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Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Think about all the screens in a modern home. The laptop, cellphones, television, tablet, and gaming devices are just some of the many portals people spend hours gazing into. But what if someone was staring back at them, monitoring every action and word? In George Orwell's (1903-1950) Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that's the dystopia that Winston Smith is trying to escape.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is widely considered the most influential novel of the 20th century. It has impacted everything from political discourse to everyday language, with generations of writers, thinkers, artists, activists, and politicians going back to this text for inspiration during times of instability.

Seventy years from its publication, many people wonder why this novel remains so fresh and frightening. Orwell's ability to combine elements of the past with the present to warn about the nightmarish possibilities of the future makes Nineteen Eighty-Four such a timeless classic.

Nineteen Eighty-Four Plot StudySmarterNineteen Eighty-Four represents a society where the State is always watching and where individual rights are considered dangerous. Pixabay.

Plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world is separated into three superpowers: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, which exist in a constant state of war with each other. The novel is based in Oceania. Great Britain is now referred to as Airstrip One. The Party dominates every aspect of life in the workplace and family home. The population is controlled through mass surveillance and propaganda. People who dissent are "disappeared", or erased from history. Every citizen lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, the personification of the Party’s control systems.

Society is ordered by a rigorous class system based on Party membership. The Inner Party representatives make up the upper 2% of the population, holding high-ranking government jobs and most of the power. The Outer Party represents the middle class of about 15%. This class comprises skilled and clerical workers, who run the Party’s bureaucracy. The bottom class is the Proletariat a majority of uneducated manual workers who subsist on low wages and poor-quality food.

In London, Winston Smith is a member of the Outer Party. His job at the Ministry of Truth consists of erasing or rewriting historical documents to fit the Party’s version of reality. Records that do not match the Party’s version of history are discarded in memory holes (incinerators) and people who have disappeared by the Party are “unpersoned” from the record.

Every day the employees gather around a screen to participate in Two Minutes of Hate. They scream at a picture of the enemy leader to display their loyalty to the Party. Winston dreams of rebelling against the Party’s totalitarian State, even though thoughts like these are classified as thoughtcrime and punishable by death.

One day during the Two Minutes of Hate, Winston briefly locks eyes with a member of the Inner Party, O’Brien, and suspects he too may secretly hate the Party. He also sees Julia, a worker in the Fiction Department, who he suspects is spying on him.

Winston visits an antique shop in a Proletariat neighborhood, where he buys a journal from Mr. Charrington, a shop owner. He begins to record his thoughts about rebelling against the Party system. A few days later, Julia hands him a note which says, "I love you." Winston discovers that Julia shares his hatred of the Party system.

Mr. Charrington rents them a flat above his shop where they can meet. During their affair, Winston reminisces about the civil war of the 1950s, which led to the current political system. He also discovers that while Julia hates the system as much as he does, she is not interested in open rebellion and wants to have fun breaking the rules.

"BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!"

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, all citizens live under the constant surveillance of Big Brother. But Big Brother is not a person; it is a symbol or figurehead for the state of Oceania. Big Brother is given a human face on the party's propaganda posters and in broadcasts, a stern-faced man with a mustache staring directly at the viewer, reminding the citizens that he is always watching.

Nineteen Eighty-Four characters StudySmarterBig Brother is the human embodiment of the state. Pixabay.

The name Big Brother evokes a loving, protective family figure who is watching out for his loved ones. However, much like Stalin and Hitler, the totalitarian leaders who inspired Big Brother, people live in a constant state of fear. Much like a religious figure, citizens are encouraged to obey the teachings of Big Brother, and the only acceptable form of love is love for Big Brother.

O’Brien invites Winston over to his apartment one evening. He reveals that he is a member of the Brotherhood, an underground movement committed to rebelling against Big Brother. He gives Winston a banned book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein is a former member of the Inner Party who left the Party to form the Brotherhood. The book exposes the Party’s inner workings and system of control. It suggests any hope of overthrowing Big Brother lies with the proletariat.

Winston and Julia are arrested for thought crimes at the flat above the antique shop. Mr. Charrington has been working with the Thought Police to capture them. They are taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured. During Winston’s interrogation, O’Brien reveals himself as a double agent who fabricated the character of Emmanuel Goldstein and the Brotherhood as a means to entrap dissenters. Winston is tortured for several months as O’Brien explains the Party’s aim to stamp out individuality and critical thinking so they can achieve absolute control over the population.

Winston attempts to hold onto his beliefs, feeling that dying as a dissenter may be his only true freedom. He is taken to Room 101, the torture chamber where prisoners face their worst fears. His head is placed in a wire cage with a door separating his face from a rabid rat. Winston breaks down and wishes aloud they were torturing Julia instead of him.

Months later, Winston has been released and is sitting in a café. He encounters Julia, who admits that she too betrayed him when faced with her ultimate fear. They acknowledge they no longer have feelings for each other, and as a news broadcast announces a military victory for Oceania, Winston manically cheers. He now loves Big Brother.

Orwell and Stalinism

Orwell modeled Big Brother's rule on the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. But while the similarities to the Nazi regime were welcome, Orwell faced some pushback on the comparisons to Stalinist Russia. When the book was published after WWII, many western intellectuals hesitated to criticize Stalin's totalitarian regime since the Soviet Union had just helped defeat Germany.

Orwell was one of the few voices on the left to be openly critical of Russia during this period. During his time fighting against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell encountered Stalinist elements on his own side. He witnessed Stalinist agents use murder and lies to take control of the Republican movement. Sickened that those who proclaimed to be fighting Fascism were using Fascist tactics, Orwell distrusted communism and Stalinism in particular.

Nineteen Eighty-Four Themes StudySmarterJoseph Stalin rose to power after the Russian revolution and ended up running the country as a totalitarian state. Pixabay.

As a dedicated democratic socialist, George Orwell was committed to fighting Fascism and totalitarianism in all forms, even if this included calling out people on his side. His account of the Stalinist infiltration in Spain is available in Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell's other essential work, Animal Farm (1945), uses the fable form to detail Stalin's rise to power and portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Characters from Nineteen Eighty-Four

In Nineteen Eighty-Four's dystopian society, all characters exist under the Party's totalitarian rule. Some characters want to rebel against the system, while others seek to uphold it.

Winston Smith

Winston is the novel's protagonist. He works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting and erasing history to fit the Party’s dogma. He dreams of rebellion and breaking the totalitarian system. The novel follows Winston's thoughts as he questions the propaganda and lies everyone else seems to accept.

Winston Smith is named in honor of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the country's fight against the Nazis during WWII. The surname Smith is England's most common name. Winton's name represents a common man standing against a massive force.

Julia

Julia is Winston's love interest. A fellow worker at the Ministry of Truth, Julia is also against the Party rule but does not share Winston’s desire to overthrow the system, fearing she may lose some of her status and comfort.

O’Brien

O’Brien is a member of the Inner Party who pretends to be a rebel to radicalize and entrap Winston.

Emmanuel Goldstein

Goldstein is a mysterious figure known to the public as the leader of the underground Brotherhood movement. Purportedly a form member of the Inner Party who defected, Goldstein is never shown in the book. O'Brien gives Winston a copy of Goldstein's illegal book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. During Winston's torture, O'Brien claims Goldstein is a fabricated entity used to entrap potential rebels.

Big Brother

Big Brother is a symbol used to embody the teachings of the state of Oceania. Used by the Party in broadcasts, posters, and writings, Big Brother is the human face of the surveillance state. Depicted as a middle-aged man with a stern face, Big Brother is based on the totalitarian leaders Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Charrington

Owner of the pawnshop, he sells Winston the journal and then rents him the room. Charrington turns out to be a double agent for the Thought Police.

Themes & Main Ideas of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Written shortly after WWII, Orwell used Nineteen Eighty-Four to warn against the dangers of blindly following political ideologies. The novel is a culmination of themes and ideas Orwell explored throughout his career.

Totalitarianism

Written just after WWII, Orwell intended the book to be a warning for the future. After witnessing the horrors of Nazi Germany and the complete control of Stalin in Russia, Orwell feared that countries around the world would embrace these forms of government.

Orwell was particularly interested in representing how this form of government exercised control through propaganda and language. The Party's rule in Oceania is absolute; it monitors citizens constantly and openly lies about basic facts. They can get away with this by making it illegal to criticize the party in any way.

Winston represents the individual standing against the collective. He thinks differently and questions Big Brother's propaganda while everyone else around him passively follows. Orwell feared that totalitarianism threatened individual rights and the very concept of what it means to be a unique person.

In the dystopian society of Nineteen Eighty-Four, acts of individuality are considered counter to Big Brother's ideology. Winston keeps a journal recording his true thoughts and feelings. What are some of the other examples of Winston's acts of individuality?

Language as a weapon

The power of language is a recurring theme throughout Orwell’s work. He was interested in exploring how it could be used as both a tool of liberation and a weapon of oppression. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother uses language to control citizens' thinking processes. Newspeak is designed to strip the English language down to bare minimum meanings, thereby reducing the individual's ability to think critically or have thoughts that undermine the Party’s dogma.

Big Brother subverts the basic meaning of words to mask ugly truths; Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, where he erases facts and creates lies, the Ministry of Peace is dedicated to war, and Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party can manipulate language to obscure meaning and keep the public confused.

Orwell included The Principles of Newspeak as an appendix to the novel. This section details the techniques used by the totalitarian regime to gain control. While the novel's climax is sad, some argue that this appendix is a hopeful ending as it talks about the Party in the past tense.

Big Brother uses Newspeak terms like "thoughtcrime" and "ownlife" to control the masses. Can you think of five more examples of Newspeak?

Censorship

Winston's job is to censor history through rewrites or the outright destruction of historical documents that don't fit the Party's version of reality. The Party enjoys complete control over all information, censoring and editing news on the war effort to increase production and compliance.

Orwell shows us how Big Brother can exert such complete control with telescreens in every room that pump ceaseless propaganda through entertainment and news programs that parrot the Party's beliefs. The ultimate act of censorship is given to any individual who speaks out against the Party or asks questions. They face imprisonment or death as they become "unpersoned."

Controversy and bans

Nineteen Eighty-Four has faced its fair share of bans for a book that criticizes government censorship. Unsurprisingly, the book was banned in the Soviet Union for many years due to its criticism of Stalin's regime and Communism. The ban was eventually lifted in 1988, just one year before the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1981, Jackson County in Florida banned the book in schools for its sexual content and alleged pro-communist themes. This move was partially confusing, given that Orwell set out to make the book an overt criticism of Joseph Stalin’s Communist regime.

Nineteen Eighty-Four banned StudySmarterLikely, George Orwell wouldn't have been surprised by the multiple bans slapped on Nineteen EIghty-Four. Pixabay.

In 2017, school administrators in Jefferson State, Idaho, considered a ban on the grounds of violent and sexual content. China considered an outright ban on Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in 2018 but decided against the ban because it was considered too highbrow and would likely not inspire average citizens to draw parallels between the book and the Chinese state.

Surveillance and individual compliance

The State constantly monitors people at home and work through screens and hidden microphones. People must always be careful of what they say and are forced to comply with Big Brother's regime or face death. This surveillance state is maintained by individual citizens in addition to technology. People are encouraged to surveil their family, friends, and neighbors. It is considered noble to report any anti-Party behavior. In one extreme case, Winston's neighbor is turned in by his children for muttering thoughtcrimes in his sleep.

The posters in London warn citizens that "Big Brother is Watching!" Pixabay.

Totalitarian states depend upon the individual's compliance, and most people in the novel are shown to comply with this system. Only Winston is shown to want any sense of individuality. He wants to think proscribed thoughts, enjoy literature that isn’t state-approved, and love Julia freely. Given the novel's themes of individuality, it's easy to see why Orwell initially titled the early drafts The Last Man in Europe.

After reading these themes, can you draw any parallels with contemporary society? How much of what Orwell warned against has become reality?

The Impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four

It is hard to think of any other book in the 20th century that impacted popular culture and society as much as Nineteen EIghty-Four. In literature, Orwell's dystopian vision has served as inspiration in genres as diverse as sci-fi, drama, comedy, and horror. Nineteen Eighty-Four has served as the template for many depictions of nightmarish futures in television, movies, and animated series in mass media.

Orwell's novel touched upon concerns of government power and the use of technology that remain relevant today. In the debates surrounding surveillance and data rights, activists will evoke Big Brother as an example of the dangers of governments and companies overstepping the bounds of privacy. Political commentators on the left and right use the book and its concepts as analogies to discuss contemporary issues around free speech.

Due to Orwell's ability to meld history with literature, Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a cultural touchstone in everyday conversations. People use Newspeak phrases to poke fun at unnecessary or unclear rules and regulations. When people think or talk about the future, it's the nightmarish society that George Orwell created in Nineteen Eight-Four that they use as their reference point.

Quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” - (Book I, Ch. 1)

Big Brother's slogan teaches people that they can hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously - and believe them both - because the Party says so. One of the critical themes Orwell explores in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the power of language. He wanted to warn his readers about the government's ability to manipulate their meanings in other exert control over the population.

A nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face. - (Book I, ch. 7)

In the grey, drab London of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the population unquestionably follows the teachings of Big Brother. This mass compliance kills any sense of individuality as the people become one giant mass instead of a collection of unique people. Orwell evokes images of Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia to paint a nightmarish version of humanity in this quote.

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."- (Book III, Ch. 3)

During Winston's torture, O'Brien reveals his vision. Individuality will be stomped out, and human nature will be reshaped to fit Big Brother's teachings. While totalitarian regimes often talk about bettering the lives of their citizenry, they are concerned about exercising control and informing compliance.

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."- (Book III, Ch. 6)

The novel's closing line shows a defeated Winston finally complying with the system. Winston is broken by months of torture in the Ministry of Love. Winston has learned to repress his urges for individuality and freedom by winning the victory over himself and has been conditioned to cheer on Big Brother's teachings and propaganda unquestionably.

Nineteen Eighty-Four - Key takeaways

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell's most popular book.
  • It is regarded as the most influential novel of the 20th century.
  • Appalled by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russian regimes, Orwell used Nineteen Eighty-Four to warn people about the dangers of totalitarianism.
  • The book explores the impact of technology and propaganda on individual rights.
  • The Totalitarian state is personified by Big Brother.

Frequently Asked Questions about Nineteen Eighty-Four

The novel deals with the dangers of totalitarianism and how technology can be used to control individuals. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988. It was also banned from schools in Jackson County, Florida, in 1981. 

Orwell wrote the novel in 1948; however, it was not published until 1949. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four has stirred up a number of controversies since its publication. Generally, governments with totalitarian leanings have tried to stop their citizens from reading it as it criticizes government overreach. 

Orwell's message with Nineteen EIghty-Four was a warning against the dangers of a totalitarian form of government. AFter the end of WWII, Orwell was scared that such governments would rise again throughout the world.

Final Nineteen Eighty-Four Quiz

Question

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston works in the Ministry of ______. 

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Answer

Truth

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Question

What is Winston's job at the Ministry of Truth? 

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Answer

He erases and rewrites history. 

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Question

Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in the year _________. 


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Answer

1949

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Question

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian state is personified by which figurehead?

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Answer

Big Brother

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Question

George Orwell used Nineteen Eighty-Four to illustrate the dangers of pacificism.

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Answer

False

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Question

Which two totalitarian leaders served as inspiration for Big Brother? 

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Answer

Hitler and Stalin

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Question

The title Nineteen Eighty-Four is sometimes stylized as _______. 


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Answer

1984

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Question

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, what is the name of the torture room where Winston faces his worst fear?

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Answer

Room 101

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Question

Thinking thoughts against Big Brother is known as ______.

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Answer

Thoughtcrime

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Question

During the drafting process, George Orwell's manuscript for Nineteen Eighty-Four was titled __________. 

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Answer

The Last Man in Europe

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Question

The key warning from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that society needs more surveillance.

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Answer

False

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Question

Winston Smith is named after which British leader? 

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Answer

Winston Churchill

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Question

According to Goldstein's book, hope lies with which social class? 

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Answer

The Proletariat 

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Question

Nineteen Eighty-Four was widely banned in the USA for 40 years after its publication.


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Answer

False

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Question

Winston Smith is a member of which class group? 

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Answer

Outer Party

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