In 1984 by George Orwell, what is the main conflict, and how do other conflicts help to illuminate the author’s message?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The central conflict in 1984 is man versus society, personified in Winston Smith's struggle against Big Brother's oppressive regime. Winston represents freedom, both physical and intellectual. He remembers enough of what the world was like before the current totalitarian government took over, and seeks to learn what he can about that world since the history books are government-mandated and filled with lies. He also writes his private thoughts in a journal and has an affair with Julia, a fellow worker with no love for Big Brother or this regime's anti-sex sentiments.

Winston faces other conflicts in the story that serve to enrich its anti-totalitarian themes. One such conflict is between Winston and Julia. Though both are lovers and both hate the Party's restrictions, their goals in life are different. Julia lives in the moment and is only interested in rebelling against Big Brother in small ways. She has multiple sexual affairs under the nose of the state. Unlike Winston, she is disinterested in being part of any bigger resistance and barely pays attention to him when he tries to discuss politics. This annoys Winston, who wants to live in freedom. He wants to bring about change on a massive scale, not merely in his own life, as Julia is content to do. The contrast between these two characters might be Orwell's way of suggesting why people do not rebel against repressive regimes en-masse: they like being comfortable.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main conflict in 1984 is between totalitarianism, represented by Big Brother, and autonomy, represented by Winston Smith. This conflict exists in the story as a man versus society conflict. Totalitarianism represents the utter obliteration of self in pursuit of an external idea. Big Brother explicitly tries to limit expressions of autonomy and feeling—for instance, by regulating language in a way that erases creative potential. Each time that Smith attempts to preserve his sense of self, he acts in a contradictory manner to these societal aims.

This conflict is also echoed in the children Winston hears playing. They have already learned the value of policing each other and of demanding full compliance with the unreachable demands of their totalitarian government. These children have taken the conflict Winston feels with society and been taught to have it directly with each other, as though they were all agents of the state. This represents a man versus man conflict.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think using a Marxist lens would be helpful in this analysis in terms of locating the "main conflict" in this novel.

Just as Marxist literary approaches look at works of literature as projections of the social, cultural, and political period from which they originate, so too is George Orwell attempting to depict what happens in a society dominated by the rich.

The result of a burgeoning capitalist system is the production of a society based on the ongoing exploitation of the masses and lack of access to full economic and political equality of the prole (the worker, who is representative of the masses). 1984 is also a prime examination of the alienation that results within the economic schemes of capitalism. Orwell is interested in promoting critical consciousness of culture—a first step towards ‘liberating’ the reader. He is adept at illuminating the subtleties of consciousness at work in the dynamic between capitalist and prole.

In employing a Marxist lens for this novel, you may want to ask the following questions:

  • Are bourgeois values (competition, acquisitiveness, etc) compatible or incompatible with human happiness?
  • How are classes stratified/defined in this text? Does this text reflect an economic ideology?
  • What is the attitude toward labor furthered by this text?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The central conflict of the novel 1984 is Man vs. Society, which is represented by Winston Smith vs. the Party (Big Brother). In the dystopian nation of Oceania, individualism is virtually extinct, and the Party controls every aspect of society. The citizens are under constant surveillance and suffer under the oppressive regime. Throughout the novel, Winston struggles to maintain his individuality under the watchful eye of Big Brother and even attempts to undermine the Party by joining the Brotherhood. Winston is completely opposed to every aspect of society and takes enormous risks, which eventually result in his arrest and torture.

One minor conflict that is presented throughout the novel and highlights the major conflict of Man vs. Society is Man vs. Self. In the novel, Winston struggles with the decision to remain alive in the dystopian nation or rebel against the Party. Winston fears being tortured and is fully aware that he is risking his life. However, Winston is inherently motivated to oppose Big Brother regardless of the consequences. Winston's desire to remain human and exercise independence conflicts with his will to survive. The conflict between Truth vs. Propaganda also emphasizes the central conflict of the novel. Mutability of the past and the overwhelming state-sanctioned propaganda disguise the truth, which makes Winston continually question his approach to rebelling against Big Brother. Winston desperately searches for concrete evidence to prove that life was better before the Revolution but cannot attain accurate historical records. Overall, the central conflict of the novel is Man vs. Society and the minor conflicts highlight Winston's struggles against Big Brother to warn readers about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team