In 1984, what is significant in the descriptions of Victory Gin and Victory Cigarettes?
In our world, gin and cigarettes are luxury items that many people consume for pure enjoyment and that many people consume out of necessity, if an addiction develops in the person using them. In George Orwell's brilliantly dystopian novel 1984, these items offer little pure enjoyment. Their consumption is often described as a largely unsatisfactory experience. If they weren't the only brand available, I can't imagine people would choose them at all.
The first reference to Victory Gin describes it in detail: "It gave off a sickly, oily smell." Winston swallows it as one would "a dose of medicine," and it has a strong, unpleasant effect at first:
Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it on had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.
Immediately following this passage is a description of the Victory Cigarettes, which are so poorly produced that the tobacco falls out when Winston tries to light one. Much later in the novel, we see that inner party members have better quality luxuries, including "very good cigarettes, very thick and well packed, with an unfamiliar silkiness in the paper."
The terms "Victory Gin" and "Victory Cigarettes" also make me think of similar terms such as "victory garden," mostly from World War I and World War II. Those terms turn everyday items and everyday routines on the homefront into significant actions that contribute to the war effort. In Orwell's novel, the country is perpetually at war, and these simple-named, poor quality brands of Victory Gin and Victory Cigarettes, produced by order of the state, feed addictions among the outer party members and turn consumption of even these flawed luxuries into a pro-government and pro-war action.
In Part One, Chapter One, of 1984, Winston drinks some Victory Gin and smokes a Victory Cigarette. What is most striking about the descriptions of these products is their sense of irony: the gin doesn't taste anything like real gin and the cigarettes aren't formed as well as real cigarettes. Instead, the gin has an "oily smell" and the first cigarette falls apart as Winston takes it out of the packet.
By using irony in the opening chapter of this book in such a manner, Orwell introduces the reader to an important concept: that nothing in Oceania is quite as it seems. On the outside, for instance, the party portrays itself as an abundant provider. The citizens of Oceania have accommodation, rations, jobs, and commodities like gin and cigarettes. But, in reality, this abundance is nothing more than a mask covering the unequal distribution of Oceania's wealth. For example, the accommodation at Victory Mansions is run-down and dilapidated, the rations are constantly reduced, and basic items, like shoelaces, are virtually non-existent.
Furthermore, the few possessions that the people of Oceania are granted come at a great cost: they must submit to Big Brother or face execution in the Ministry of Love. Just like everything else in Oceania, then, the Victory Gin and Cigarettes are a farce.
Both products of the Victory brand have ironies that make them significant. First, there is nothing victorious in drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. Both can kill if taken in excess. Both numb and desensitize so that the senses in the body aren't working to maximum capacity.
Secondly, each of these products are terrible in taste. The gin is described as bitter and as if it is difficult for Winston to choke down. The same is true with the cigarettes. Neither of these are consumed for their affect on taste buds. Their singular purpose is to prevent hunger so that the people can make it between their rationed meals.