Nineteen Eighty-Four, often published as 1984, is a dystopian novel by English author George Orwell published in 1949. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation, dictated by a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (or Ingsoc in the government’s invented language, Newspeak) under the control of a privileged elite of the Inner Party, that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime.”
The tyranny is epitomised by Big Brother, the Party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality but who may not even exist. The Party “seeks power entirely for its own sake. It is not interested in the good of others; it is interested solely in power.” The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, who works for the Ministry of Truth (or Minitrue in Newspeak), which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. His job is to rewrite past newspaper articles, so that the historical record always supports the party line. The instructions that the workers receive specify the corrections as fixing misquotations and never as what they really are: forgeries and falsifications. A large part of the ministry also actively destroys all documents that have been edited and do not contain the revisions; in this way, no proof exists that the government is lying. Smith is a diligent and skillful worker but secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother. Orwell based the character of the heroine of the novel, Julia, on his second wife, Sonia Orwell.
As literary political fiction and dystopian science-fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic novel in content, plot and style. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and memory hole, have entered into common use since its publication in 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state. In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library 100 Best Novels, reaching number 13 on the editor’s list, and 6 on the readers’ list. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 8 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania, one of three inter-continental superstates that divided the world after a global war. Most of the plot takes place in London, the “chief city of Airstrip One,” the Oceanic province that “had once been called England or Britain.” Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” dominate the city, while the ubiquitous telescreen (transceiving television set) monitors the private and public lives of the populace. The class hierarchy of Oceania has three levels:
- (I) the upper-class Inner Party, the elite ruling minority, who make up 2% of the population.
- (II) the middle-class Outer Party, who make up 13% of the population.
- (III) the lower-class Proles (from proletariat), who make up 85% of the population and represent the uneducated working class.
As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries:
- the Ministry of Peace deals with war and defence.
- the Ministry of Plenty deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation).
- the Ministry of Love deals with law and order (torture and brainwashing).
- the Ministry of Truth deals with news, entertainment, education and art (propaganda).
The protagonist Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth as an editor, revising historical records, to make the past conform to the ever-changing party line and deleting references to unpersons, people who have been “vaporised,” i.e., not only killed by the state but denied existence even in history or memory.
The story of Winston Smith begins on 4 April 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” yet he is uncertain of the true date, given the régime’s continual rewriting and manipulation of history. Smith’s memories and his reading of the proscribed book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, reveal that after the Second World War, the United Kingdom fell to civil war and then was absorbed into Oceania. Simultaneously, the USSR conquered mainland Europe and established the second superstate of Eurasia. The third superstate, Eastasia, comprises the regions of Eastern/Southeastern Asia. The three superstates wage perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world, forming and breaking alliances as is convenient. From his childhood (1949–53), Winston remembers the Atomic Wars fought in Europe, western Russia and North America. It is unclear to him what occurred first: the Party’s victory in the civil war, the US annexation of the British Empire or the war in which Colchester was bombed. Smith’s strengthening memories and the story of his family’s dissolution, suggest that the atomic bombings occurred first (the Smiths took refuge in a tube station), followed by civil war featuring “confused street fighting in London itself” and the societal postwar reorganisation, which the Party retrospectively calls “the Revolution.”
Winston Smith is a man who lives in Airstrip One, the remnants of Britain broken down by war, civil conflict, and revolution. A member of the middle class Outer Party, Winston lives in a one-room London apartment. His sustenance consists of black bread, synthetic meals, and “Victory”-branded gin. Telescreens in every building, accompanied by secret microphones and cameras, allow the Thought Police to identify anyone who might compromise the Party’s régime. Children are encouraged to inform the officials about potential thought criminals, including their parents.
Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, or “Minitrue”, as an editor. He is responsible for historical revisionism; he rewrites records and alters photographs to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history itself, rendering the deleted people “unpersons”; the original documents are burned up in a “memory hole”. Despite being good at his job, Winston becomes mesmerized by the true past and tries to get more information about it. In a place beside his flat’s telescreen where he believes he cannot be seen, he begins writing a journal criticizing the Party and its enigmatic leader, Big Brother. By doing so, he commits a crime that, if discovered by the Thought Police, warrants certain death. Julia, a young woman who maintains the novel-writing machines at the ministry and whom Winston loathes, surreptitiously hands Winston a note confessing her love for him. Winston and Julia begin an affair after Winston realizes she shares his loathing of the Party, first meeting in the country, and eventually in a rented room at the top of an antiques shop. They believe that the shop, being located in a proletarian neighbourhood of London, is safe, as the room has no telescreen.
Weeks later, Winston is approached by O’Brien, an Inner Party member whom Winston believes is an agent of the Brotherhood—a secret underground society that intends to destroy the Party. They arrange a meeting at O’Brien’s flat where both Winston and Julia swear allegiance to the Brotherhood. A week later, O’Brien clandestinely sends Winston a copy of “The Book”, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, the publicly reviled leader of the Brotherhood. The Book explains the concept of perpetual war, the true meanings of the slogans “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, and “Ignorance is strength”, and how the Party can be overthrown through means of the political awareness of the proles.
In a surprising turn, the Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room. The two are then delivered to the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) for interrogation. Mr. Charrington, the shopkeeper who rented the room to them, reveals himself as a Thought Police agent. O’Brien is also an agent of the Thought Police. He is part of a special sting operation used by the police to find and arrest suspected thoughtcriminals. O’Brien interrogates and tortures Winston with electroshock, telling him that Winston can “cure” himself of his “insanity”—his manifest hatred for the Party—through controlled manipulation of perception. Winston confesses to crimes that O’Brien tells him to say that he has committed, but O’Brien understands that Winston has not betrayed Julia. O’Brien sends him to Room 101 for the final stage of re-education, a room which contains each prisoner’s worst nightmare. Winston shouts “Do it to Julia!” as a wire cage holding hungry rats is fitted onto his face, thus betraying her.
After being put back into Oceania society, Winston meets Julia in a park. She admits that she was also tortured, and both reveal betraying the other. Later, Winston sits alone in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, troubled by memories which he is sure are lies. A raucous celebration begins outside, celebrating Oceania’s “decisive victory” over Eurasian armies in Africa, and Winston imagines himself as a part of the crowd. Winston feels he has at last ended his “stubborn, self-willed exile” from the love of Big Brother—a love Winston returns quite happily as he looks up in admiration at a portrait of Big Brother.
- Winston Smith—the protagonist who is a phlegmatic everyman.
- Julia—Winston’s lover who is a covert “rebel from the waist downwards” who publicly espouses Party doctrine as a member of the fanatical Junior Anti-Sex League.
- Big Brother—the dark-eyed, mustachioed embodiment of the Party who rules Oceania.
- O’Brien—a member of the Inner Party who poses as a member of The Brotherhood, the counter-revolutionary resistance, in order to deceive, trap, and capture Winston and Julia. O’Brien has a servant: Martin.
- Emmanuel Goldstein—ostensibly a former leader of the Party, counter-revolutionary leader of the Brotherhood, and author of The Book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, Goldstein is the symbolic enemy of the state—the national nemesis who ideologically unites the people of Oceania with the Party, especially during the Two Minutes Hate and other fearmongering. Winston eventually learns that The Book is the product of an Inner Party committee that includes O’Brien. Whether Goldstein or his Brotherhood are real or fabrications of Party propaganda is something that neither Winston nor the reader is permitted to know.
- Aaronson, Jones, and Rutherford—Former members of the Inner Party whom Winston vaguely remembers as among the original leaders of the Revolution, long before he had heard of Big Brother. They confessed to treasonable conspiracies with foreign powers and were then executed in the political purges of the 1960s. In between their confessions and executions, Winston saw them drinking in the Chestnut Tree Café—with broken noses, suggesting that their confessions had been obtained by torture. Later, in the course of his editorial work, Winston sees newspaper evidence contradicting their confessions, but drops it into a memory hole. Eleven years later, he is confronted with the same photograph during his interrogation.
- Ampleforth—Winston’s one-time Records Department colleague who was imprisoned for leaving the word “God” in a Kipling poem as he could not find another rhyme for “rod”; Winston encounters him at the Miniluv. Ampleforth is a dreamer and intellectual who takes pleasure in his work, and respects poetry and language, traits which cause him disfavour with the Party.
- Charrington—An officer of the Thought Police posing as a sympathetic antiques dealer.
- Katharine Smith—The emotionally indifferent wife whom Winston “can’t get rid of.” Despite disliking sexual intercourse, Katharine married Winston because it was their “duty to the Party.” Although she was a “goodthinkful” ideologue, they separated because she could not have children. Divorce is not permitted, but couples who cannot have children may live separately. For much of the story Winston lives in vague hope that Katharine may die or could be “got rid of” so that he may marry Julia. He regrets not having killed her by pushing her over the edge of a quarry when he had the chance many years previously.
- Tom Parsons—Winston’s naive neighbour, and an ideal member of the Outer Party: an uneducated, suggestible man who is utterly loyal to the Party, and fully believes in its perfect image. He is socially active and participates in the Party activities for his social class. He is friendly towards Smith, and despite his political conformity punishes his bullying son for firing a catapult at Winston. Later, as a prisoner, Winston sees Parsons is in the Ministry of Love, as his daughter had reported him to the Thought Police, hearing him speak against the Party in his sleep. Even this does not dampen his belief in the Party, and he states he could do “good work” in the hard labour camps.
- Mrs. Parsons—Parsons’s wife is a wan and hapless woman who is intimidated by her own children.
- The Parson’s children—members of the Party Youth League, representing the new generation of Oceanian citizens, without memory of life before Big Brother, and without family ties or emotional sentiment; the model society envisioned by the Inner Party.
- Syme—Winston’s colleague at the Ministry of Truth, whom the Party “vaporised” because he remained a lucidly thinking intellectual. He was a lexicographer who helped develop the language and the dictionary of Newspeak, in the course of which he enjoyed destroying words, and wholeheartedly believed that Newspeak would replace Oldspeak (Standard English) by the year 2050. Although Syme’s politically orthodox opinions aligned with Party doctrine, Winston notes that “He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly.” After noting that Syme’s name was erased from the members list of the Chess Club, Winston infers he became an unperson.
The world in 1984
Ingsoc (English Socialism)
In the year 1984, Ingsoc (English Socialism), is the predominant ideology and pseudophilosophy of Oceania, and Newspeak is its official language, of official documents.
Ministries of Oceania
In London, the capital city of Airstrip One, Oceania’s four government ministries are in pyramids (300 metres high), the façades of which display the Party’s three slogans. The ministries’ names are antonymous doublethink to their true functions: “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.” (Part II, Chapter IX — The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism)
- Ministry of Peace
The Ministry of Peace supports Oceania’s perpetual war against either of the two other superstates.
The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognized and not recognized by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. Ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods has been latent in industrial society. At present, when few human beings even have enough to eat, this problem is obviously not urgent, and it might not have become so, even if no artificial processes of destruction had been at work.
- Ministry of Plenty
The Ministry of Plenty rations and controls food, goods, and domestic production; every fiscal quarter, the Miniplenty publishes false claims of having raised the standard of living, when it has, in fact, reduced rations, availability, and production. The Minitrue substantiates the Miniplenty claims by revising historical records to report numbers supporting the current, “increased rations.”
- Ministry of Truth
The Ministry of Truth controls information: news, entertainment, education, and the arts. Winston Smith works in the Minitrue RecDep (Records Department), “rectifying” historical records to concord with Big Brother’s current pronouncements, thus everything the Party says is true.
- Ministry of Love
The Ministry of Love identifies, monitors, arrests, and converts real and imagined dissidents. In Winston’s experience, the dissident is beaten and tortured, then, when near-broken, is sent to Room 101 to face “the worst thing in the world” – until love for Big Brother and the Party replaces dissension.
The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. Doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
Nineteen Eighty-Four expands upon the subjects summarised in the essay “Notes on Nationalism” about the lack of vocabulary needed to explain the unrecognised phenomena behind certain political forces. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party’s artificial, minimalist language ‘Newspeak’ addresses the matter.
- Positive nationalism: Oceanians’ perpetual love for Big Brother; Neo-Toryism, Celtic nationalism and British Israelism are (as Orwell argues) defined by love.
- Negative nationalism: Oceanians’ perpetual hatred for Emmanuel Goldstein; Stalinism, Anglophobia and antisemitism are (as Orwell argues) defined by hatred.
- Transferred nationalism: In mid-sentence an orator changes the enemy of Oceania; the crowd instantly transfers their hatred to the new enemy. Transferred nationalism swiftly redirects emotions from one power unit to another (e.g., Communism, Pacifism, Colour Feeling and Class Feeling). This happened during a Party Rally against the original enemy Eurasia, when the orator suddenly switches enemy in midsentence, the crowd goes wild and destroys the posters that are now against their new friend (Eurasia) and many say that this must be the act of an agent of their new enemy (and former friend) Eastasia. Even though many of the crowd must have put up the posters before the rally, they now say that the enemy has always been Eastasia.
O’Brien concludes: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
In the book, Inner Party member O’Brien describes the Party’s vision of the future:
There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.— Part III, Chapter III, Nineteen Eighty-Four
A major theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four is censorship, especially in the Ministry of Truth, where photographs are modified and public archives rewritten to rid them of “unpersons” (i.e., persons who have been arrested, whom the Party has decided to erase from history). On the telescreens figures for all types of production are grossly exaggerated (or simply invented) to indicate an ever-growing economy, when the reality is the opposite. One small example of the endless censorship is when Winston is charged with the task of eliminating a reference to an unperson in a newspaper article. He proceeds to write an article about Comrade Ogilvy, a made-up party member, who displayed great heroism by leaping into the sea from a helicopter so that the dispatches he was carrying would not fall into enemy hands.
The inhabitants of Oceania, particularly the Outer Party members, have no real privacy. Many of them live in apartments equipped with two-way telescreens, so that they may be watched or listened to at any time. Similar telescreens are found at workstations and in public places, along with hidden microphones. Written correspondence is routinely opened and read by the government before it is delivered. The Thought Police employ undercover agents, who pose as normal citizens and report any person with subversive tendencies. Children are encouraged to report suspicious persons to the government, and some even denounce their parents. Surveillance controls the citizenry and the smallest sign of rebellion, even something so small as a facial expression, can result in immediate arrest and imprisonment. Thus, citizens (and particularly party members) are compelled to obedience.
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