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 Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth involves revisions of historical documents and rewrites of news stories to reflect the Party’s infallibility.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.”
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.