Last Updated on March 10, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814
1984 opens on a cold day in April, 1984, at thirteen o’clock. Thirty-nine-year-old Winston Smith returns to his apartment in Victory Mansions, a building where the electricity has been turned off in preparation for an event called Hate Week. Winston ignores the posters on the walls, which depict the huge face of a handsome, mustachioed man of about forty-five whose eyes follow Winston as he walks. The posters read “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Inside Winston’s apartment, a voice reports the news from a plaque called a telescreen mounted on the wall. The telescreen, which cannot be turned off, is also the instrument by which citizens can be monitored at all times by the Thought Police. Through the window, Winston can see the cold-looking landscape of London, chief city of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania. He sees decaying Victorian houses, bomb sites where makeshift dwellings have sprung up, countless duplicates of the posters that hang in his building, and a poster that reads “INGSOC.” Towering above it all is Winston’s place of work, a huge white pyramidal building called the Ministry of Truth (or Minitrue in Oceania’s official language, Newspeak). On the front of the building are the three slogans of “the Party”: “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” The Party has four ministries, each with its own enormous headquarters, in London: The Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), which deals with art, education, entertainment, and news; the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), which deals with war; the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty), which deals with economics; and the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), which deals with law and order. Winston is most frightened by the windowless, heavily guarded Ministry of Love, which no one enters except on official business.
Leaving the only food he has—a hunk of bread—for tomorrow’s breakfast, Winston, who has come home on his lunch break, then drinks a cup of incredibly harsh Victory Gin and takes out an ill-made Victory Cigarette. After positioning himself in the one corner of his apartment where he cannot be seen through the telescreen, he takes an antique blank book and pen from a drawer. Winston is about to start a diary, an act that is not illegal—because there are no laws in Oceania—but is punishable by imprisonment in a forced-labor camp or even death. As soon as Winston writes the date—April 4th, 1984—he is overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. He is not entirely certain of the date, and while he thinks he is writing his diary for people who might read it in the future, he believes that if the future is like the present, no one will listen to him. If the future is different, what he writes will have no meaning. Winston has been preparing for weeks to write down the inner monologue he has been having for years, but he finds himself paralyzed until, in a panic, he begins to write about the war film he saw last night. He writes of how the audience laughed at a film showing refugees being bombed and describes a shot of a middle-aged woman putting her arms around her young child before being killed.
Winston then remembers an incident that occurred at the Ministry that morning and was the impetus for his decision to start the diary. At the weekly Two Minutes Hate in the Records Department where Winston works, two people unexpectedly joined Winston and his coworkers: a dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department and a high-ranking Inner Party member named O’Brien. Winston always feels uneasy around the girl, who he thinks of as being dangerously loyal to the Party and potentially even a member of the Thought Police. O’Brien, however, he admires and is drawn to, and Winston cherishes a hope that O’Brien might even harbor unorthodox political leanings. During the Hate, the audience is whipped into a frenzy of hatred for Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy of the Party, as he denounces the Party from the telescreen. Winston experiences this same hatred for Goldstein, but then he feels it for Big Brother and the Party, and then for the dark-haired girl. When Big Brother’s face appears on the screen, the group begins to chant “B-B!” As Winston chants along with them, he is overcome by a sense of horror. At that moment he catches O’Brien’s eye, and for an instant he is certain O’Brien understands and shares his feelings. After reflecting on this incident, Winston realizes he has written “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” over and over again in his diary. In so doing he has committed thoughtcrime, and he is certain he will eventually be arrested by the Thought Police and vaporized, meaning all trace of his existence will be erased. When he hears knocking at his door, he assumes the Thought Police have arrived.