The novel 1984 by George Orwell is a dystopian classic following the main character, Winston Smith, who is a socially low-ranking individual as he navigates his frustrations with the ever-watching Big Brother which forbids any sort of individuality. Crimes of individual expression and/or rebellion are punishable to the highest extent, but Winston illegally journals his hatred of the ruling party and begins a forbidden love affair in secret. His downfall comes as the oppressive ruling party breaks him down utterly and completely.
This novel was written in a direct response to George Orwell’s mistrust of governmental parties and authoritative regimes due to his observations about the Spanish Civil War. The novel is Orwell’s statement that overly authoritarian rule is closer to happening than most people might want to admit.
Literary Elements of 1984
Author: George Orwell
Type of Work: Fiction/novel
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction
Published Date: 1949
Setting: London, 1984 (assumed because of the title but not confirmed in the text.)
Main Characters: Winston Smith, Julia, O’Brien, Big Brother
Protagonist/Antagonist: Protagonist – Winston Smith/Antagonist – The Thought Police
Major Thematic Elements: Perils of totalitarianism, psychological and physical control/manipulation, censoring of information and history, advanced technology, restrictions on language to control and manipulate, loyalty and resistance to power, revolution and independence, identity
Motifs: Doublethink, urban decay
Exposition: Explanation of Big Brother and how the new government regime has altered Winston’s life in drastic ways
Plot: Three parts, linear narrative structure
Major Symbols: Big Brother, the glass paperweight, St. Clement’s Church, the telescreens, the place where there is no darkness, red-armed prole woman
Climax: Julia hands Winston a note confessing her love and now Winston must go from passively objecting to The Party to actively committing acts of rebellion and defiance.
Literary Significance of 1984
This novel came out during a time of great social unrest across Europe. Many governmental structures were fighting epic fights between democracy and authoritarianism. Orwell’s observations of the unrest caused by the Spanish Civil War, the struggles for communism in the Soviet Union, and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany cause Orwell to deeply hate and mistrust authoritarian sociopolitical movements. He first wrote the politically charged classic Animal Farm and then publish 1984 not long after.
1984 is a powerful message about the dangers of political suppression and totalitarian powers. 1984 details the dangers of the rising technological advances mixing with the wrong kinds of political leaders. Published at the dawn of the nuclear age, there were very real fears across the globe that unchecked technological advances in such times of unrest could lead to further oppression of the individuals living under oppressive regimes.
Although much of Orwell’s fears never materialized and democracy overcame oppressive government structures, the novel remains an important and widely-taught novel that serves as a warning for what could happen under the wrong circumstances. The novel is much more than a sci-fi thriller, it contains very real implications for unchecked governmental power and unbridled control.
1984 Book Summary
In Book One, the novel begins with the main character, Winston Smith, returning home to his uncomfortable and dilapidated apartment. It is a cold day in April and as he returns home, he is greeted by a poster that warns, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Context is set in the first chapter that Winston is a low-ranking official in the Party, the totalitarian political regime in control. What used to be England is now called Oceania. In Winston’s apartment is a telescreen which cannot be turned off and is constantly broadcasting propaganda. The Thought Police can monitor individuals through the telescreen, as well. Winston keeps his back to it as much as possible.
Winston found a diary in an antique shop in the district where the very poor (the proles) live and the Party does not monitor as closely, believing them to be insignificant. Winston writes in his diary even though he knows it is a punishable act of rebellion. Winston daydreams and when he looks down, sees he has written “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” over and over and has committed thoughtcrime, the crime of having rebellious thoughts against the Party. Winston realizes that nothing will be the same.
As time goes on, Winston continues to write in his diary, knowing full well that it will lead to his downfall. He writes that he longs for revolution against the Party and that the proles will be the key to a successful revolution since they make up such a large number of the population. He believes the Party’s oversight and dismissal of the proles is the key to starting a revolution. Winston thinks about the Party official O’Brien and believes that he may be a player in a potential rebellion effort. He dreams about O’Brien and a place where there is no darkness.
In chapter 8, Winston goes to the prole neighborhoods to try and find out what life was like before the Party but cannot get much information. He goes back to the antique store where he bought his journal and purchases a glass paperweight. The shop owner shows Winston a room above the shop with no telescreen and a picture of St. Clement’s church. On the way home, Winston believes he is being followed by Thought Police and resolves to commit suicide before they can even catch him.
Book Two begins with Winston seeing the pretty brown-haired woman at work. She falls and he helps her up. In doing this, she passes him a note that simply reads “I love you.” Winston is conflicted as he has suspected her of being a spy this whole time. This note changes Winston’s desire to find a way to commit suicide. He resolves to live. The two plan a secret meeting and find much pleasure in being alone together.
In chapter 3, Winston rents the room with no telescreen above the antique shop. This is his and Julia’s go-to meeting place. Winston begins to be frustrated with being kept apart from Julia and longs intensely for a leisurely and romantic life with her. The room with the glass paperweight and picture of St. Celement’s church becomes a symbol of the past for Winston and he thinks about it when he is working and stuck doing other things as a type of refuge.
In chapter 6, O’Brien makes contact with Winston. Convinced that he is being invited to join the rebellion, Winston accepts that he is now really going down a road that will lead to his being killed by the Party. He accepts this and agrees to meet with O’Brien anyway. Winston’s emotions are greatly stirred at this point and he remembers memories from his childhood of leaving his family behind during the political struggles. He believes his is responsible for his mother’s death. Julia and Winston begin to realize the great chances that they will be caught and tortured, and they know that they should stop renting the room but they cannot. They vow to still love each other, no matter what happens. Later, in chapter 8, Winston and Julia meet with O’Brien and declare themselves enemies of the Party.
In chapter 10, Julia and Winston are admired the red-armed prole woman who does her laundry outside their window. They believe her and her children are the keys to revolution. Suddenly, a voice speaks to them in the room and they realize that there has been a telescreen behind the picture of St. Clement’s church. Police storm the room and arrest them. It turns out the owner of the antique shop was a member of the Thought Police.
Book Three begins with Winston being contained in a bright cell that always has the lights on. Winston is tortured for some time and wishes for an opportunity to kill himself. O’Brien meets with Winston and reveals that he was actually acting as a spy and set Winston and Julia up to reveal themselves. O’Brien says that the torture will fix Winston.
After some time, Winston’s torture begins to work, and he agrees to things that he knows are not true. He is being brainwashed and even agrees that “two and two make five.” In a fit of misery after many weeks of confinement and torture, he can’t help but yell Julia’s name over and over. Winston backtracks and tells the guards that he hates Big Brother. In chapter 5, Winston’s greatest fear, rats, are used against him. As the guards prepare to strap a cage of rats to Winston’s head so that they can eat his face off, Winston gives up and tells them to take the rats to eat Julia’s face instead. O’Brien is satisfied and Winston is released back into the real world. Winston is fully in support of the Party, he has been fully broken during his time imprisoned. When Winston sees Julia again, he finds her repulsive. When he sees posters about Big Brother, he feels safe and happy.