The coral paperweight symbolizes Winston's desire to escape into the time before the Party took over. He longs, in an idealized way, to recapture some of what normal life was like in those former days. As Winston thinks when he buys the artifact:
What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. The soft, rainwatery glass was not like any glass that he had ever seen.
The coral paperweight also symbolizes the special world that Winston attempts to create with Julia separate from the everyday world of the Party they both must function in. As Winston thinks:
The inexhaustibly interesting thing was not the fragment of coral but the interior of the glass itself. There was such a depth of it, and yet it was almost as transparent as air. It was as though the surface of the glass had been the arch of the sky, enclosing a tiny world with its atmosphere complete. He had the feeling that he could get inside it, and that in fact he was inside it, along with the mahogany bed and the gateleg table, and the clock and the steel engraving and the paperweight itself. The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal.
By gazing at the glass, Winston can indulge in the fantasy that he and Julia can escape into a magical world all their own that will never change, that will be eternal. It becomes the projection of their desired utopia. It represents all their longings for a different kind of life.
The paperweight also symbolizes the fragility and vulnerability of the world Winston and Julia have tried to create. The paperweight is easily smashed. It is shattered at the very moment Winston and Julia's private world is shattered by the intrusion of the secret police. Winston thinks, as he looks at the coral:
The fragment of coral, a tiny crinkle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat. How small, thought Winston, how small it always was!
He and Julia have always been equally small and vulnerable, as Winston will find out from O'Brien. Like the paperweight and the old-fashioned values it represents, they too will be crushed.
In Orwell's classic novel 1984, Winston Smith lives in the dystopian nation of Oceania, where life is completely controlled by Big Brother and individuality is virtually nonexistent. In this restrictive, totalitarian nation, Winston attempts to maintain his humanity and exercise his independence by carrying on an affair with Julia and renting an apartment above Mr. Charrington's antique shop. In Oceania, nearly everything from the past is viewed as contraband or no longer exists. In Book One, chapter eight, Winston purchases an antique paperweight from Mr. Charrington's shop. Orwell writes,
"What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. The soft, rainwatery glass was not like any glass that he had ever seen. The thing was doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness, though he could guess that it must once have been intended as a paperweight" (121).
The glass paperweight is a remnant of the past and is a delicate, rare piece of art. Winston recognizes that possessing the object could get him arrested but is inspired to purchase the paperweight. Later on, Winston brings the paperweight to the apartment above the antique shop and tells Julia,
"I don’t think it’s anything—I mean, I don’t think it was ever put to any use. That’s what I like about it. It’s a little chunk of history that they’ve forgotten to alter. It’s a message from a hundred years ago, if one knew how to read it" (Orwell, 183).
Orwell's description and Winston's analysis of the glass paperweight contribute to its symbolic significance. One could argue that the glass paperweight symbolically represents the past before Big Brother and the fragment of coral inside represents Winston's love for Julia. In the dystopian nation of Oceania, the Party is determined to completely erase the past and make joyful human experiences obsolete. Similar to the past, which is constantly manipulated and destroyed by the Party, the glass paperweight is fragile and eventually broken by the Thought Police.
In addition to symbolically representing the past, the glass paperweight also represents Winston and Julia's isolated world inside Charrington's apartment, where they live a fairytale existence before they are arrested. Similar to the coral inside the paperweight, Winston and Julia's love is rare, exotic, and beautiful. Tragically, their relationship ends when they are arrested by the Thought Police and the glass paperweight is shattered into tiny pieces.
The paperweight symbolizes something that has no value except for its beauty. The search for or involvement with the beautiful but useless places emphasis on the individual and his/her appreciation of the beautiful. Individuality in their world is the enemy, however. They call it ownlife, which is the tendency toward the solitary, the individual, or the subversive. The callousness with which it is destroyed indicates how successful the society has become in squashing individuality.
Not only does it foreshadow what is to come, but Winston looks at the tiny piece of coral that is lying on the floor and he thinks to himself how the beauty of it has somehow been lost now that it isn't surrounded by glass. He thinks to himself how small it looks without the glass to magnify it. This also represents or symbolizes how minute their love for one another is and what they were trying to do in comparison to the Party which is too large and powerful ever to stop. They believed that the acts they were committing against the Party would somehow lead to its eventual downfall and they felt powerful (like the paperweight in its glory). They find out as the book transitions to its third part how small they actually are (just like the piece of coral that has lost its luster).
The paperweight is something from the world before the Party. It represents that other world, and it also represents the beauty of the love Julia and Winston have found even though love is forbidden in Oceania. The paperweight is delicate, and clear glass except for the coral in the center. Like Winston and Julia's love life, the coral is obvious and clearly visible from all sides. The couple were "loving" in a fishbowl so to speak, and they did not realize they were so vulnerable and obvious. When the thought police come to the apartment to take them in for questioning, one of the police throws the paperweight across the room and it shatters into tiny shards of what it once was. This foreshadows what will become of Winston and Julia's relationship.