George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 tells the story of a future society that is controlled by Big Brother and the Party in a country called Oceana. The novel’s main character, Winston Smith, struggles to hang on to his sense of personal identity as the Party tries to meld everyone into blindly obedient citizens.
At one point early in the novel Winston takes a trip to a part of the city where people called “proles” live. These people are generally left alone by the Party and allowed to live their lives relatively free of Party influence. While among the Proles, he goes into a junk shop and purchases a beautiful old paperweight.
To understand the significance of the paperweight, the reader needs to look at what Winston was doing just prior to buying it. As he walked among the Proles, he tried to strike up a conversation with and old man who would have been alive well before the revolution that installed the Party and Big Brother into power. After he bought the man a few drinks and questioned him about the old days, he gave up in frustration because the old man could not answer him with anything other than relatively meaningless details of his life before the revolution.
At this point Winston is looking back on those old days as something idyllic, a time when people had rights and access to a meaningful life. When he goes into the junk shop and sees the paperweight, it seems to be the physical manifestation of that time:
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.
Winston has been unable to satisfy his curiosity about the past. All that is left to him is to acquire something that symbolizes an idealized notion of his perception of the past. Later the paperweight will also symbolize his affair with Julia and will be destroyed when their relationship is discovered and brought to an end.
The glass paperweight has several intertwined symbolic meanings. The first is that it is symbol of the world before the Party. Like the memories of various individuals, it exists, regardless of what Big Brother says. The second is that it shows Winston's small, quiet rebellion. He's going to the old shops to buy things like this. This is related to his visit to a prostitute, and his relationship with Julia. The third meaning is when it is broken: this is what happens to the fragile in a tyranny, and, more specifically, this is what the Party will do to the past and to Winston. They smash both of them to bits.
Winston buys a paperweight in an antique store in the prole district that comes to symbolize his attempt to reconnect with the past. The storeowner describes it as “a beautiful little thing”(84). Symbolically, when the Thought Police arrest Winston at last, the paperweight shatters on the floor.
Hope (: That is why when he is arrested, basically all his hopes are over and the paper weight shadders!