At a Glance

  • Orwell once wrote that he wanted to "make political writing into an art" ("Why I Write"). He achieved that goal in 1984, a gripping dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarianism.
  • 1984's subversive approach to themes of free will, patriotism, rebellion, and insanity resulted in the book's being banned in several states. Today, 1984 is considered a classic.
  • 1984's famous first line, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," establishes the foreboding tone of the novel. Orwell goes on to paint a stark, unflinching portrait of life under totalitarian rule.


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell’s unswervingly grim vision of a dystopian future. The author always intended it as more warning than prophecy, so that even though its title date has passed, its lessons about the dangers of conformity, mental coercion, and verbal deception retain their validity and relevance. Orwell’s careful use of clear, understandable language makes the unfamiliar world of Nineteen Eighty-Four comprehensible to every level of reader, and his theme of personal individuality and human emotion, particularly love, trying to establish themselves in spite of the relentless pressure of the modern industrial state has perennial appeal to young adult audiences.

The novel depicts a world divided into three totalitarian superpowers that are constantly at war with one another: Oceania, dominated by the former United States; Eurasia, dominated by Western Europe; and Eastasia, dominated by China and Japan. Since the novel belongs to the genre of the dystopia, a negative Utopia, much of its content is necessarily involved in describing Oceanian society—not only in the features of its everyday life, much of which reflects British life in 1948 (a year whose inverted numbers may have suggested the novel’s title), but also in detailed explanations of the historical origins of Ingsoc and Oceania, as well as its official language, Newspeak. Orwell, rather clumsily in the view of some critics, gives much of this information in the form of a book-within-a-book, the supposed handbook of the revolutionaries, and an appendix to the novel itself about Newspeak.

Not until the second main part of the novel does the story really begin. Winston Smith is a writer for the ironically named Ministry of Truth, whose chief job is to assist in the constant rewriting of history so that it conforms with the predictions and pronouncements of Big Brother, the possibly mythical ruler of Oceania, whose minions in the Inner Party are nevertheless omnipotent and omniscient. Winston, who was born in 1945 and thus was named after Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, vaguely remembers life before the revolution and the establishment of Ingsoc, and he gradually comes to believe that life was not always as dreary, mechanical, and deadening as it now is in Oceania, although he has no means of proving it. Another worker in the Ministry of Truth, Julia, a young woman whom Winston suspects of spying on him, turns out to be attracted to him, and they enter into a complicated, dangerous love affair that they both internally believe can only end in disaster.

O’Brien, an Inner Party member to whom Winston has been vaguely drawn, provides a ray of hope when the lovers become convinced that he is a secret member of the Brotherhood, the revolutionary group committed to the overthrow of Ingsoc and Big Brother. O’Brien—naturally, one is almost tempted to say—turns out to be a double agent, and the last part of the novel depicts in graphic detail Winston’s torture and conversion by O’Brien into an unconditional acceptance of the power of the party and Big Brother. To accomplish this acceptance, Winston must master the mental skill of “doublethink,” a form of reality control involving “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” To some critics, the descriptions and explanations in this section of the novel are the book’s weakest parts. This ordeal culminates in Winston’s betrayal of his love for Julia. A broken man, Winston is set “free” to spend his last days in a semi-alcoholic stupor, mindlessly cheering on huge mythical victories by the forces of Oceania as he awaits the inevitable bullet in the back of the head. Nineteen Eighty-Four ends with the chilling—and inescapable—sentence “He loved Big Brother.”


1984 is George Orwell’s most famous and enduring work, with the possible exception of his political fable Animal Farm. The novel has been translated into more than 60 languages, condensed in the Reader’s Digest, made into two movies, and presented on television.

The widespread impact of 1984 is evidenced by the changes in language that it effected. Today, the word “Orwellian” refers to any regimented and dehumanized society. Words like “Newspeak,” “unperson,” “doublethink,” and “thoughtcrime” have become part of the English language. And the familiar phrase “Big Brother Is Watching You” has become synonymous with the concept of a totalitarian state.

1984’s influence on other twentieth-century works has been considerable: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1954) shares the theme of repression and the destruction of a culture (in this case, books), and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) shares a British setting as well as an invented language, much like the Newspeak of Oceania.

Orwell thought of writing 1984 as early as 1940, during World War II but he did not complete it until 1948 when the Cold War was beginning. The anti-Fascist writing of the 1930s and 1940s had a profound influence on Orwell, and is reflected in his writing.

Moreover, events in Communist Russia also impacted the plot and theme of 1984. From 1922 when Lenin suffered a stroke until 1928—four years after his death—there was a power struggle between Leon Trotsky Minister of War, and Joseph Stalin then Secretary of the Communist party. Stalin continued to grow even more influential as a member of the Politbureau, a small group of party bosses where his function was to manage the day-to-day activities of the Communist party. In 1921 Stalin became liaison between the Central Control Commission and the Central Committee; in this capacity he could control the purges designed to keep the party pure. He used this position to his advantage.

Stalin, along with allies Zinoviev and Kamenev, soon proved invincible as they utilized the secret police to put down all plots against them. While resisting Trotsky’s urges to somewhat democratize the party, they eliminated his followers by sending them abroad. Trotsky was forced to resign as Minister of War. He was later expelled from the Politbureau, exiled from Russia, and eventually assassinated by one of Stalin’s secret police.

From 1928 until World War II, Stalin enjoyed supreme power in Russia. Among the changes he brought to Russian life were collective agriculture, industrialization with forced labor, and the build-up of the authoritarian state combined with the annihilation of all political opposition. In 1928 began the era of the Five-Year Plans, each of which set ambitious goals for the next five years. The goals of the first Five-Year Plan were never actualized; nevertheless, the government announced that they had been realized in 1932. Immediately, another Five-Year Plan went into effect.

Changes were felt in Russian society as well. Freedom to choose one’s job was non-existent; those who resisted were sent to labor camps. Stalin’s dictatorship was complete when the vast majority of unskilled workers became controlled by a minority of loyal skilled workers and bureaucrats who enjoyed certain privileges restricted from the masses. Thus, the gulf between the classes widened and a new elite was created.

To refute contradictory information, Stalin had histories rewritten to show that Lenin had favored his accession to power. He enjoyed a certain amount of hero-worship as cities were named in his honor.

There were critics, however, whom Stalin eliminated during the Great Purges of 1934-1938, which destroyed all possibility of future conspiracies. By 1936, when Stalin proclaimed the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) “the most democratic in the world,” this was hardly an accurate description.

Under Stalin’s dictatorship, the USSR had become a one-party state where elections were a mockery. Although all were eligible to belong to the Communist party, membership was, in fact, a privilege. The party was built upon a pyramidical structure with power and privilege for an elite few. At each level of the pyramid existed organizations to generate propaganda, train military personnel, and educate bureaucrats. All of these activities were designed to increase party loyalty and strength. Stalin remained a dictator through World War II until his death in 1953. Some elements in the plot of 1984 parallel this history.

Five books, in particular, seem to have had a direct impact on the creation of 1984. Fyodor Zamyatin’s We (1923), reviewed by Orwell in 1946, provided the idea for a futuristic, anti-Utopian frame for the novel. There are several resemblances between the works, both of which are also derived from H. G. Wells’ anti-Utopian satire When the Sleeper Walks (1899). Likewise, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), to which 1984 is frequently compared, is set in the future and deals with a regimented society. From Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), Orwell took ideas about the atmosphere of a totalitarian society. This “concentration camp” literature details the struggle of its main character to maintain his individuality after his arrest and torture. James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941) gave Orwell the idea for a world controlled by superstates. These powers became the Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia of 1984.

The novel’s bleak ending prompted readers and critics to take it as an attack on socialism in general and Communist Russia in particular and a prophesy of what would happen in the West should communism spread. Orwell was asked if his book should be interpreted as prophesy. He answered this question in a letter of June 1949:

I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily WILL, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it COULD arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. (1)

In 1949, some readers were also concerned that Orwell had set the novel in Britain. Orwell replied, “The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not FOUGHT against, could triumph anywhere.” (2)

Opinions among critics have not been entirely favorable. Some point to the novel’s overwhelming pessimism and its denouement as flawed, claiming the novel obviously is a reflection of Orwell’s last illness. Others believe that it should be judged as a period piece bearing little relevance to today’s world. After all, there was no special significance to the title. Orwell simply transposed the last two numbers of the year in which he finished the book.

Thus, it can be seen that a number of factors influenced the creation of 1984, including literary sources and historical events. In order to understand the full impact of this novel, the student needs to be familiar with these influences.

The Principles of Newspeak

This section defines Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, and sets forth its purpose: to meet the specific needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism while making all other methods of thought impossible. When Oldspeak has become obsolete, the last link with the past will have been destroyed.

The vocabulary of Newspeak has been built by inventing new words, eliminating old words, and stripping existing words of their finer shades of meaning. Newspeak, based on English, has three classes of vocabulary words:

1. “A” – words used for everyday life; reserved for simple thoughts, concrete objects, or physical actions.

2. “B” – words created for political...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Winston Smith begins a diary, an act tantamount to signing his own death sentence in a ruthlessly totalitarian state bent on eradicating individuality. He is determined to stay alive—and “human”—as long as he can. To do so, he must escape the all-seeing eye and all-hearing ear of the Thought Police behind the omnipresent telescreen.

Winston and Julia, who work in the Ministry of Truth, become lovers and find an illusory haven above Charrington’s shop in the district of the “proles,” or masses outside the Party. Earlier, the lovers revealed themselves to O’Brien, allegedly a member of the “Brotherhood” intent on toppling Big Brother. O’Brien sends them “the book,” supposedly written by Goldstein, Big Brother’s enemy. The Thought Police smash into the lovers’ refuge and drag them away to the Ministry of Love.

As he expected, Winston is maniacally tortured, but to his surprise his torturer is O’Brien, a self-styled therapist, determined to return Winston to “sanity.” Winston masters “doublethink,” or the capacity to believe that two plus two equals five, or any other number suggested. Confident that he has satisfied O’Brien’s insane demands without betraying the self that loves Julia, Winston is totally unprepared for the horror of what awaits him in Room 101. Knowing that Winston has a phobia of rats, O’Brien has devised a wire mask to fit over his head with a door his tormentors can open into a cage of starving rats. Winston in mindless terror screams, “Do it to Julia! Not me!” Internally devastated by the horrible recognition of his betrayal, Winston accepts self-annihilation as a “victory over himself.” The last sentence confirms his conversion: “He loved Big Brother.”

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital of a future (from the perspective of 1949, when George Orwell wrote the book) political unit called Airstrip One in the superstate Oceania that is the setting for the novel. London’s skyline is dominated by four government ministries, whose enormous bulk and tasteless architecture distinguish them from the surviving historical structures surrounding them. Residential sectors of the city segregate members of the unnamed Party from proles (“proletarians”), but both Proles and Outer Party members live in crumbling tenement buildings that are unsanitary, crowded, and poorly maintained. Police patrols are highly visible; posters of Big Brother—the ever-present, seemingly loving personification of the state—are ubiquitous.

The city’s squalor is symptomatic of the Ingsoc government’s disdain for the welfare of its own citizens. This is the result of a change in the fundamental principles and core values of the society; human rights are nonexistent, and all available resources support building and maintaining government structures that administer and preserve the collective. The life of the individual is barren; this barrenness is suggested by lack of luxury, beauty, and privacy.

Inner Party member Winston Smith has a fascination with the past that he acts out by paying clandestine visits to the oldest and meanest areas of the city, where the proles live and work. Because the proles are considered by Inner Party leaders to be beneath concern, their sectors are largely ignored by the government and have become de facto museums of prerevolutionary culture, customs, and mores. Only within the prole neighborhoods can Winston enjoy the smell of real coffee, the sounds of unconstrained conversation and songs, and the sights of uninhibited children playing and adults gathering to talk—all of which reminds Winston of his own childhood and suggest the complexity and fullness of prerevolutionary life.

Victory Mansions

Victory Mansions. Run-down London building in which Winston has a flat on the seventh floor. The building has bad plumbing, no heat, a broken elevator, and the inescapable stench of rancid cabbage. The one thing in the building that works flawlessly is its network of telescreens, which broadcast ceaseless propaganda and, in turn, watch residents through television cameras.

Charrington’s shop

Charrington’s shop. Cramped, dilapidated antique store in a prole sector of London that Winston frequents. He sees the shop as a microcosmic remnant of the past, but it is, in fact, a carefully maintained surveillance tool. Its upstairs apartment, which Winston rents for trysts with Julia, becomes the place of their downfall. Though infested by biting bedbugs and large, aggressive rats, the room also has a private entrance to facilitate Winston and Julia’s secret meetings. There they abandon themselves to sensuality only because they think the room has no telescreen. However, it does have a telescreen, which, ironically, is obscured by something that would never be found in the home of a Party member—an engraving of a medieval church. The illusion of privacy leads Winston and Julia to incriminate themselves, and furthermore leads Winston inadvertently to betray his abject horror of rats to the Thought Police watching him and Julia through the telescreen.

Ministry of Truth

Ministry of Truth. Government ministry building in which Winston is one of many writers who revise historical records to match the government’s constantly changing definitions of reality. Each time Oceania’s military alliances shift, history must be rewritten to show that Oceania has always had the same allies and same enemies. Winston often rewrites the same news stories many times, making something different happen each time, and he comes to appreciate the power of the government precept that whoever controls the past controls the future.

Ministry of Love

Ministry of Love. Site of Winston and Julia’s detention, torture, and reintegration into the Party. One of four enormous pyramidal steel and concrete structures that dominate the London skyline, “Miniluv” has no windows. Standing behind heavily guarded barricades, it is protected by barbed wire and automatic gun pods. Inside, brilliant lights gleam on sparkling clean white walls, which Winston comes to think of as “the place where there is no darkness,” a phrase he remembers either from a prescient dream or from his confused memory. The absence of clocks and windows creates a sense that time is suspended or has no influence, an impression rendered more powerful by the contrast with life outside, where all activities are maintained on a rigorous schedule. Thus Miniluv becomes a mockery of heaven, and by extension, Winston’s indoctrination and reintegration into the Party by O’Brien become a mockery of the loving inclusion into Paradise and communion with God promised by the saints.

Golden Country

Golden Country. Place about which Winston dreams frequently. It is an abandoned pasture that, although once hedged, is being reclaimed by nature. Winston associates it at first with the distant past, and early in the novel, dreams of having a sexual encounter with Julia here; after this dream, he awakens speaking the word “Shakespeare.” Less than a month later, Winston and Julia have their first sexual experience in a rural spot outside London that Winston realizes is almost identical to the place of his dreams. In the midst of his first encounter with Julia, the Golden Country comes to represent for him an animal sensuality unburdened by reason, the antithesis of calculation and cold restraint. Such freedom, for Winston, is possible only in a place largely untainted not just by Ingsoc, but also by the political and philosophical milieu from which it has arisen. The disappearing traces of human domination and the return of the pasture to an idyllic state suggest perhaps not just a yearning for the past, but also a hope for the future. Nevertheless, it is a hope so wild that Winston can hardly allow himself to indulge it except in dream.

Chestnut Tree Café

Chestnut Tree Café. Sidewalk coffeehouse associated with Party members who have been reintegrated and subsequently targeted for vaporization. Early in the novel, Winston destroys an exculpatory newspaper photograph of three enemies of Big Brother whom he later sees at the café, before their disappearances but after their much-publicized but false confessions. A year later, in the novel’s final episode, Winston himself, now a doomed outcast, again sits at the café, drinking sweetened clove-flavored gin, the café specialty, and solving newspaper chess problems. As the telescreen announces a military victory for Oceania’s armies, Winston, who throughout the novel has reacted to such questionable government claims with cynical skepticism, can no longer resist proclaiming his joy and his love for Big Brother.


Oceania. One of three superstates that cover most of the globe. The superstates are conglomerates of nations and regions that first formed alliances then annealed into new entities under the pressures of revolution. The three states are engaged in a constant state of war and shifting alliances, on which Ingsoc broadcasts interminable news bulletins through the telescreens. Oceania itself comprises the lands of the Western Hemisphere, Australia and its surrounding islands, the British Islands, and part of Southern Africa. The easternmost province of Oceania is Airstrip One, which corresponds to what had once been the United Kingdom.


Eastasia. Superstate that comprises China, Southeast Asia, Japan and its surrounding islands, and varying portions of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet.


Eurasia. Superstate that comprises most of Europe and northern Asia, from Portugal to eastern Siberia. When the novel opens, Oceania is at war with Eurasia; when it ends, Eurasia is Oceania’s ally.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

In 1948, when Orwell’s 1984 was published World War II had just ended. One of England’s...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Orwell’s 1984 is told in the third person, but the point of view is clearly Winston Smith’s....

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Orwell arranged Nineteen Eighty-Four into three parts, devoting the first two thirds of the novel to creating the distorted identity...

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1948: West Berlin, Germany, is blockaded by the Soviets. The Americans begin an airlift to help the stranded Berliners....

(The entire section is 386 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

• Explain how history is distorted and hidden from the citizens of Oceania. What is the result?

• Discuss how Newspeak works...

(The entire section is 56 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Written in the tradition of the Utopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps best defined as dystopia, literally the antithesis of...

(The entire section is 167 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Seven years after the publication of the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four was made into a motion picture (produced by N. Peter Rathvon;...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • 1984 (1984), a very fine adaptation of George Orwell’s infamous novel, 1984, by director Michael Kadford, features...

(The entire section is 25 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Animal Farm (1945) was George Orwell’s 1945 fable about the inevitable course of all revolutions. In...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Quotations from 1984 are taken from the following edition:
Orwell, George. 1984....

(The entire section is 539 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Atkins, John. George Orwell: A Literary Study. London: Calder and Boyars, 1971. A long and detailed account of Orwell’s climb to maturity as a political writer. Because it was written in 1954, this book presents a dated perspective on Orwell’s work.

Gardner, Averil. George Orwell. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Examines Orwell’s novels, his longer nonfiction, and his essays for theme, recurrent motifs, and critical response. Includes a chronology, an extended bibliography, and an index.

Hynes, Samuel, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “1984”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Offers both favorable and negative criticism and the particular angles of many different critics. The chapters are reviews, essays, and viewpoints; even a letter from Aldous Huxley to Orwell is included.

Lee, Robert A. Orwell’s Fiction. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. A chronicle of the development of Orwell’s career as a novelist. Themed sections include Orwell’s look at poverty and the stricken individual, social strife, and his apocalyptic vision as expressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Williams, Raymond, ed. George Orwell: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A chronological arrangement of essays on the development of Orwell’s writing. A study of not only Orwell’s development over time but also the impact of his work over time, with essays from writers of three generations.