1984 by George Orwell (1903-1950)
Micro-summary: Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell’s’ terrific and terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is a slave to a tyrannical regime under a constant lockdown.
“More relevant to today than almost any other book that you can think of.” Jo Brand, an English comedian, writer, presenter and actress
“Right up there among my favourite books … I read it again and again.” Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale
Published 70 years ago, this seminal classic has every generation captivated, especially in the times of any political, social and global turmoil. Big Brother’s long shadows and the vital defence of truth as well as newspeak, doublethink and thought police – refresh your memory of the past and future with the summary of 1984 by George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the adjective ‘Orwellian’, connoting things such as official government deception and propaganda, secret surveillance, censorship, lockdown or soft martial law, wartime mythology and nostalgia, fact-free leadership, harmful narratives, myths and frames of social control, creative reading and misreadings, repurposing forces of repression for apparent liberation, hijacking and politicising any crisis and manipulation of statistics by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.
Type of work Futuristic, cautionary novel
Setting London, in the mythical country of Oceania; 1984 (in the future)
Principal characters Winston Smith, a rebel against society, Julia, his lover, Mr Charrington, an elderly antique shop owner, O’Brien, the only member of the Inner Party Winston trusts
As Winston Smith entered his apartment building, he passed a familiar poster. “It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.” Then Winston opened the door to his flat to be greeted by a voice on his “telescreen” – a device he could dim, but never shut off completely. Telescreens broadcasted government propaganda and served as the eyes and ears of the Thought Police, who scrutinized everyone for any possible deviation from acceptable thought or action.
In the flat was a tiny alcove just out of sight from the telescreen’s vision. Winston sat down to write in his diary, an act that was not officially illegal, “but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death. …” While he sat writing, a recent memory stirred in his mind; that day’s “Two Minutes Hate,” a government-sponsored work break in which every worker at the Ministry of Truth was required to participate, had consisted of an interlude when everyone raged and screamed as the telescreen alternately flashed images of enemy Eurasian soldiers and Golstein, an abhorred traitor. That morning, Winston had noticed a “bold-looking girl of about twenty-six” who worked in the Fiction Department. This particular girl – wearing the bright scarlet sash of the official anti-sex league – gave him “the impression of being more dangerous than most,” and Winston had the unnerving feeling that she was watching him.
A few days later, Winston walked through the working-class “prole” neighborhood to the antique shop where he had bought his diary. Though class barriers stood tensely in place throughout Oceania, Mr Charrington, the shop owner, welcomed him and invited him upstairs to see other items. There wasn’t much there, but Winston liked the old-fashioned room; it didn’t even have a telescreen.
When Winston again slipped out onto the street, he passed the dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department. Now he was sure she was an informant.
Back at work, as Winston walked toward the lavatory, the girl reappeared in the hall. Then, just a few feet in front of him, she stumbled and fell. When he offered his hand to help her up, she slipped him a folded scrap of paper. Shaken, Winston decided to open the paper later at the cubicle where he rewrote old newspaper articles, deleting any reference to persons who had deviated from orthodoxy (“Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”).
Back at his desk, Winston unfolded the message and read: “I love you.” Now he was intrigued – and terrified. Like writing in a diary, an affair between party members was “legal” but punishable by death.
Winston and the girl were finally able to arrange a rendezvous in the country. But even there, there was always the possibility of concealed microphones. So, after meeting at the selected spot, the pair walked on in silence until they found a remote, heavily forested area. Winston didn’t even yet know the girl’s name: “I’m thirty-nine years old,” he began. “I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. …” The girl replied, “I couldn’t care less.” She shared some black-market chocolate with him, and then they made love.
Afterwards, while the girl slept, Winston thought about what they had done. “You could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”
Winston now saw the girl – Julia – whenever he could. She explained her survival philosophy: “I always carry one end of a banner in the processions. I always look cheerful and I never shirk anything. Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.” For their clandestine meetings, Winston hit upon the idea of renting Mr Charrington’s room above the antique shop. However, although the room offered them privacy, “both of them knew it was lunacy”; in the end, they would be caught. Occasionally the lovers “talked of engaging in active rebellion against the Party, but with no notion of how to take the first step.” They considered joining a mysterious subversive group called the “Brotherhood,” not really knowing if this legendary underground cabal even existed.
Besides Julia, there was one person Winston felt he could trust. For months a “strange intimacy” had been ripening between himself and an Inner Party member named O’Brien, who worked at the Ministry of Truth. No words had passed between them; only glances that seemed to reflect the same brooding rebel spirit in both men. Then one day O’Brien spoke up and asked Winston his opinion of the revised “Newspeak” dictionary. Winston responded that he hadn’t seen it yet. O’Brien invited him to pick up a copy at his house later that week.
When Winston and Julia arrived at O’Brien’s spacious home, their host surprised them by instructing his servant to turn off the telescreen – one of many privileges extended to Inner Party members. Now that they would not be overheard, Winston admitted why they had really come: “We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy … working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join… We are enemies of the Party.” O’Brien nodded his head and lifted his glass. “To Emmanuel Goldstein,” he intoned, referring to the reputed leader of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood existed, then! But before they could join, O’Brien had to know the extent of their commitment. When both Winston and Julia conceded that they would do anything to weaken the Party’s power, he gave them a copy of Goldstein’s book, the “Bible” of the Brotherhood.
The next week was “Hate Week” at the Ministry of Truth – seven hectic days devoted to stirring up hatred against the nation of Eurasia, Oceania’s current enemy at arms. Unfortunately, on the sixth day of Hate Week, Oceania also declared war against Eastasia. This meant that Winston, already exhausted, had to go back and re-alter news articles to reflect the change in enemies. Finally though, he and Julia were able to sneak away to Charrington’s shop to read Goldstein’s treatise. It explained how the Party used the threat of outside aggression to control the people, diverting their frustrations away from pandemic governmental corruption and food shortages.
Suddenly an “iron voice” reverberated from behind a picture in the room. “Remain exactly where you are,” the voice commanded. “Make no movement until you are ordered.” Then Thought Police burst in, with Mr Charrington behind them, shouting orders. The two were taken away in separate vehicles.
Standing alone in a tiny cell in the Ministry of Love, Winston observed as other prisoners were brought in, some badly beaten and pleading not to be exiled to “Room 101” – the room containing “the most horrible thing in the world.” One man raved: “… I’ve got a wife and three children. …You can take the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, [but] not room 101!”
Winston had seen nothing of Julia, but after a while, O’Brien came to Winston’s cell. “They got you too!” Winston cried.
“They got me a long time ago,” O’Brien answered back with “mild, almost regretful irony.” As it turned out, O’Brien was to be Winston’s interrogator, charged with the task of making Winston “love Big Brother.”
For weeks Winston was beaten, starved, and deprived of sleep. He was hooked to a machine designed to teach him a new mode of thinking. O’Brien, acting as “teacher,” would inflict greater and greater levels of pain on Winston, and then as “savior” would benevolently release the lever. When O’Brien held up four fingers and asked how many there were, Winston replied four. The needle on the machine’s dial shot up, as frightening shocks vibrated through his limbs and joints. Then Winston answered five fingers, but O’Brien recognized the lie and delivered even greater pain. “You are a slow learner,” he gently murmured.
“How can I help it?” Winston blubbered. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five,” countered O’Brien. “Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane. … You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him. …” Then he shrieked, “Room 101!”
“Can you think of a single degradation that has not happened to you?” O’Brien asked as they reached their chilling destination. Winston could only answer, “I have not betrayed Julia …”
In Room 101 Winston was made to confront his personal “most horrible thing in the world” – a cage full of hungry rats. The moment that O’Brien reached to lift the gate of the cage, Winston’s “bowels seemed to turn to water,” and suddenly he knew that there was one and only one way to save himself: “he must interpose another human being … between himself and the rats.”
“Do it to Julia!” he screamed frantically. “Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her …”
Released from the Ministry of Love, Winston spent his time in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, drinking an endless supply of “Victory Gin” and waiting for the day when “they” put a gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger. He saw Julia on occasion, but there was really nothing left to say between them. A familiar and once sinister refrain from prison now echoed in them both: “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.”
And so, “everything was all right, the struggle was finished. [Winston] had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Written in 1948 and published the year following, 1984 (the year-numbers were transposed) has provoked discussion and controversy ever since. Though a world war had just been fought to squelch the tyranny of a Totalitarian regime, Orwell warned that the world was yet heading towards just such a political system. He found it especially ironic that the champions of thought should become the chief instruments of its suppression.
Orwell’s novel was intended as an urgent warning that political decisions in the near future could create a brutally stifled society of “Newspeak” (where words are so abstracted from events and actions that they take on their exact opposite meaning) and “Doublethink” (the power to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously). “Big Brother” and “Room 101” – and many other graphic coinages from its pages – remain as standard references in our language, years after 1984 has come and gone, an indication of the book’s profound social influence.
Top quotes from 1984 by George Orwell
“Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom.”
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings!”
“…the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war.”
“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
“We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police there is no other way.”
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
“Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”
“Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”