It is a dystopian novel that tells the story of Winston Smith and warns of the dangers of a totalitarian government that rules through fear, surveillance, propaganda, and brainwashing.
‘Spoiler-Free’ 1984 Summary
1984 by George Orwell opens in April of 1984 in a society that has been ravaged by war and rebuilt under a new government. The novel follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine-year-old man and a mid-level member of the ruling party of Oceania. The Party is totalitarian and demands the allegiance and adoration of its citizens. At the center of the Party is a mysterious figurehead who goes by the name of Big Brother. He is never seen, but is omnipresent, watching citizens from their TVs, posters, and money.
Winston hates his job with the Ministry of Truth and the Party that controls him. He spends time in districts of the city in which members of the party aren’t supposed to travel and writes in a diary he has to hide from his television (telescreen). There is surveillance everywhere and the Thought Police arrest and make people vanish every day.
Winston meets and interacts with devoted members of the party, others who feel the same as he does, and those in-between. These include Syme, Julia, Mr. Charrington, Jim Parsons, and O’Brien. His interest in the past and desire to find a way to fight back against the party lead him down a dangerous path that takes him to the dark interior of the Party system.
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
1984 by George Orwell opens in April of 1984. After vaguely described disastrous wars and economic collapses, the world has been divided up into continent-spanning superpowers. The novel focuses on Airstrip One, part of Oceania. The totalitarian Party rules with “Ingsoc”, a shortening of English Socialism. They do not tolerate opposition in any form, even negative thoughts about the Party are a crime (Thought Crime). At the center of the Party is a mysterious figurehead who goes by the name of Big Brother. He is never seen, but is omnipresent, watching citizens from their TVs, posters, and money. Big Brother is a source of fear, but also adoration. He is, as the posters state, always watching. This is a reference to the enormous amount of surveillance the party and the Thought Police utilize on every street, in every building, and in every room.
The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party. He has a job in the Ministry of Truth that places him at the level of an office worker. Winston is responsible for rewriting history by destroying and rewriting newspaper articles. Often this means erasing from the record those who have been disappeared by the Party (become “unpersons”) or rearranging events in order to suit a new narrative promoted by the state. Winston hates the Party and is miserable in his everyday life.
Winston is seen at the beginning of the novel with a diary he bought from Mr. Charrington, the owner of a secondhand shop. He has to hide the book whenever he writes in it so that the television (telescreen) can’t see it. Winston meets Julia at the Ministry of Truth and initially expects that she’s spying on him. Later, after handing him a note confessing her love for him, Julia and Winston draw close to one another. This is a serious act of treason against the party as all relationships are supposed to be conducted only for the creation of children. Julia also dislikes the party, but she’s more interested in escaping than becoming part of a revolution.
Winston also speaks with Syme, someone who is working on the creation of the newest “Newspeak” dictionary and is responsible for erasing words from the English language. He, Winston thinks, is too smart and is, in the end, a danger to himself.
Julia and Winston meet up for the first time in a room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. There, Winston tells Julia about his relationship, or lack thereof, with his wife Katharine.
Over the following days, Winston notices that Syme has disappeared as Winston predicted. Winston is also approached by O’Brien, his supervisor and someone who Winston thinks is a member of the group working to overthrow the Party (The Brotherhood). O’Brien shares a book with Winston, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein is one of the Party’s main enemies and the leader of a rebellion against the state. The book informs Julia and Winston about how the Party works. It inspires and confirms to Winston that the Party can be defeated if the “proles” or lower class, rise up.
Just when Winston is starting to think that he’s going to be able to join the fight against the Party, it is revealed that Mr. Charrington is a member of the Thought Police. He turned in Winston and Julia who are both captured and taken to the Ministry of Love. There, Winston comes into contact with other characters from the novel who have all been arrested for various reasons. O’Brien enters into the scene, revealing that he too was an agent of the state. The previous months of gaining Winston’s trust were nothing more than an elaborate way of ensnaring him.
Winston is trapped in the Ministry of Truth for a number of months. Over this period his mind is rearranged through torture and humiliation. He’s forced to confront his deepest fear in Room 101. For Winston, this means rats. It proves to be the thing that makes Winston betray Julia.
Later, after he has been successfully brainwashed, he is released. Winston and Julia, who was also tortured, meet again in a park but the two longer have any interest in one another. The novel concludes with Winston celebrating the reported victory over Eurasia and reveling in his newfound love for the Party.