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.”