In 1984, what are some of the characteristics of the proles that, in Winston's eyes, make them the ultimate means for overthrowing Big Brother?

Expert Answers

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

Winston 's understanding of the proles is partly a romanticized one, if this is possible in a post-apocalyptic world. "If there is hope, it lies in the proles," he tells himself. In them, he sees a huge potential strength untapped; the proles are asleep, seemingly unaware that they can overthrow...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Winston's understanding of the proles is partly a romanticized one, if this is possible in a post-apocalyptic world. "If there is hope, it lies in the proles," he tells himself. In them, he sees a huge potential strength untapped; the proles are asleep, seemingly unaware that they can overthrow the Party if they put their minds to it.

Winston imagines they have this potential because of their numbers (they are said to make up seventy percent of Oceania's population), but more because they are unaffected by Party doctrine. But this is by design; the Party explicitly regards them as inhuman. The enormous irony of this is that the Party is supposed to be socialistic: its governing philosophy, INGSOC, stands for English Socialism. The entire stated purpose of socialism is to liberate the working class and create an egalitarian society. Far from having done this, the leaders have created an arrangement that is almost a parody of the class stratification of the old capitalist world, described in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism—"Goldstein's book," though in reality written by O'Brien and other Party operatives—as consisting of High, Middle, and Low. In the dystopia of 1984, these correspond approximately to the Inner Party (people like O'Brien), the Outer Party (Winston, Julia, and virtually all of the other named characters in the novel), and the proles.

In the pre-dystopian society, the lowest stratum of capitalism, the working-class poor, is described in "The Book" as having the intention of creating a classless society, but only in those anomalous instances when they are roused to have any purpose at all. Winston sees the proles as lacking awareness—that is, lacking a consciousness of the injustice with which they are being treated and of their own potential to overthrow the Party. Once they do achieve that awareness, however, Winston sees a wild, uncontrollable power in them that can achieve anything. In the prole woman hanging washing on a line and singing to herself outside Charrington's shop, Winston thinks he sees an emblem of this enormous strength.

O'Brien tells Winston the proles will never rebel in a million years. This belief is at the core of the cynicism and brutality upon which the Party bases its rule. One wonders if this was Orwell's actual view as well: that the working class could never become politically motivated to the point of acting. If so, this would be a rejection on his part of left-wing orthodoxy and really of any mode of left-wing thought. It is the right-wing view, for instance, of the Russian Revolution that it was not an uprising of the people but basically a coup d'état by a small group (the Bolshevik Party) that seized power unlawfully and only for the objective of power for themselves, rather than any ideal of equality and brotherhood. It is exactly in these terms that we are to understand the history of the Party in 1984, and Orwell seems to give little hope that the proles will overturn the dictatorship.

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

The main reason Winston believes the proles are the hope for the future that will ultimately overthrow Big Brother is that they have gone on living in the old-fashioned way that was common before the oligarchic take-over of Oceania.

As Winston notes, the proles still form traditional family units bound by ties of loyalty, love, and compassion. In a theater, during a film in which the audience is meant to applaud violence directed toward a war enemy, including the graphic killing of a very young child, a prole stands up to decry this as not right. Later in the novel, Winston watches the older woman outside the window of his room above Mr. Charrington's shop hanging diapers to dry and realizes that the future lies with people like her who have not lost their humanity or traditions.

Winston's faith in the proles is buttressed by the way his relationship with Julia rekindles his humanity. He sees the immense value in an old-fashioned way of life, in which a person loves, cares for, and wants to protect another human being. Shortly before he is arrested, he looks at the unattractive prole hanging the laundry and is able to see her as beautiful.

O'Brien denies that the proles can ever have any power, but Winston, although he is crushed by torture, still retains a shred of humanity even to the end of the novel, when he remembers happily playing a game of snakes and ladders with his mother and sister—in other words, living in a traditional way as the proles still do.

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

Winston Smith once wrote in his secret diary, "If there is hope...it lies in the proles" (Orwell, 89). Winston has several reasons to have faith that the proles will one day rebel and overthrow the Party. Unlike Party members, the proles make up 85% of the population and are not under constant surveillance. They are not required to have telescreens in their homes or demonstrate unwavering loyalty to Big Brother like Winston and the other Party members. Winston also recognizes that the proles have retained their humanity to a certain degree. After witnessing a prole women shield her child from watching a graphic scene in the movies, Winston becomes aware that they value family, decency, and loyalty toward one another. The fact that their loyalty is not directed solely toward Big Brother is significant in Winston's opinion. Their familial loyalty allows them to be independent and protects them from becoming unscrupulous, devoted followers of Big Brother. He also recognizes that the proles are strong, capable individuals, who simply need to be educated and become aware of their oppressed status. Winston believes that if the proles would ever become conscious of their own strength they would simply overthrow the Party like a horse shaking off flies.

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

Winston doesn't have much faith in the revolutionary potential of the Proles, and it's not hard to see why. They're dirt poor, uneducated, and spend a lot of the time getting drunk. That's just how the regime likes them. But paradoxically, what makes the Proles such a poor prospect for effecting revolutionary change is also their main strength. Because the regime doesn't regard the Proles as a serious threat, they're not subjected to the same measure of control as other citizens in Oceania. That being the case, the Proles have developed a kind of sub-culture of their own, which puts them at a distance from the Party and its apparatus of control. So the potential for the development of a revolutionary consciousness is undoubtedly there, but it needs to be harnessed and effectively controlled if it's going to form the basis of an alternative system.

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

For one, there are many of them.  They live freely in their own area of town where they laugh and sing and talk without fear.  They are able to plan a rebellion without fear of the telescreen hearing or seeing them...they are not under the same rules as the Party members.  However, what Winston does not see is that the Proles, although they are kept in relative poverty, are not unhappy with their lives.  It is only the Party members who live under such scrutiny who dream of rebellion and hope the Proles will come through for them.  The Proles have the numbers, but the motive is not there for them as it is with the Party members.  Likewise, the disgruntled Party members have the motive but not the numbers.  It is a horrible catch-22.  Unless a group of disgruntled Party members can sneak away from the ever watchful eye of Big Brother long enough to lead the Proles to rebellion, it will never happen.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team