Last Updated on April 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
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.
Winston was born before the Party came into power. Unlike younger generations, he remembers the time before the Party existed. However, he was too young during the revolution to remember explicit details and only has vague impressions. These vague memories give him the intellectual motivation to rebel. His ability to conceive of a reality in which the Party does not exist helps him discern the Party’s lies, such as their claim that they invented the aeroplane. For Winston, rebellion is about asserting the truth of his own experiences. Though he cannot recall the pre-Party world in explicit detail, he has a “feeling in his bones” that humans are not meant to live the way that the Party forces them to.
Winston is fascinated by the past. Because of his position at the Ministry of Truth, he has a connection to the past that many Party members do not. More so than most others, Winston is privy to the fallibility of the Party and the meaninglessness of documentation. However, it is not until he holds the definitive proof of the Party’s lies—the picture of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford—that he truly begins to develop rebellious thoughts. At that moment, the past ceases to be mutable for Winston. The physical proof of the Party’s lies gives him permission to trust his own memory again.
Winston and the Notebook
Purchasing the notebook represents Winston’s first act of physical rebellion. Though he has committed “thoughtcrimes” for years, it is the act of writing “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in his notebook that, in Winston’s mind, truly seals his fate. From that moment on, Winston views himself as one of “the dead.” This change is freeing for him. Since he knows he will inevitably be caught and killed, he takes risks that he otherwise may not have. Only by abandoning his instinct for self-preservation is Winston able to reconnect with the forgotten past and his own body.
Winston's Paperweight and Ulcer
Both the glass paperweight and Winston’s ulcer represent the ill effects of repressing of human nature. Winston’s fascination with the paperweight speaks to his desire to connect with the past. Winston admires beauty. His humanity has not been entirely snuffed out. He longs for the eras in which useless things could exist just because they were beautiful. However, the harsh, ascetic world he lives in strives to suppress beauty, love, and aesthetic appreciation. The paperweight provides a symbolic safe-haven from this dystopia.
After Winston begins his affair with Julia, he imagines the paperweight as a protective barrier between them and the Party. Under this illusion, Winston feels more human. He comes to trust in his own thoughts and feelings, experiencing real happiness for the first time in decades. This is reflected physically, as his ulcer—which represents Winston’s repressed humanity—stops itching. Under Party rule, sexuality, creativity, and individuality are all suppressed in favor of conformity and Party orthodoxy.
Winston's Attitude Towards Women
Prior to receiving Julia’s note, Winston views women negatively. He accuses them of accepting Party rhetoric too easily, especially the anti-sex rhetoric. He resents Julia for wearing the Junior Anti-Sex League sash, which indicates that she is not sexually available. His sexual frustration manifests in violent fantasies about assaulting and murdering Julia and other women. This frustration can, at least in part, be attributed to Party oppression. By estranging citizens from natural sexual instincts, the Party not only isolates them from other people but also from themselves. As a result, their desires are “mixed up with fear and hatred” and fueled by frustration and resentment towards women—whom the Party has portrayed as frigid and sexless.
After Winston starts his affair with Julia, he begins to think and feel more freely. Julia offers him sexual and intellectual freedom. As a result, his ulcer subsides and he becomes healthier and happier. His violent fantasies also subside. Over the course of the affair, Winston reclaims ownership of his mind and body. As his belief in himself grows, so too does his hatred of the Party. Winston comes to believe in an unconquerable element of human nature that cannot be destroyed or controlled. This leads him to view the proles as a symbol of hope, since they are not subject to the same dehumanization that Party members are. It also leads him to believe his love for Julia cannot be stolen by the Party.
Tragically, Winston’s reclamation of self and his belief in his own mental independence informs his eventual “re-education” by O’Brien. Throughout much of 1984, Winston is resigned to death. This makes him reckless, and he begins taking unnecessary risks, which include following the elderly prole man into the bar and visiting Mr. Charrington’s antique shop a second time. Only after he begins seeing Julia and planning to join the Brotherhood does his life acquire meaning. However, just as he begins to feel secure in his purpose going forward, he is arrested.
During Winston’s torture, O’Brien explains that the Party does not allow people to die with rebellious thoughts. Rather than killing its enemies, the Party re-educates them to truly love Big Brother. In Winston’s case, all of his acts of rebellion were carefully orchestrated by O’Brien. The implication is that the Party intentionally built Winston up only to then break him. When Winston first began rebelling, he had no hopes for the future. Getting caught by the Party at that point would have simply confirmed his expectations. However, after he begins his affair with Julia and is allegedly indoctrinated into the Brotherhood by O’Brien, he finds meaning. Ultimately, in order for the Party to assert their control over Winston, they had to give him something worth losing.
During Winston’s time at the Ministry of Love, he is estranged from himself in every way. O’Brien starves him, beats him, and then forces him to confront his changed appearance. Unable to recognize the man he sees in the mirror, Winston is shaken. However, he retains his belief that he will be able to die loving Julia and hating the Party. It is not until he is taken to Room 101 that his beliefs are shattered. By forcing Winston to renounce his love for Julia, O’Brien disproves Winston’s belief that the Party cannot truly alter his mind. In that moment, Winston yields to despair and loses his humanity altogether. Although there is no hope for Winston, there is hope for the future. Winston knew that he alone could not change his society and instead places his hope for the future in the Proles.