization with forced labor, and the build-up of the authoritarian state combined with the annihilation of all political opposition. In 1928 began the era of the Five-Year Plans, each of which set ambitious goals for the next five years. The goals of the first Five-Year Plan were never actualized; nevertheless, the government announced that they had been realized in 1932. Immediately, another Five-Year Plan went into effect.
Changes were felt in Russian society as well. Freedom to choose one’s job was non-existent; those who resisted were sent to labor camps. Stalin’s dictatorship was complete when the vast majority of unskilled workers became controlled by a minority of loyal skilled workers and bureaucrats who enjoyed certain privileges restricted from the masses. Thus, the gulf between the classes widened and a new elite was created.
To refute contradictory information, Stalin had histories rewritten to show that Lenin had favored his accession to power. He enjoyed a certain amount of hero-worship as cities were named in his honor.
There were critics, however, whom Stalin eliminated during the Great Purges of 1934-1938, which destroyed all possibility of future conspiracies. By 1936, when Stalin proclaimed the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) “the most democratic in the world,” this was hardly an accurate description.
Under Stalin’s dictatorship, the USSR had become a one-party state where elections were a mockery. Although all were eligible to belong to the Communist party, membership was, in fact, a privilege. The party was built upon a pyramidical structure with power and privilege for an elite few. At each level of the pyramid existed organizations to generate propaganda, train military personnel, and educate bureaucrats. All of these activities were designed to increase party loyalty and strength. Stalin remained a dictator through World War II until his death in 1953. Some elements in the plot of 1984 parallel this history.
Five books, in particular, seem to have had a direct impact on the creation of 1984. Fyodor Zamyatin’s We (1923), reviewed by Orwell in 1946, provided the idea for a futuristic, anti-Utopian frame for the novel. There are several resemblances between the works, both of which are also derived from H. G. Wells’ anti-Utopian satire When the Sleeper Walks (1899). Likewise, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), to which 1984 is frequently compared, is set in the future and deals with a regimented society. From Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), Orwell took ideas about the atmosphere of a totalitarian society. This “concentration camp” literature details the struggle of its main character to maintain his individuality after his arrest and torture. James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941) gave Orwell the idea for a world controlled by superstates. These powers became the Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia of 1984.
The novel’s bleak ending prompted readers and critics to take it as an attack on socialism in general and Communist Russia in particular and a prophesy of what would happen in the West should communism spread. Orwell was asked if his book should be interpreted as prophesy. He answered this question in a letter of June 1949:
I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily WILL, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it COULD arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. (1)
In 1949, some readers were also concerned that Orwell had set the novel in Britain. Orwell replied, “The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not FOUGHT against, could triumph anywhere.” (2)
Opinions among critics have not been entirely favorable. Some point to the novel’s overwhelming pessimism and its denouement as flawed, claiming the novel obviously is a reflection of Orwell’s last illness. Others believe that it should be judged as a period piece bearing little relevance to today’s world. After all, there was no special significance to the title. Orwell simply transposed the last two numbers of the year in which he finished the book.
Thus, it can be seen that a number of factors influenced the creation of 1984, including literary sources and historical events. In order to understand the full impact of this novel, the student needs to be familiar with these influences.
List of Characters
Winston Smith–main character of the novel, 39 years old, employee at the Ministry of Truth, inquisitive, intelligent.
Big Brother–supreme leader of the Party, controlling force of Oceania, never physically appears in the novel but is ever-present.
Thought Police–secret militia; Big Brother’s agents who eliminated potential rebels.
O’Brien–member of the Inner Party, employee at the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s chief.
Julia–Winston’s lover, 26-year-old employee at the Ministry of Truth, worker for the Junior Anti-Sex League.
Syme–Winston’s friend, specialist in Newspeak, employee in the Records Department.
Mr. Charrington–63-year-old shopkeeper, rents hideaway to Winston, secret member of the Thought Police.
Tillotson–employee in the Records Department, disliked by Winston.
Tom Parsons–Winston’s neighbor at Victory Mansions, devoted to the Party, arrested for “thoughtcrime.”
Mrs. Parsons–Tom’s wife, about 30, looks older, possibly will be denounced by her children to the Thought Police.
Martin–O’Brien’s servant, fellow Party member.
Emmanuel Goldstein–Enemy of the People, commander of the Brotherhood, former member of the Party, author of the “book,” probably a creation of the Party.
Katharine–Winston’s wife, disappeared 11 years ago, loyal member of the Party.
Winston’s mother–disappeared years ago; appears only in Winston’s dreams and vague memories.
Estimated Reading Time:
1984 is divided into three major sections of approximately equal length, each with separate chapters. Orwell also included an appendix on Newspeak. Thus, in order to maximize understanding, the reader should plan no fewer than four reading sessions.
By reading approximately 30 pages per hour, the reader should be able to complete the entire novel in 8 to 12 hours. He or she should also plan to spend more time on Part I, where Orwell establishes the frameworks of plot, characterization, and theme.
1. J. R. Hammond, A George Orwell Companion—A Guide to the Novels, Documents, and Essays (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), pg. 172.
2. Ibid, pg. 173.