Theme Developed Through Characterization: As a protagonist, Winston develops from a dissatisfied but otherwise ordinary citizen into a rebellious enemy of the party and finally into a subservient loyalist. The dystopian setting informs his behavior and worldview, forcing Winston to either internalize his thoughts and feelings or risk execution. This specific use of characterization makes 1984 an excellent text for students to analyze in order to understand how characterization develops themes in works of literature.
- For discussion: How does Winston develop over the course of the text? What are some of the key turning points for Winston’s character? What does he learn? How does he change? Draw on specific examples from the novel.
- For discussion: Julia can be read as a character foil for Winston. Compare and contrast Winston with Julia in terms of their perspectives and interactions with others in Oceania. How do they feel about the Party? How do Winston’s acts of rebellion compare to Julia’s? What do the contrasts between these characters reveal about Winston? What do they reveal about the text’s themes?
- For discussion: How does Big Brother function in the text? What information does he convey to readers about the Party? What does his character reveal about the novel’s major themes?
Analyzing Language as an Instrument of Thought Control: Orwell subverts readers’ understanding of words, concepts, and reality as he describes Oceania’s oppressive world. This effect is built through irony, both verbal and situational, as shown through the Party’s implementation of Newspeak. The Party uses Newspeak to restrict language and thought, creating cognitive dissonance through which to control its citizens. Their slogans are paradoxical: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” Prominent institutions bear names that directly contradict what happens inside them: the Ministry of Love carries out torture, the Ministry of Truth disseminates propaganda, the Ministry of Peace wages war, and the Ministry of Plenty specializes in poverty. Citizens are required to accept these contradictions by developing the skill of “doublethink,” or the ability to think two opposing thoughts while accepting both to be true. Similarly, as readers’ understandings of Oceania develops along with Winston’s, they must also realize that meanings and situations are often different from what they seem.
- For discussion: Why is diction so important to the Party? In which situations does the Party use accurate language? When do they use contradictory language? How does verbal irony help the Party stay in control?
- For discussion: Syme, one of Winston’s co-workers, claims that the aim of Newspeak is to “narrow the range of thought.” How does Orwell seem to be defining the relationship between language and consciousness? Do you agree or disagree? How do you think restricting language impacts the way people think?
- For discussion: Cognitive dissonance is the deep discomfort felt when one is presented with two contradictory ideas, concepts, or versions of events. Why does the Party use cognitive dissonance as a weapon of manipulation? What do they gain by doing so?
- For discussion: Which aspects of Winston’s world do you find surprising? Compare and contrast your understanding of Oceania with Winston’s growing knowledge of the Party and how it forces citizens to willingly give up their freedom.
- For discussion: Why does the Party name their leader “Big Brother,” given that they all but destroyed familial love and loyalty? How does Big Brother help them stay in power?
The Threat of Totalitarianism:1984 can be read as a political fable that presents a disturbing example of how a totalitarian state could arise anywhere at any time. Orwell draws on his own experiences with totalitarianism to explore how citizens can...
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be systematically stripped of basic human rights through terror, propaganda, and poverty.
- For discussion: How would you describe Airstrip One, which is part of Oceania? How is it organized? What is everyday life like for the average person?
- For discussion: Consider the role of gender in the text. Are women treated differently than men? Why or why not? To what extent does being male or female give a person privilege over the opposite gender? Is Oceania patriarchal? Why or why not?
- For discussion: How does the Party organize people in terms of social class? What effect does class have on how people live or what rights they have?
- For discussion: What types of relationships exist between people in Oceania? Does the Party encourage friendship, love, and loyalty? Why or why not? How do relationships develop over the course of the novel?
Theme Developed Through Symbolism: In Winston’s world, the objects with which characters associate carry meaning. The glass paperweight, the telescreen, the images of Big Brother, and Julia’s red sash develop themes in the text. The prevalence of symbolism invites readers to consider both the literal and connotative importance of a given object and how it relates to the novel’s larger themes.
- For discussion: Identify the concrete objects in the text that you find important. What are the figurative associations of these objects? Which themes do these objects seem to represent?
- For discussion: What do bright colors seem to represent in Oceania’s otherwise gray, dull world? What objects or images stand out because of their color? How does Orwell’s use of colors like red, yellow, and green develop themes in the text?
- For discussion: Which objects in your own life are symbolic? How so? Compare and contrast the objects you find personally important with the objects that are thematically significant in 1984.
The Power of Reality Control as a Theme: The Party maintains its control largely through the power of propaganda and the literal rewriting of history. Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite news articles so that they reflect the Party’s version of events; even creative literature is amended to align with Party ideology. All the while, Doublethink, or the ability to think two contradictory thoughts and accept that both are true, is a skill that citizens are expected to master.
- For discussion: What are some of the most common lies that the Party perpetuates? Why is it important for citizens to believe these lies in order for the Party to stay in control? What do you think would happen if citizens openly rejected the Party’s propaganda?
- For discussion: What is the significance of the slogan “2 + 2 = 5”? Why does Winston believe that people must remember that “2 + 2 = 4” in order to overthrow the Party and regain freedom?
- For discussion: Why is Newspeak so important in the Party’s efforts to control reality in Oceania? What will the impact be when people only use Newspeak to communicate?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- 1984 has a pessimistic, unfulfilling ending. How do you interpret Winston’s newfound love for Big Brother? Support your response with evidence from the text.
- Compare and contrast the Party’s expectations of citizens with the expectations placed on you by your own community. What would you do if you were in Winston’s shoes? What advice would you give him?
- What do Oceania’s citizens gain and what do they give up when they comply with the Party’s expectations? Which rights would you be willing to forfeit in order to gain protection in Oceania?
Tricky Issues To Address While Teaching
Depictions of Torture: The Party regularly tortures citizens accused of treasonous thoughts and actions. Throughout the novel, Winston is keenly aware that he will inevitably be tortured, given that intense government surveillance will eventually expose his disloyalty to the Party. His expectations become a reality at the climax of the novel, when he and Julia are arrested and tortured at the Ministry of Love.
- What to do: Consider demonstrating close reading for students by engaging critically with the events in the story that may be distressing.
- What to do: Point out to students that, as a dystopian text, 1984 ultimately warns readers about the possibility of totalitarianism arising in any country at any time. Ask students to identify the most corrupt aspects of Ingsoc and to create their own criticisms of the Party.
Ingsoc Practices Institutionalized Killing: Aside from torture, one of the punishments enacted by the Party is to “vaporize”—or execute—those who are disloyal to the Party. Vaporizing, however, extends beyond killing; those who are vaporized are erased from history, as though they never truly existed.
- What to do: Explain to students that, throughout history, it has been common for people in power to manipulate historical texts to reflect their agendas—a consequence of which is erasing the trauma of those who were subjugated by the party in power. Ask students to consider why the Party takes the extra step of removing all evidence of its executed citizens. What is the point of erasing people?
- What to do: Consider Orwell’s choice of the word “vaporize.” What does the term mean? Why would Orwell choose it? Does the Party’s institutionalized killing count as vaporizing? Why or why not?
- What to do: Remind students that many governments still make use of the death penalty, including the United States. Ask students to consider the similarities and differences between Ingsoc’s process of vaporizing citizens with their own government’s position on the death penalty. (Note: this discussion is best reserved for students of a slightly higher level of maturity, given the challenge of discussing actual political policies surrounding capital punishment).
Sex and Violence: The Party severely regulates sexuality in Oceania, thus forcing its citizens to repress their sexual impulses. Winston grapples with sexual repression by fantasizing about beating, raping, and murdering Julia before they begin their illicit relationship.
- What to do: Ask students to consider what the Party gains by controlling the sexual lives of people in Oceania. Why is it important that sex can only legally take place for the purpose of reproduction? How does sexual repression benefit the Party?
- What to do: What does Winston’s impulse to sexually assault and murder Julia suggest about gender dynamics in Oceania? Is either gender valued more than the other? Why or why not?
- What to do: Explain that it is common for governments, societies, and religions to attempt to control sexuality on some level. Ask students to compare and contrast how sex is treated in their own cultures with how sex is treated in Oceania. (Note: this discussion is best suited to students who have a slightly higher level of maturity, given that the topic of sex might be uncomfortable or upsetting).
The Novel Presents a Grim View of Humanity: 1984 ultimately argues that human nature predisposes people to subjugate each other in order to gain power. The oppression and pessimism evident in Winston’s everyday experience makes readers uncomfortable to this day.
- What to do: Explain to students that, like other dystopian texts, 1984 speculates about what might happen if one aspect of human nature is taken to an extreme. It does not represent actual societies. Invite students to identify examples of altruism within their own communities that might prevent the horrors of Oceania from taking place.
- What to do: Remind students that human behavior is complex and cannot always be reduced to a binary of “right” and “wrong.” Invite students to consider the complicated forces that give rise to ritual violence—and how those forces might be redirected to more constructive ends.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching 1984
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving 1984, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on Winston as an archetypal hero. Compare Winston to an archetypal hero, who ambivalently departs the safety of home to embark on a physical and psychological quest. What faults does Winston overcome? What would it have meant for him to successfully undermine Ingsoc? Is he still a hero after he is released from the Ministry of Love? Why or why not?
Focus on the proles. Orwell suggests that the simplicity and purity of the lower classes of proles will be enough to overthrow the Party. Winston even develops a “mystical reverence” for the red-armed prole woman who sings outside of Mr. Charrington’s junk shop. Ask students to consider how the proles function as a class within Oceania. Why does the Party allow them to exist? How do their lives differ from those in higher classes? What does Orwell seem to argue through his portrayal of the proles?
Focus on Emmanuel Goldstein as a foil for Big Brother. In Oceania, loyalty and disloyalty to Ingsoc are represented by the figureheads of Big Brother and Emmanuel Goldstein. However, as O’Brien suggests to Winston, it is possible that neither man exists. What are the alleged character traits of Goldstein and Big Brother? What do the contrasts between them reveal about the Party? What do they reveal about the text’s themes?