Summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four

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Nineteen Eighty-Four book summary

Literary Classic

  • Dystopian fiction
  • Postmodernism

What It’s About

Truth and Meaning

In the modern world, “worker empowerment” can mean being fired from a job, “collateral damage” can mean war that kills innocent people and “externalities” can mean making someone else clean up the mess. English novelist George Orwell (1903–1950) would have recognized and condemned such uses of language to misdirect, confuse and misinform. Just as the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four manipulates language to manipulate thought and changes history to change reality, it engages in the same tricks that many current politicians and polemicists use to advance their careers as they warp ordinary people’s perceptions of the world. Orwell, also the author of Animal Farm, was a tireless advocate of simple and clear language. He hoped that such clarity would aid public discourse and reveal the misdeeds of scoundrels. More than half a century after the publication of his seminal work, publicists, demagogues, spin doctors, advertisers and journalists have turned the tools of Orwell’s dystopia into the background noise of our modern lives.

Take-Aways

  • George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts one of the most famous dystopias in world literature.
  • Winston Smith rebels against the totalitarian rule of the Oceania state. He starts a secret love affair and joins a resistance movement but realizes too late that the omnipotent Party has been monitoring his every step. Torture reduces him to a shell of a man and a loyal adherent of the Party.
  • Completed in 1948, the novel alludes to the historic development of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
  • Since the British Left increasingly sympathized with Soviet-style socialism, Orwell feared the spreading of totalitarian thinking.
  • The novel denounces both the imperialism and the social evils that Orwell found in England, his home country.
  • Orwell’s vision of the future looks both fantastic and realistic, so readers can recognize elements of their own lives in it.
  • Language as an instrument of manipulation is a central theme.
  • Shortly after its publication, the book became a worldwide success.
  • To this day, it shapes everyday language (“Big Brother is watching you”), pop culture, and public awareness of governmental and corporate surveillance.
  • “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Summary

Total Surveillance

It’s April 4, 1984. Or maybe it’s not? Winston Smith lost track of time long ago, and his memories seem have been deceptive ever since Ingsoc, that is, English Socialism, began to reign in Oceania. All of London, the capital of Oceania’s third most populous province, is plastered with posters of Big Brother. The streets are under constant surveillance; children spy on their parents. You can’t escape the Party’s control even in your own home, thanks to the telescreen, a device that simultaneously blasts out propaganda and watches inhabitants 24/7.

“WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (Party slogans)

The Party dominates its subjects’ memories with the help of reality control and doublethink techniques. Yet 39-year-old Winston’s mind isn’t yet entirely remote-controlled. From time to time, he experiences brief memory spells of better times, when his parents and sister, whom the Party vaporized, were still alive. Even if he has forgotten a lot, Winston knows one thing for sure: He must leave testimony for posterity. He writes a journal in the one corner of his flat that is out of view of the telescreen. While he’s writing, he thinks about a man named O’Brien, a powerful member of the Inner Party – a leader whom he believes is on his side.

Lies and Propaganda

Winston works at Minitrue, the Ministry of Truth, which deals with news, entertainment, education and the arts. He is responsible for rectifying historical records to adapt them to the Party’s present view. He tirelessly rewrites older newspaper articles and books, corrects statistics and economic forecasts, and deletes the names of vaporized individuals, thereby reinventing history. After the corrections, he throws the old documents into the memory hole, which burns and scrubs them from human recounting forever. This act of extinction should equally be forgotten, but apparently that doesn’t always succeed: Toward the end of the 1960s, for example, the Party purged the original leaders of the Revolution. Three of them, Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, confessed and faced execution. About five years later, Winston happened to come across an old newspaper article that described their exoneration; at the time of the purported treason they had, in fact, been somewhere entirely different. This was proof that the confessions were lies obtained under torture. Winston destroyed the explosive document that could have undermined the Party’s power, yet the incident continues to live in his memory.

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”

Winston has a meager lunch with his colleague Syme in the ministry’s rundown canteen. Syme is responsible for putting the finishing touches on the official language, Newspeak. The Party eradicates words by the thousands and cuts language down to the bone. For instance, the Party replaced the word “bad” with “ungood” and the word “excellent” with “plusgood.” Since people will no longer have words to express different shades of meaning, the corresponding shades of thinking should also disappear, making thoughtcrime impossible. Syme explains that the Ministry will entirely rewrite literature and abolish the term “freedom,” thereby paving the way for orthodoxy to replace thought. He accuses Winston of being stuck in Oldspeak and of fatally clinging to the old way of thinking.

Life in Oceania

Officially Oceania is a land of plenty, yet even everyday items like razor blades are in short supply. In stark contrast to the propaganda ideal of the perfect human being, Party members are mainly short and ugly. They wear overalls and subsist on undefinable, slimy stews and synthetic meat. Their houses are dirty and falling to pieces, their furniture is rickety, cigarettes and chocolate arrive by way of rationing, and only synthetic gin that numbs the senses flows freely. Everyday life – starting with morning exercises called the “physical jerk” and ending with community evenings – is strictly regulated. Every day, the telescreen broadcasts the “Two Minutes Hate” program, which everyone must listen to. The Hate is designed to incite the population against Emmanuel Goldstein, once a revolutionary hero turned leader of the underground organization “the Brotherhood” and of Eurasia, the current enemy country. The fact that Eurasia had been an ally in their fight against Eastasia, was excised from general consciousness, though Winston retains a vague memory of it. For Party members, the only permitted entertainments are show trials and public executions. Sex among comrades, even inside marriage, is frowned upon, allowed just for reproductive purposes. Though sex with proletariat (or, prole) prostitutes is officially outlawed, the Party tacitly tolerates it. The women provide an occasional outlet for Party members to indulge their sexual instincts.

In Search of the Past

Winston places his only hope in the underclasses, the proles – who, after all, make up 85% of the population. The Party claims to have liberated them from poverty and capitalist bondage. In truth, they are no better off than before the revolution. They distract themselves from their hard, physical labor with the Lottery, movies, football and beer. To see their lives with his own eyes, he wanders into one of their neighborhoods. Hustle and bustle fills their streets and pubs, even if the people appear somewhat dulled. Yet contrary to the Party members, they don’t seem inwardly hardened and remain human. He buys a dazzling glass paperweight from the junk-shop owner Mr. Charrington – a forbidden act in a state seeking to blot out all that is old and beautiful. The dealer shows Winston a room with antique furniture and pictures that elicit in him a painful longing for the past. On an old steel engraving, he spots the image of a church that is a mere ruin now. All churches, if they survived at all, have other uses. But Mr. Charrington recites an old nursery rhyme about the bells of London churches, and now Winston can’t get it out of his mind. He has the illusion of hearing the bells for real. Out on the street, he spots a girl from his Ministry’s Fiction Department; he feels that she has been watching him for a good while now. There’s no doubt in his mind: She must be an agent of the Thought Police, spying on him.

Forbidden Love

One day, the girl secretly slips a piece of paper to him with the words “I love you” written on it. Risking their lives, they meet in the woods. Beyond the reach of microphones and telescreens the girl – Julia – admits to having read in Winston’s face that he is against the Party. He appreciates her confession that she’s slept with hundreds of Party members, and enjoyed it to boot, since he hates nothing more than purity and virtue. He is convinced that the animal spirit will ultimately undermine the Party’s power. For him, sleeping with Julia is an act of political resistance.

“You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?” (Syme to Winston)

Slowly, Winston gets to know Julia better. She is 26 years old, hates the Party and breaks its rules, yet like many young people who have never known anything better, she has no objections of principle to its doctrines. She’s interested in neither the future nor the past and only wants to stay alive and enjoy a carefree life in the moment. At some point, Winston feels not only lust but also deep tenderness for her. To be with her undisturbed, he rents the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. Together they lie in bed, dozing and listening to the sounds from outside; their privacy, once taken for granted, is now a crime. Startled by a rat that pokes up its nose through a hole, Winston confesses to Julia that he fears nothing more than those awful vermin.

The Realization of Truth

At the height of Hate Week, on the sixth day when everybody has been whipped up to a frenzy, the demonstrators against Eurasia suddenly learn that the previous ally Eastasia is now their enemy, while Eurasia has become an ally. The masses continue their demonstration as if nothing had happened, but abruptly change the focus of their hate. The employees at Minitrue now have a huge task ahead of them. All the articles, history books, pamphlets and posters of the past need correcting, and fast. From now on, history will report that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia; Eurasia has always been an ally. Like his colleagues, Winston works nonstop to the point of complete exhaustion, in order to change all records of the past. Meanwhile party leader O’Brien has contacted Winston and recruited him and Julia for the Brotherhood. The members of the opposition group don’t know one another, and they fight for an idea whose realization is still a long way off.

“He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.” (about Winston)

In their hideout above the shop, Winston reads to Julia from a book that O’Brien gave him. According to its author, Goldstein, humanity has always been divided into high, middle and low groups. History is an eternal cycle of revolutions. As soon as one class is in power, another will displace it by force. New tyrannies continually establish themselves under the banner of liberty and equality. Starting in 1900, new socialist variants began to officially abandon that goal. Instead, they pursued the conscious objective of making unfreedom and inequality permanent so that the new upper classes could maintain their position forever. In detail, Goldstein describes the oligarchy of the ruling Party, which manages to stay in power through constant terror and brainwashing. None of this is news to Winston. Still, reading about it makes him happy. Finally, he knows that there is a truth and that he isn’t crazy. One day, he believes, the proles will topple the existing order and regenerate the world; untouched by lies and hatred, they have kept their hearts and stayed human. At the moment of this realization, the police arrest Winston and Julia. Old Charrington, a spy of the Thought Police, betrayed them.

Two and Two Make Five

In the prison cell of the dreaded Ministry of Love, Winston’s thoughts relentlessly circle around the same questions: When will he finally get something to eat? What happened to Julia? Will O’Brien help him? He sees some colleagues among the tortured and starving people whom the guards regularly bring into and take out of his cell. Winston has no idea how long he’s already been tortured, having lost any sense of time amid rooms that are brightly lit day and night. Amid the brutal kicks and punches, he periodically loses consciousness and, after many interminable, agonizing interrogations, he signs what they ask him to confess and admits to crimes he never committed. Winston’s worst fears that O’Brien, the Inner Party boss, could be behind all this are finally confirmed: He himself administers Winston’s electroshocks, gently explaining that Winston surely suffers from mental derangement and a memory disorder. The past exists nowhere except in the records of it. And since the Party controls them, it has complete power over the past. O’Brien rejects Winston’s objection that the Party can’t control memory. Reality, he says, is nothing objective at all, but exists only in the human mind – not in that of the individual, who can be wrong, but in that of the Party, whose collective mind is immortal. He tells Winston that he must learn self-denial and humility to regain his sanity. O’Brien torments Winston with electroshocks until he acknowledges sincerely that two and two make five – if the Party says so.

Brainwashing

Despite all the torment, Winston admires O’Brien, who turns out to be the true author of Goldstein’s book, and sees through everything yet truly believes in the Party’s lies. According to the Party, the laws of Nature are fiction, the sun revolves around the Earth, and even gravity and matter are subject to the omnipotent Party. Contrary to the old Utopians, it isn’t interested in the common good but solely in maintaining power for its own sake. Power, O’Brien continues, means being able to control and crush the human mind and re-create it at your own discretion. The goal is to destroy all human relationships and create a world dominated by hatred and cruelty. O’Brien forces Winston to look at his naked, emaciated and battered body in the mirror and to acknowledge that he is nothing but a filthy human wreck.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Once he’s nursed back to life, Winston starts to practice thinking in doublethink. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia; the laws of Nature are nonsense; Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford were guilty; and a newspaper clipping proving the opposite never existed. Everything is quite simple; why did he even rebel against it? His mind is now working to O’Brien’s satisfaction, yet deep inside Winston’s love for Julia is still alive. But his tormentor wants him to love Big Brother and no one else, so O’Brien straps a cage of rats onto Winston’s face, with only a wired door separating him from the beasts. At any moment, O’Brien can press the lever to open the door and unleash the starving rats onto his victim. So far Winston has not betrayed Julia, not even in moments of unbearable agony, but now he surrenders: In raw panic, he screams that O’Brien should do to her what he is threatening to do to Winston. His inner self burns away, flamed out and forever extinguished. O’Brien releases him from the rats into the world as an ashen, emotionless, human shell, cured from the madness of independent thought, loyally drinking himself to death, waiting forever for the ominous bullet from behind.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Orwell divides Nineteen Eighty-Four into three sections, the last of which takes place almost entirely in prison and torture chambers. Two longer treatises – written in the style of scientific papers – clearly stand out from the main plot: One is the book about the historic necessity of oligarchic power structures, supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein. The other is the appendix about the principles of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. Orwell uses clear and lucid prose, and his journalistic style makes the novel accessible and gripping. However, the matter-of-fact, emotionless way in which the third-person narrator describes Winston’s drab surroundings, the horrific condition of the proles and finally Winston’s self-destruction makes it all the more eerie to the reader, because Orwell doesn’t allow an outlet for rage or compassion. The observer’s flat voice also transmits the paranoia that comes from being deprived of all human rights: first and foremost, the right to privacy.

Interpretation

  • This dystopian vision uses a combination of fantastic and realistic elements: The future doesn’t take place in an entirely different, alienated world, but only a few steps away from the present.
  • Language as an instrument of manipulation is a major theme: Propaganda slogans are ubiquitous, and Winston’s fight against the total surveillance state is also a fight against its language. Individual freedom ultimately depends on the freedom of language. Old songs and nursery rhymes are a recurring theme, symbolizing Winston’s longing for a better past.
  • Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a plea against any and all kinds of totalitarianism – whether fascist or socialist. The Stalinist Soviet Union, however, is clearly the model for Oceania. Big Brother with his thick moustache and piercing gaze has the features of Stalin, while the former revolutionary hero and apostate Emmanuel Goldstein shows a noticeable likeness to Leo Trotsky.
  • Soon after the novel was published, conservatives tried to claim it for themselves and use it as a club against socialism – a move that Orwell vehemently rejected. He stressed that every line he had put on paper since 1936 had been directly or indirectly written against totalitarianism and in favor of democratic socialism.
  • Orwell’s state of Oceania also has the characteristics of a theocracy: Big Brother, who can read everybody’s mind and demands unconditional love, possesses divine omnipotence. The Party expects its members to recite the creed that two and two make five, defying natural laws as well as reason.
  • The nature of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a satirical work that is meant to criticize its own time emerges in Orwell’s exaggeration of imperial tendencies, social grievances and the impoverishment of workers, which he observed in England and other European countries.
  • The title Nineteen Eighty-Four and therefore the timing of the novel’s plot probably doesn’t have a deeper meaning but rather reflect an inversion of 1948, the year Orwell completed the parable. 
  • Psychoanalysts tend to regard Winston’s fight against totalitarian rule as a child’s resistance to parental control. According to this interpretation, Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, among other reasons, to work through the trauma of his schooling in an authoritarian boarding school, where mindless memorizing and draconian corporal punishment were the rule.

Historical Background

Socialism During Orwell’s Era

Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924 marked the start of the power struggles between Josef Stalin and Leo Trotsky in the Soviet Union. Through control of the party bureaucracy, Stalin managed to improve his own position within the Politburo and the party. Trotsky, who advocated democratization of the party from within, had to resign his ministerial post and flee into exile. The Soviet Union’s secret police murdered him in Mexico in 1940. Under Stalin’s autocratic rule in the 1930s, Russia turned into a totalitarian state that punished any form of opposition with torture, imprisonment and death. The dictator used his unlimited powers to implement forced collectivization in agriculture and to push a rigorous industrialization policy geared toward unrealistically ambitious five-year plans. Between 1936 and 1938, in a great purge that included show trials and public executions, Stalin annihilated the last former comrades of the Bolshevik Revolution. During World War II, the Soviet Union made a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, yet when the Germans attacked Russia in 1941, the former ally turned into an enemy.

Development

George Orwell always stood up for socialism and the interests of workers. However, he had his reservations about the left wing of the British Labour Party, which sympathized with Soviet-style Marxism. As a follower of democratic socialism, Orwell was highly suspicious of Leninism and Stalinism. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he volunteered to fight with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), an independent communist militia on the side of the republic and against General Franco’s fascist coup.

Orwell admired his Spanish fellow combatants who held their front-line positions for more than 100 days. They evinced a revolutionary discipline, along with a sense of social equality. Frustrated by the stalled front line, Orwell considered joining the Stalinist International Brigades while on leave in Barcelona, but the Stalinists launched an attack on the POUM. Standing by his comrades, Orwell had to flee Barcelona and Spain after the Stalinists defeated and outlawed POUM. These experiences confirmed his suspicions of Stalin and the Soviet Union. But once he was back in London, he realized to his horror that the English Left was uncritically accepting the Soviet version of the story – falsely claiming that Franco was funding Spanish anarchists and syndicalists. To expose these lies as Russian propaganda, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia in 1938. After his left-wing socialist publishing house rejected the manuscript, he found a new publisher in Frederic Warburg.

For the rest of his life, Orwell dedicated himself fully to the literary fight against Bolshevism. After writing the parable Animal Farm in 1944, Orwell, who was suffering from tuberculosis, retired to a remote house on the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. He subsisted without electricity or running water. Severely ill and feverish, he wrote most of this novel lying in bed. He had originally intended to call his final work The Last Man in Europe, but at Warburg’s suggestion, he changed it to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Reviews and Legacy

Right after its publication in June 1949, the novel spread like wildfire throughout the English-speaking world. It has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Aside from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four is the best-known and most widely quoted dystopian novel of all time. Its vocabulary has become an integral part of everyday language: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, and 2 + 2 = 5 are commonly used neologisms and concepts in English. “Orwellian” has turned into shorthand for totalitarian rules and the infringement of privacy rights. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the communist countries of Eastern Europe banned this book.

Its literary legacy includes works like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Michael Anderson made Nineteen Eighty-Four into a film in 1956, and Michael Radford filmed it again in 1984, the “Orwell year.” British director Terry Gilliam took inspiration from the novel in his creation of Brazil, a comedic reimagining of the story in a world dominated by consumerism and terrorism.

Orwell’s idea of total surveillance has become a bizarre pop culture phenomenon with the controversial, yet hugely successful, docu-soap Big Brother. The BBC program Room 101 took a humorous approach when it asked panelists to consign objectionable ideas and experiences in the mythical location, which Orwell originally named after a BBC meeting room he dreaded attending.

Organizations like the Britain-based Big Brother Watch, founded in 2009 to expose the nature of modern surveillance, outline and challenge the policies that make such organizations necessary. They aim to show how topical this classic remains. With the growth of mobile phones and Internet tracking technologies, concerns about daily privacy and freedom have become ubiquitous. In 2013, Edward Snowden, who revealed the US government’s mass surveillance program, cited Nineteen Eighty-Four in his Alternative Christmas Message to the people of the United States and the United Kingdom. He pointed out that current technologies far exceed the tools of security services Orwell describes in the novel. Snowden also expressed his view that children today are growing up without the experience of privacy and anonymity.

About the Author

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, British India, on June 25, 1903. He attended the elite English boarding schools Eastbourne and Eton. He later undertook training to become a police officer, like his father and grandfather, and joined the colonial service, where he worked for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (now Myanmar). To protest the oppressive colonial rule, he quit the service in 1927 and subsequently struggled to make do in London and Paris, working as a dishwasher, bookseller’s assistant, teacher and journalist. In 1933, he published Down and Out in Paris and London, his autobiographic account of this phase of his life. In 1936, Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy and traveled to Barcelona to join the Spanish Civil War. He fought at the front against Francisco Franco’s fascists, returning to England wounded and disillusioned in the summer of 1937. In 1944, Orwell completed the dystopian novel Animal Farm. It wasn’t published until after World War II, because readers at the time didn’t appreciate the criticism of Great Britain’s ally Stalin. In 1945, Eileen died during a routine operation. In 1948, Orwell, now an independent socialist, finished his work on Nineteen Eight-Four. His second dystopian novel with its terrifyingly hopeless ending made him famous worldwide. In this masterpiece of political-philosophical science fiction, Orwell took his pessimistic view of history to the extreme. Only three months after marrying his second wife, Sonia Mary Brownell, he died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950, at the age of 46.

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