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What is the difference between a book description and a plot summary?

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A description of a book is a statement of general facts about it, including its subject matter, its thesis (if it is a nonfiction work in which the author presents an argument in favor of a point of view regarding literature, history, science, or other disciplines), its genre, when and where it takes place (if it is a work of fiction), and other features.

A plot summary, on the other hand, has the more specific purpose of recounting the action of a novel or other work of fiction: namely, the elements of the story as they take place point by point through time. One can say that a description can include some elements of a plot summary among other facts about a book. And also, a plot summary is a description of one aspect of a book: namely, the story the author is telling. So, there is some overlap between the meanings of these terms.

I can illustrate this by providing a brief description and plot-summary of one of the most widely read books of the past hundred years, George Orwell's 1984.


1984 is a dystopian novel first published in 1949 by the British author George Orwell (the pen-name of Eric Blair). It takes place in the year of its title, in a future Britain that has become a totalitarian state. A worldwide cataclysm that has evidently included a nuclear war has caused the world to devolve into three "superstates" called Oceania (which includes not only Britain but the rest of the English-speaking world), Eurasia, and Eastasia. There is perpetual war between one of these states in alliance with another against the third state. There is no personal freedom, the population is under constant surveillance, and the society is divided in an arrangement that is an exaggerated form of class stratification in the real world: High (here known as the Inner Party), Middle (the Outer Party), and Low (the "proles," working-class people whom the government regards as sub-human).

The protagonist, Winston Smith, hates the regime but, like everyone, cannot openly express what he's thinking. His attempted rebellion fails in the end, he's imprisoned and brainwashed, and little if any hope is shown by Orwell that humanity will ever free itself from totalitarian rule.

Along with other futuristic novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, 1984 is a seminal work of dystopian literature and a projection into the future of both the Communist and Fascist movements that dominated much of the history of the twentieth century.


In a future Britain of devastation and totalitarian rule, thirty-nine-year-old Winston Smith is a secret rebel. The population is under constant surveillance through omnipresent devices called telescreens, a kind of TV that simultaneously transmits and receives both video and audio. Because of an anomaly in the construction of his apartment, Winston is able to position himself in a spot hidden from the telescreen, where he writes a diary expressing his heretical thoughts against the government and its leader, "Big Brother."

Winston knows he is unable to do anything to openly defy the regime (usually described simply as The Party) or communicate his thoughts to anyone else. He works in a facility called the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite information that has been published in newspapers, substituting lies for facts that are at odds with the false view of the world the government is indoctrinating the population with.

At work, a girl named Julia passes a note to Winston on which is written, "I love you." Winston begins an affair with Julia and finds her to be a like-minded person who hates the government. At work, Winston has met a high official, O'Brien, whom he imagines to be part of an underground resistance called the Brotherhood. Taking an enormous risk based on this assumption, Winston and Julia visit O'Brien at his flat and tell them they are against the Party and believe that he is as well. O'Brien tells them that their assumptions are correct and that he is indeed a member of the Brotherhood.

O'Brien's behavior turns out to be a ruse. He has Winston and Julia arrested and imprisoned. Winston is interrogated, tortured, and brainwashed by O'Brien. Ultimately, he's released from prison, but he is a washed-out zombie, now loving the regime and Big Brother he previously had hated and defied.

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