1984 Summary

George Orwell

1984

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1984 Summary

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Widely hailed as a classic dystopian novel, 1984 is the nightmarish tale of a society under the yoke of an oppressive, totalitarian government, and one man’s quiet, desperate struggle against political repression. It begins with a low-level bureaucrat named Winston Smith returning to his small apartment in London, in the nation of Oceania. Every aspect of life in Oceania is controlled by the Party and its leader and figurehead, the seemingly all-seeing Big Brother. They maintain this control in part through the use of “telescreens”—devices installed throughout the nation that not only display images but also record, allowing them to monitor citizens at all times, watching for signs of unorthodoxy and sedition. However, Winston believes there is a small area of his apartment that his telescreen cannot see, and he intends to use this as a space to fill in a diary, a crime punishable by death in Oceania.

As he tries to decide to what to write and for whom he is even writing, Winston recalls two significant moments shared with other citizens. The first was a sense of both attraction and repulsion he experienced when seeing a young, dark-haired woman he thought might be following him. The second was a brief glance exchanged with a member of the Inner Party named O’Brien, whom Winston suspects may be part of a secret rebel group known as the Brotherhood. Having written down his objections to life under Big Brother, Winston decides that he is writing his diary for the “Thought Police,” a repressive government force that he believes will inevitably catch and kill him.

For now, however, his life continues as normal: day after day, he works his job in the Ministry of Truth, falsifying historical information to fit the Party’s ideologies. In his time off, he walks through London’s poorest areas speculating that the life of the “proles” who live there is far more free and vital than his own and fantasizing that they will someday rise up and overthrow the Party. On one of these walks, he visits the antique shop where he bought his diary and the shopkeeper shows him a room upstairs that, incredibly, does not contain a telescreen and appears to be beyond Big Brother’s scrutiny. Leaving the shop, he sees the dark-haired woman again. He is terrified that she works for the Thought Police and is monitoring his illicit activities and thoughts. However, when he next sees her, she slips him a note declaring that she loves him.

Although intimacy, romance, and sex for pleasure are forbidden in Oceania, Winston and the woman, Julia, eventually manage to talk and then hold hands in the middle of a crowded square. They begin to meet more frequently in hideaways out in the countryside. Although Julia is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex league, she reveals she has had affairs with Party members, and the two begin their own sexual relationship. Despite the fact that there are rats there that terrify Winston, they rent the room above the antique shop and use it as a place to make love and to discuss both their hatred for, and fear of, Big Brother.

At work, O’Brien invites Winston to come to his house to borrow a copy of a dictionary of “Newspeak,” the corrupted, heavily pruned language used by the Party to control and limit free thought. Winston believes this is an invite to join the Brotherhood; he attends with Julia, and they are both initiated into the underground resistance group. O’Brien promises Winston a copy of an illegal book written by the leader of the Brotherhood, which is later anonymously delivered to him. Winston and Julia meet up in their rented room to read the book and continue their affair. Waking there one day, they declare that the inevitability of their capture means that they “are the dead.” To their horror, a disembodied voice agrees with them, and they discover a telescreen has been hidden behind an old picture; they have been monitored the whole time.

Winston is tortured for days in a windowless cell in the Ministry of Love. Often his torturer is O’Brien, who is not a rebel at all, but an undercover operative tasked with reintegrating him back into society. As well as enduring physical pain, Winston learns the Brotherhood’s book is a fabrication written by Party loyalists and that Julia has betrayed him under questioning. Despite his own suffering, he has not betrayed her. However, his torment is not yet over. After waking from a dream calling Julia’s name, Winston is sent to “Room 101” for the final stage of his reintegration. Here O’Brien reveals Winston’s personal worst nightmare: a mask attached to a cage of starving rats. As O’Brien places the mask over Winston’s face, Winston begs him to do it to Julia instead of him. At that point, he knows that O’Brien and the Party have truly broken him. In the final scenes, Winston sits in a café and recalls bumping into Julia after they had both been released. They had admitted to betraying one another, and he had seen how she had changed and become a faithful member of the Party. As the telescreens announce a victory for Oceania’s army, Winston cries tears of joy and understands that he too has converted and now truly loves Big Brother.

Written in 1949, just after the Second World War, 1984 is saturated in Orwell’s hatred for totalitarian regimes and the ways they oppress and destroy ordinary people. The figure of Big Brother, the ideologies of Oceania, and the methods the Party employs to maintain power and control all draw heavily on the realities of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Franco’s Fascist Spain, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, many argue that the warnings the novel contains remain relevant to this day, and certainly, phrases and ideas including “Big Brother,” “Room 101,” “1984,” and even the adjective “Orwellian” remain widely employed as shorthand expressions for political repression.