By the time Winston, the main protagonist in George Orwell's seminal novel of an autocratic dystopian futuristic society, 1984, decides to approach a prole, or proletariat, he has already grown disillusioned by the government and its increasingly obvious lies. At the beginning of Chapter 7, Orwell's narrator describes Winston's evolving thought process regarding the notion of subversion to undermine or openly overthrow the ruling regime:
"If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles. If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated."
Winston has become a committed enemy of the state, but lacks the base of knowledge and resources necessary to achieve his objective. His attention focuses on several once-loyal Party members who had defected only to return to the Party fold. These three Party-loyalists-turned-traitors-turned-Party-loyalists have become the focus of Winston's interest, and his observation of them at "the Chestnut Tree Cafe" provides an opportunity to attempt to approach them. These three men represent an invaluable reservoir of knowledge and experience regarding the Party apparatus and the mechanisms that secure the Party in power.
"They were men far older than himself, relics of the ancient world, almost the last great figures left over from the heroic days of the Party. The glamour of the underground struggle and the civil war still faintly clung to them."
While the three men have returned to the Party, Winston knows that their acceptance back into the Party is a mere charade and that, in the probably not-too-distant future, they will pay the price for having once betrayed the Party. These men, Winston concluded, were doomed, and to be seen in their presence was hazardous to one's health. As Winston predicted, the three were executed. These elderly men, however, represent Winston's best hope of attaining the knowledge and history necessary to adequately understand the regime's strengths and weaknesses. He has been dependent upon a children's history book, but knows that this is an unreliable source of information, as all books and other sources of information have been corrupted to serve the Party's interest. It is in Chapter 8 when Winston spots another old man, by himself, entering a dingy pub, and sees in this another opportunity to learn from these one-time revolutionaries. As Orwell writes regarding Winston's perception of this elderly gentleman, "[h]e and a few others like him were the last links that now existed with the vanished world of capitalism." To Winston's disappointment, however, the old man proves unable to recall the past in sufficient or reliable detail and has clearly suffered mental deterioration with age.
Winston has followed the old prole into the bar and initiated a conversation with him because he hopes to learn from him. He is sorely disappointed, however, by this aged man who is more interested in beer than in remembering the past.
The prole (an abbreviation for "proletariat") was a neighbor of Winston's and has a fairly good memory of life in the past. Winston hopes that if he talks with him the prole might be able to tell him about how individual people lived and experienced life in the past. He is disappointed in his talk though because the prole has only fleeting memories of his own life, nothing that can shed light on what a individual's life might really have been like.
Winston is beginning to wonder what life was like before the revolution. He is curious because his job is to re-write history. He thinks that the old man will be able to answer his questions about what life was like before.