The main characters in 1984 are Winston Smith, Julia, O’Brien, and Big Brother.
- Winston Smith is an Outer Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth and attempts to rebel against Big Brother by joining the Brotherhood.
- Julia is Winston’s coworker and a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. She and Winston begin an affair after she slips him a love note.
- O’Brien is an Inner Party member who pretends to initiate Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood. He later tortures Winston at the Ministry of Love.
- Big Brother is the Party’s symbolic, all-seeing leader, whom Winston finally comes to love.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2109
Winston Smith is the pensive, fatalistic, and justifiably paranoid protagonist of George Orwell’s novel 1984. He is a member of the Outer Party and works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. His job is to “rectify” historical records to align with the current rhetoric of the party. However, despite working for the Party, Winston secretly resents it. As the novel progresses, Winston becomes increasingly rebellious, coming to trust his own intellect over Party doctrine. He believes that the proles—short for proletariat—hold the key to liberating society and that his job is to spread dissent in the hope that they will one day revolt. (Read extended character analysis of Winston Smith.)
Julia is a twenty-six year old Outer Party member who works in the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth. She has dark hair and pale skin. Julia is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League and prominently wears the red membership sash, much to Winston’s disgust. She also participates passionately in the Two Minutes Hate. After she hands Winston a note saying she loves him, they become illicit lovers. Beneath the veneer of Party loyalty, Julia is secretly rebellious. She has conducted a large number of sexual affairs and frequently buys black-market goods. (Read extended character analysis of Julia.)
O’Brien is an Inner Party Member whom Winston comes to greatly admire. He is described as a brutally ugly man with an imposing presence. Winston believes that O’Brien may also harbor anti-Party sentiments and becomes fixated on the idea that O’Brien may be a member of the Brotherhood. Winston is proved correct when a few months after his affair with Julia begins, O’Brien approaches and invites him to join the Brotherhood. However, after Winston and Julia are arrested, O’Brien reveals that he was always a Party loyalist. O’Brien takes the lead during Winston’s rehabilitation, “saving” him and making him into the “perfect” Party member. (Read extended character analysis of O'Brien.)
Big Brother is the leader and figurehead of the Party. His visage is printed on posters and coins, and he is broadcasted on the telescreen regularly. Loyalty to Big Brother and to the Party are considered one and the same. The slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” conveys the sense that Big Brother—and by extension, the Party—is omniscient. Every move a Party member makes is carefully monitored. However, rather than being presented as a menacing surveiler, the name “Big Brother” is meant to convey a sense of safety and camaraderie. The message suggests that Big Brother watches over and protects Oceania. So, the people of Oceania should love and respect Big Brother in return. Yet for a thoughtcriminal like Winston, Big Brother becomes a more menacing presence. Instead of a beloved authority figure, Big Brother’s perceived omniscience becomes a source of anxiety.
The question of whether or not Big Brother truly exists remains unanswered. O’Brien claims Big Brother will never die. This implies that even if Big Brother is a real person, he essentially represents a bigger concept: Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party’s ideals. It is easier for the Party to focus people’s affections on an individual as opposed to a faceless organization. Ironically, the Party, which relies on the suppression of humanity, appeals to the human instinct to bond with and admire others. Just as they direct the negative emotions of Party members against Goldstein, they direct the positive ones towards Big Brother.
The Party claims Emmanuel Goldstein was a high-ranking Party official during the revolution who betrayed them and formed the Brotherhood, a radical political sect opposed to the Party. He allegedly wrote a book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which is distributed to Brotherhood members. The book explains the sociopolitical theories used by the Party to suppress the population of Oceania and singles out the proles as humanity’s best hope. However, during Winston’s torture, O’Brien claims that he and several other Inner Party members wrote the book themselves. O’Brien refuses to confirm whether Goldstein truly exists at all.
Emmanuel Goldstein can be read in two ways. First, he is a real person who heads a secret underground resistance. As a former Party leader, he understands the tactics the Party uses. This means Goldstein can disrupt Party activity and convert Party members to the Brotherhood. His mere existence is a threat because it offers the hope of revolution to those harboring anti-Party sentiments. As a result, the Party does everything in its power to promote a negative response towards the Brotherhood. Rituals such as the Two Minutes Hate and the frequent arrests of purported Brotherhood members serve to inspire fear in any prospective rebels.
By a different reading, Goldstein is a fabricated scapegoat. The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism suggests that Oceania must constantly be at war in order for the Party to justify its oppressive policies and routine supply shortages. Viewed as a lie made up by the Party, Goldstein serves the same purpose as the constant warfare. With the constant threat of treachery from within the Party, the existence of the Thought Police becomes justifiable. Furthermore, the Two Minutes Hate allows the Party to redirect negative sentiments away from itself and towards Goldstein. The Party uses Goldstein as a fictional excuse for their surveillance activities. The wars provide an external enemy, and Goldstein represents an internal threat that ensures people remain suspicious of one another but loyal to the Party.
Syme works in the Ministry of Truth as a philologist. He is on the team of researchers responsible for compiling the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary. He enjoys the “destruction of words.” He believes that if people do not have the words to express an idea or emotion, they cannot experience those ideas or emotions. Syme predicts that some day, language will be so reduced that people will be unable to think “as we understand [thought] now.” Unlike Winston, Syme does not view these predictions with dread. He is a “venomously orthodox” Party supporter. In his mind, “Orthodoxy means not thinking.”
Winston finds Syme’s company pleasant because he is intelligent and provides interesting language insights. However, Winston also believes that Syme is “too intelligent” and “sees too clearly” to remain in favor with the Party for long. Winston’s predictions prove true when despite his apparent devotion to the party, Syme is vaporized. This suggests the Party finds intelligence and clear-sightedness threatening. Though Syme devoutly follows the Party, his analytical powers put him at odds with his own definition of Orthodoxy.
Mr. Charrington is the owner of the antique shop where Winston buys his illicit journal. He also rents out the room above his shop to Winston and Julia so that they can conduct their affair. He endears himself to Winston by claiming to share an interest in history and beauty. He is later revealed to be a member of the Thought Police.
Parsons works at the Ministry of Truth. He lives in the same building as Winston, who sometimes helps repair things for the Parsons family. Parsons is sweaty, unintelligent, and seemingly loyal to the Party. Winston regards him as someone who will never get into trouble with the Party because he lacks the intelligence necessary for rebellion. To his shock, Winston briefly shares a cell with Mr. Parsons at the Ministry of Love. Parsons was arrested after his daughter heard him mumbling “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep and reported him. Parsons is unable to conceptualize the idea that he might be innocent, because that would mean that the Party made a mistake. Instead, he intends to thank the Party for preventing him from committing further thoughtcrimes.
Katharine is Winston’s Party-assigned wife. Winston describes her as “vulgar” and “stupid,” nicknaming her “the human soundtrack” for her tendency to repeat Party slogans. Winston and Katharine lived together for fifteen months, but they separated, because their marriage proved childless. Over the course of their marriage, Winston developed a deep resentment towards women, coming to view them as cold, asexual, and dogmatically loyal to the Party.
Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford
Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford are former Party members who were publicly denounced as traitors. After their first arrest, they confessed to a string of crimes, including murder and treason. They were then reinstated as Party members, only to be arrested again. After their second arrest, they confessed to all of the original crimes, as well as a number of new ones. Winston sees the three men sitting together in the Chestnut Tree Cafe after their first arrest and subsequent release from the Ministry of Love. Over the telescreen, a song chimes, "Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me." The implication is that the three men sold each other out under torture at the Ministry of Love, just as Winston and Julia do later on.
While working in the records department, Winston was asked to dispose of a photo of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at a Party function in New York. The photo was taken when Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford confessed to being abroad, colluding with Oceania’s enemies. Winston views the photo as definitive proof that the Party fabricates crimes and confessions. O’Brien produces a copy of the photo while Winston is being tortured, but he encourages Winston to employ doublethink in order to deny its existence. After being released from the Ministry of Love, Winston spends a lot of time at the cafe where he saw Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford.
Elderly Prole Man
The elderly prole man talks with Winston in a prole pub about the past. Winston follows him into the pub hoping to learn what life was really like before the revolution. However, Winston is left disappointed by the conversation; he believes the old man’s memory has gone bad. However, the old man actually provides insight into pre-Party life and the proles' unchanging lives. The old man’s apparent inability to comprehend Winston’s questions suggests that, for the proles, life is not much different under Party rule. They are still normal humans, capable of recalling anecdotal stories about wearing top hats to weddings. There is no definitive split between pre- and post-Party life. For the old man, and likely for most proles, “all wars” and all governments are essentially the same.
Red-Armed Prole Woman
The red-armed prole woman lives next to Mr. Charrington’s antique shop. She is constantly doing laundry and sings to herself as she works. Winston comes to regard her as beautiful, despite her old age and haggard appearance. For Winston, she represents the unconquerable spirit of the proles. Despite living a hard life full of poverty and manual labor, she is still able to sing with joy.
Ampleforth is a poet who works in the Ministry of Truth. He helps revise classic works of literature into Party-approved versions by removing unacceptable words and concepts. After Winston is arrested, he and Ampleforth briefly share a cell. Ampleforth believes that he was arrested for not editing out the word “God” from a book of Kipling poems. Winston notes that, despite the direness of their situation, Ampleforth still finds intellectual joy in ruminating on poetry.
Bumstead is an overweight man who briefly shares a cell with Winston in the Ministry of Love. When the starving, skull-faced man is brought into the cell, Bumstead offers him a piece of bread that he has hidden in his overalls. In response, the guards come in and brutally beat Bumstead. Bumstead represents the human impulse towards empathy. Even though Bumstead knows that the circumstances are hopeless, he still offers the skull-faced man a piece of bread.
The Skull-Faced Man
The skull-faced man is a prisoner who briefly shares a cell with Winston and Bumstead in the Ministry of Love. Winston is horrified by his emaciated appearance, and Bumstead offers the skull-faced man a piece of bread. When the guards come to take the skull-faced man to Room 101, he attempts to redirect their attention to Bumstead by accusing him of saying illicit things. The skull-faced man even offers to let the Party kill his family in front of him if it means that he will be spared from Room 101. The skull-faced man foreshadows the horrors that lay ahead of Winston. He is willing to betray anyone, even someone who has just shown him kindness, to avoid Room 101. In contrast to Bumstead, who has not yet been tortured, the skull-faced man is incapable of empathy or kindness. The Party has successfully eradicated his humanity.