In Chapter IX of George Orwell’s novel titled 1984 (Part II, Chaper 1 in some editions), Winston Smith, who lives in a nation dominated by a totalitarian dictatorship, helps a young woman who has fallen as he was about to pass her in the hall of a building where they both work. He has seen the woman previously and is intrigued by her, but he assumes that she is a loyal servant of the dictatorship. As he pulls her up off the floor, however, he notices that she has
slipped something into his hand. There was no question that she had done it intentionally. It was something small and flat. As he passed through the lavatory door he transferred it to his pocket and felt it with the tips of his fingers. It was a scrap of paper folded into a square.
What does this mean? What should Winston do? Should he read the note at once? Should he toss it away? Should he report the girl for communicating with him privately? What does the note say? Is the note an attempt by the secret police to trap him into making some kind of deadly political mistake? Might the note even command him to appear before them, or even to commit suicide? Or, even more intriguingly, might the note indicate that the girl is part of an underground resistance to the dictatorship? Nearly all these questions occur to Winston (and thus to the reader) as he considers what to do. The moment is one of great suspense, both for Winston and for the novel’s readers. What should Winston do? Consider the possibilities:
- If Winston reads the note and discovers that it is a summons from the secret police or a command to commit suicide (as he fears), he is no worse off for reading the note than for not reading the note. The police will entrap him or kill him one way or another, and so he should read the note.
- If the young woman is an informer for the secret police and Winston fails to read and report the note, then the secret police can always charge him with attempting to hide something unusual. They may in fact be hoping that he will fail to read the note, thereby exposing himself as secretive, duplicitous, and unreliable. Therefore, Winston should read the note.
- If the young woman is in fact affiliated with an underground resistance movement, then Winston, who hates the dictatorship, might benefit from knowing that fact. He should therefore read the note.
- If the young woman needs some kind of help and Winston ignores the note and fails to try to help her, then his conscience will torment him. He should therefore read the note.
- The note may not be a real “note” at all. For instance, it may simply contain a drawing. He should therefore look at the note.
- Perhaps the woman is trying to warn Winston about an imminent threat. He should therefore read the note.
Of course, there are real risks involved in reading the note, as Winston clearly realizes. He therefore pretends to ignore it for a while after he returns with it to his desk. He then reads it after some time has passed and after he can pretend that it is just another piece of paper. When he does open it, he discovers its contents:
On it was written, in a large unformed handwriting:
I love you.
Should he trust this message? Is this a trap? Is his loyalty being tested?
Part of the effectiveness of Orwell’s novel depends on the way it continually preys on the uncertainties of both Winston and the novel’s own readers.