The term “unperson” is broadly used today to refer to someone who has done something to offend a government and has been “disappeared” or wiped from existence. Any record of this person is erased. This will include their online presence, possessions, and perhaps even family members. For someone to know or talk about an “unperson,” they are putting themselves in danger.
Such is also the case in 1984. It’s also possible that the Party decides to change the records of this person, making them into someone that they never were. This is in an effort to ensure that the Party never gets anything wrong (at least in the eyes of the public).
An unperson someone whose existence has been vaporized by the Party. No trace of their life remains.
When working in his job at the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth, Smith is tasked with the job of changing public records. He’s considering the phenomena of the “unperson” and notes. See this quote from 1984:
That was to be expected, since it was unusual for political offenders to be put on trial or even publicly denounced. The great purges involving thousands of people, with public trials of traitors and thought-criminals who made abject confession of their crimes and were afterwards executed, were special show-pieces not occurring oftener than once in a couple of years. More commonly, people who had incurred the displeasure of the Party simply disappeared and were never heard of again. One never had the smallest clue as to what had happened to them. In some cases they might not even be dead. Perhaps thirty people personally known to Winston, not counting his parents, had disappeared at one time or another.
This casual reference to his parents, and the fact that friends and relations have disappeared over the years, is a part of life in Oceania. He can’t get upset or seek these people out as, in the eyes of the party, they never existed. If he was caught, he’d become an unperson too.
It’s not always the case that someone who disappeared was dead. Winston notes:
Sometimes they were released and allowed to remain at liberty for as much as a year or two years before being executed. Very occasionally some person whom you had believed dead long since would make a ghostly reappearance at some public trial where he would implicate hundreds of others by his testimony before vanishing, this time for ever. Withers, however, was already an UNPERSON. He did not exist: he had never existed.
This is a good example of doublethink, explored in the first example below.
Examples of Unperson in 1984
Unperson and Doublethink
The idea of an “unperson” is a great example of how doublethink is the most effective. Despite having known someone, perhaps even lived near them, and seen them on a regular basis, if the Party takes them away and erases them from existence, “you” will forget them too. With doublethink, one knows something and doesn’t know it at the same time. You would know that person had existed but, due to the Party propaganda, you would also have no memory of them. Or, you might remember them in an entirely different light, as a traitor or rebel.
Winston’s Job at the Record Department
The first mention of the word “unperson” is on page forty-nine of 1984. It is within a message Winston Smith receives in his role at the Ministry of Truth. It reads:
times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling
Here, the word “unpersons” informs Wonston that he’s to erase the records of someone from the twelfth of March, 1983. In English, the message reads:
The reporting of Big Brother’s Order for the Day in ‘The Times’ of December 3rd 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory and makes references to non-existent persons. Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing.
This “order of the day” had been devoted to praising the work of an organization, FFCC. But, a specific Party member mentioned in the article had fallen out of the graces of the Party. The narrator notes:
One could assume that Withers and his associates were now in disgrace, but there had been no report of the matter in the Press or on the telescreen.
This is not Winston’s first time encountering disappearing people. As noted above, he stated that he’s known around thirty people who have “disappeared at one time or another,” not counting his own parents.
Syme is an acquaintance of Winston’s who also works at the Ministry of Truth. It’s his job to work on the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary. Part way through the novel, O’Brien reveals that Syme has disappeared. Winston understands his meaning and notes:
Again Winston’s heart stirred painfully. It was inconceivable that this was anything other than a reference to Syme. But Syme was not only dead, he was abolished, an unperson. Any identifiable reference to him would have been mortally dangerous. O’Brien’s remark must obviously have been intended as a signal, a codeword. By sharing a small act of thoughtcrime he had turned the two of them into accomplices.
Who is an unperson in 1984?
An unperson is someone who has been disappeared. They were likely taken to the Ministry of Love and killed. All record of their existence is erased.
What does Doubleplusungood mean?
“Doubleplusgood” is a Newspeak word that suggests that something is very good, excellent, or fantastic. It is an example of a word that’s used to replace many words in the English vocabulary.
What is the meaning of “ungood?”
“Ungood” means “bad” in 1984. When the prefix “un” is placed in front of anything else, that means that the thing is negated, or is the opposite, of what it was. For example, “unperson.”
Related Terms in 1984
- INGSOC: newspeak for English Socialism, the governing system used throughout Oceania.
- Doublethink: cognitive dissonce. Or the act of thinking two contradictory things at once. Or believing that the two things are true.
- Ministry of Love: responsible for brainwashing the citizens of Oceania.
- Ministry of Truth: the ministry responsible for changing history to suit the Party.
- Thought Police: the group responsible for arresting those charged with thoughtcrime.
- Room 101: a room to which Winston Smith, and others, are taken when they are within the Ministry of Love. It contains everyone’s worst fears. For Smith, this is rats.
- Newspeak: the invented language that shortens words and removes others entirely from the English language.