Author: George Orwell Published: May 1990 268 Pages ISBN #: 0451524934
1984 Book Summary
The novel, published in 1949, takes place in 1984 and presents an imaginary future where a totalitarian state controls every aspect of life, even people’s thoughts. The state is called Oceania and is ruled by a group known as the Party; its leader and dictator is Big Brother.
Winston Smith, the central character, is a thirty-nine year old man living in London. He secretly hates the Party and decides to rebel by starting a diary in which he reveals his rebellious thoughts. Through keeping a diary, Winston commits thoughtcrime and knows that one day he will be discovered by the Thought Police and probably killed.
Winston is fascinated by “proles,” the lowest class in the social hierarchy of Oceania. They are the only group allowed to live pretty much as they like without heavy police surveillance. He befriends Mr. Charrington, the prole owner of a junk-shop, who shares his interest in the past and life before the rule of Big Brother.
At work, a dark-haired girl who works in another department approaches Winston in the corridor. She pretends to fall and hurt herself; when he helps her up she slips a piece of paper into his hand. It says “I love you.” Winston is surprised and disturbed by this; any sexual relationship between Party members is strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, he is intrigued. They secretly arrange to meet in the country. He begins a love affair with the girl, who finally introduces herself as Julia. They have to be very cautious and meet in places that aren’t watched: a clearing in the woods, an old church. Winston and Julia eventually rent the room above Mr. Charrington’s junk-shop as a long-term private place for the two of them.
A member of the Inner Party, O’Brien, finds an excuse to give Winston his home address, an unusual event. Winston, noticeably excited, has always believed O’Brien may not be politically orthodox and could sympathize with his hatred of the Party. Winston and Julia go to see O’Brien and he enlists them into the Brotherhood, a secret organization dedicated to fighting Big Brother. He arranges to give Winston a copy of “The Book,” a document that contains the truth about Big Brother and the development of the super-states. Winston and Julia go to their room above the junk-shop to read the book. The Thought Police burst in to arrest them and they discover that Mr. Charrington is a Thought Police agent. They are taken separately to the Ministry of Love. There, Winston learns that O’Brien is in fact an orthodox government agent and has deliberately tricked him. O’Brien takes charge of the process of “re-integrating” Winston, torturing and brainwashing him until he fully believes in the Party and its doctrines. As the final step of this process, Winston is forced to betray his love for Julia, and his feelings for her are destroyed.
Winston is released to live out his final days as a broken man. Soon, the Thought Police will execute him. Winston has submitted completely and loves Big Brother.
1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four: Theme Analysis
Could the world in 1984 ever really exist? This question haunts readers from the first to the last pages of Orwell’s novel. Sadly, the answer is ‘yes’; or at least Orwell hopes that readers will leave 1984 accepting the possibility enough to question government and tread cautiously into the future. Orwell intends to portray Oceania just realistically enough to convince contemporary readers that such a society has, in fact, existed and could exist again if people forget the lessons taught by history, or fail to guard against tyrannical, totalitarian governments. These two themes- totalitarianism and history-tie together the plot and messages in 1984.
Orwell sets his story in war-torn London. Thirty to forty bombs rain down on the city per week and everywhere Winston turns reminders of the war, such as the Two Minutes Hate and billboards plastered with Party slogans, color his existence. Deprivation, another bi-product of war, hangs in the air as heavily as the horrible grime and stench created by the city’s overcrowded tenements. Upon opening 1984, Orwell’s first readers, English people during the late 1940s, would have immediately recognized themselves. Having just emerged from WWII, Londoners would have intimately related to the deprivation and destruction portrayed in 1984.
Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chesterton’s story, “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”, which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon “The Last Man in Europe”. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.
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Freedom of speech: How ‘1984’ has entrusted our culture
The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Nazi-esque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.
It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation.
Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and officials – alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.
George owes his own adjective to this book alone and his idea that wellbeing is crushed by restrictive, authoritarian and untruthful government.
Big Brother (is watching you)
A term in common usage for a scarily omniscient ruler long before the worldwide smash-hit reality-TV show was even a twinkle in its producers’ eyes. The irony of societal hounding of Big Brother contestants would not have been lost on George Orwell.
Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101 – rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor – thanks to the ingenious Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.
An accusation often levelled at the current government by those who like it least is that they are trying to tell us what we can and cannot think is right and wrong. People who believe that there are correct ways to think find themselves named after Orwell’s enforcement brigade.
See “Thought Police” above. The act or fact of transgressing enforced wisdom.
For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.
Hypocrisy, but with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of “doublethink” when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical – but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate along with their pints in the pub. Oliver Marre