What is the symbolic meaning of dust in 1984?

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Dust permeates life in Oceania, among both Party members and Proles. It is with Winston in one way or another from the start of the novel to the finish.

Dust symbolizes the decay and oppression that the state has visited on the people. It is also evidence of the constant warfare which Oceania engages in with its enemies, for much of the dust comes from bombs destroying buildings. Dust lays over everything, a real indicator that Oceania is not experiencing the progress the Party claims for it. Winston's flat is dusty, his office is dusty, Mr. Charrington's shop is dusty, the streets are dusty, and the Chestnut Cafe is dusty: the dust representing the gray pall cast over everything in this dystopia.

As an example of dust symbolizing oppression, we are told twice that Mrs. Parsons, a woman defeated by her life, has dust in the creases of her face. Even the "million dustbins" of London can't contain all the trash and dust generated:

The reality was decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories. He seemed to see a vision of London, vast and ruinous, city of a million dustbins, and mixed up with it was a picture of Mrs Parsons, a woman with lined face and wispy hair . . .

Winston realizes how the dust or oppression has permeated him as well when he goes into the country to meet with Julia:

The sweetness of the air and the greenness of the leaves daunted him. Already on the walk from the station the May sunshine had made him feel dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin.

Julia, however, is able to use the dust to her advantage, symbolizing how she makes the best of the life around her, in a sense making lemonade of lemons, and so not letting the oppression defeat her. She uses dust to show Winston how to get home:

And in her practical way she scraped together a small square of dust, and with a twig from a pigeon’s nest began drawing a map on the floor.

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Before we get to the symbolic meaning, we can and should start with the literal meaning. This is a dirty place—a dirty world. The Party may be in charge, but they aren't doing a good job of things, and everyone should be able to see that from the dust on all kinds of things.

After that, dust has several meanings. It represents the inability of the party to keep foreign particles (ideas, desires) out. It represents the way the past stays around: everywhere, but in fragments. It represents the fatigue of the common man, ground down by the oppressive regime. It represents how the world marks us in faint but ongoing ways.

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