In the year 1984, London is the principal city of the province of Oceania known as Airstrip One. Oceania, alongside Eurasia and Eastasia, is one of the three totalitarian superpowers into which the world is now divided. The ruling power in Oceania is known as the Party and headed by the mysterious Big Brother, whose face appears all over the city on posters reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” The Party’s rule is supported by four Ministries: the Ministry of Love, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Plenty, and the Ministry of Truth, where thirty-nine-year-old Winston Smith works in the Records Department. His job is to alter, or “rectify,” records and documents in order to make them agree with current Party policy, thereby ensuring that the Party always appears infallible. Engraved on the front of the huge white building that houses the Ministry of Truth are the Party slogans “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” Through the telescreens installed in every Party member’s home and throughout the city, the Party is able to keep its citizens under constant surveillance while simultaneously subjecting them to an endless stream of propaganda. Most of Oceania’s populace is made up of the “proles,” or proletariat, who the Party regards as natural inferiors. Meanwhile, the nation is perpetually at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia, though as they are currently at war with Eurasia, the Party claims this is who they have always been at war with. An equally important enemy is Emmanuel Goldstein, a discredited former leader of the revolution that brought the Party to power who supposedly now heads an underground resistance from abroad.
Winston still dimly remembers the time before the Party seized power and before his parents disappeared, and he secretly harbors unorthodox ideas. He begins a diary in which he writes “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” and other dangerous entries that could get him arrested by the Thought Police and executed for thoughtcrime. Though he doesn’t believe anyone but the Thought Police will ever read his diary, Winston feels he is addressing it to O’Brien, a high-ranking Inner Party member whom Winston believes might share his anti-Party sentiments. Meanwhile, Winston also becomes convinced that a young woman who works in the Fiction Department is spying on him. One evening he takes the risk of skipping the government-sponsored group activities at the Community Center to take a solitary walk. In a prole pub, he attempts to question an old man about whether life was better or worse before the revolution but receives only the man’s vague and disconnected recollections in answer. Afterward, Winston takes the further risk of going into the junk shop where he bought his diary and chatting with the proprietor, Mr. Charrington, from whom he buys a beautiful antique glass paperweight. On his way out, Winston sees the woman from the Fiction Department coming toward him and rushes home in terror. Sometime later, in a corridor at the Ministry of Truth, Winston sees the same woman trip and fall on her arm, which is in a sling. Winston feels empathy for her in spite of his suspicions, and as he helps her up, she slips him a note that says “I LOVE YOU.” The two arrange a clandestine meeting in the countryside and begin a love affair, although non-procreative sex between Party members who aren’t married to each other is strictly forbidden. Winston regards the first time he sleeps with the free-spirited, sexually liberated young woman, who is named Julia, as a political act and believes unfettered sexual desire has the power to destroy the Party.
Winston rents a room above the junk shop from Mr. Charrington, and this room becomes his and Julia’s sanctuary. The room is old-fashioned, lacks a telescreen, and prominently displays the antique glass paperweight that Winston bought at the shop and now imagines represents the private world he and Julia have created. They often hear a prole washerwoman singing in the courtyard below the shop. Winston comes to strongly believe that the only hope for the future of humanity lies in the proles’ becoming politically conscious and mounting a rebellion against the Party. He and Julia talk about rebelling against the Party as well but are unsure how to do so. Winston believes the two of them should think of themselves as “the dead” since there is no doubt that their transgressions will eventually lead to their arrest, torture, and execution in the Ministry of Love (the most terrifying of the Ministries, which deals with maintaining law and order). They agree that although they will be forced to confess under torture, the Party cannot truly “get inside” them or make them betray their feelings for each other.
One day at the Ministry of Truth, Winston is approached by O’Brien, who gives him his address. Winston is convinced that he has finally made contact with the rebellion he always dreamed of. When he and Julia visit O’Brien’s apartment, the Inner Party official indeed recruits them for the Brotherhood, the underground resistance led by Goldstein. Winston and Julia pledge to do whatever it takes on behalf of the Brotherhood, including murder and suicide, as long as they don’t have to be parted. O’Brien warns them that their crimes against the Party will inevitably lead to their arrest.
At the end of Hate Week, an event meant to stoke antagonism toward Oceania’s enemies, it is announced that Oceania is now at war with Eastasia rather than Eurasia (and therefore has always been at war with Eastasia). That same day, O’Brien sends Winston a copy of Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Winston is finally able to read it in the room above the junk shop after the employees of the Ministry of Truth spend a grueling week altering documents to reflect that the Party is and has always been at war with Eastasia. The book explains how the Party claimed and maintains power, including its use of doublethink, a mental process by which an individual can accept whatever the Party says and then forget they ever believed anything different or engaged in this mental process at all. Winston finds the book a reassuring articulation of his own beliefs about Party doctrine and believes its final message must be that hope lies with the proles. Before he can finish it, however, he and Julia are arrested. It is revealed that an antique engraving on the wall of the rented room concealed a telescreen and that “Mr. Charrington” is actually a member of the Thought Police. Winston’s cherished paperweight is smashed and the lovers are separately dragged away.
Winston finds himself in the Ministry of Love, where he is kept in a windowless cell. Other prisoners come and go until Winston is left alone, at which point O’Brien enters and reveals that he has been loyal to the Party the whole time. For the next several weeks or months, Winston is brutally beaten by armed guards, then interrogated by Party intellectuals until he confesses to a long list of invented crimes. In the next phase of his torture, O’Brien delivers waves of pain and electric shocks to Winston while attempting to convince him to accept Party doctrine. This is all, O’Brien says, done in the interest of “curing” Winston of the insanity that prevents him from seeing the only true reality—the reality created by the Party. For a while after these “sessions,” Winston is left alone in a cell to recover, but when he involuntarily shouts Julia’s name and then confesses that he still hates Big Brother, he is taken to the ominous Room 101 for the final step in his “cure.” There, each prisoner faces the one thing they find completely unendurable, which in Winston’s case is a cage containing two rats set to devour his face. As O’Brien lowers the cage over Winston’s head, Winston finally betrays Julia by begging for his punishment to be transferred to her.
After his release, Winston is no longer of interest to the Party. He spends his days drinking copious amounts of gin at the Chestnut Tree Café, occasionally going to work at his new job on a pointless Ministry of Truth sub-committee. He and Julia see each other once in the park and confess that they betrayed each other. Rather than feeling the desire he once had for Julia, Winston wants only to return to his usual table at the Chestnut Tree. His final defeat comes when, after the telescreen in the café announces Oceania’s victory over Eurasia, Winston is overcome by love for Big Brother and a joyous hope that he will soon be executed.