'1984' Characters

Descriptions and Analysis

In 1984, George Orwell’s characters seek freedom within a strictly controlled government system. While outwardly complying with the Party's rules and conventions, they dream of a rebellion they are too afraid and restricted to pursue. In the end, they are pieces on a board played by the government.

Winston Smith

Winston is a 39-year old man who works at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to alter the historical record to match the government's official propaganda. Outwardly, Winston Smith is a meek and obedient member of The Party. He carefully practices his facial expressions and is always conscious of being watched, even in his apartment. However, his internal monologue is seditious and revolutionary.

Winston is just old enough to remember a time before the current regime. He idolizes the past and revels in the few details he can still remember. Whereas younger people have no memory of any other society and thus function as ideal cogs in The Party's machine, Winston remembers the past and supports The Party only out of fear and necessity. Physically, Winston looks older than he is. He moves stiffly and with a bent back. He is in poor health overall, though without any specific disease.

Winston is often arrogant. He imagines that the proles are the key to overthrowing the government and he romanticizes their lives without knowing much about their reality. He is also eager to believe that he has been recruited by the Brotherhood, despite his relative lack of importance. Orwell uses Winston to demonstrate that passive rebellion merely makes the rebel part of the system he wants to subvert, thus dooming him to serve it in one way or another. Rebellion and oppression are just two sides of the same dynamic. Winston is thus doomed to betray the Party and to be exposed, arrested, tortured, and broken. His fate is inescapable because he relies on the mechanisms provided to him instead of forging his own path

Julia

Julia is a young woman who works at the Ministry of Truth. Like Winston, she secretly despises the Party and the world it has shaped around her, but outwardly behaves as a dutiful and content member of the Party. Unlike Winston, Julia’s rebellion is centered not on revolution or changing the world, but on personal desires. She wishes for the freedom to enjoy her sexuality and her existence as she pleases, and sees her private resistance as a path towards those goals.

Just as she pretends to be a loyal citizen, Julia is also pretending to be a fervent revolutionary when she and Winston are contacted by the Brotherhood. She has little sincere interest in these goals, but goes along because it is the only avenue of freedom open to her. It is telling that at the end, after her own torture and breaking, she is an empty vessel devoid of emotion and yet harbors a strong dislike for Winston, who she once professed to love and saw as a path to her own liberation.

Julia is actually very unsuitable to Winston in terms of romance or sexuality. Like Winston, she is not nearly as free as she believes herself to be, and is constrained completely by the choices society puts in front of her. Julia invents her love for Winston as a way of convincing herself that her relationship with him is genuine and the result of her own choices.

O’Brien

O’Brien is initially introduced as Winston’s superior at the Ministry and a high-ranking member of the Party. Winston suspects that O’Brien sympathizes with the resistance, and is thrilled when he discovers (or believes he discovers) that O’Brien is a member of the Brotherhood. O’Brien later appears at Winston’s jail cell and participates in Winston’s torture, and tells Winston that he purposely lured Winston into betrayal.

O’Brien is an unreal character; virtually anything the reader believes they learn about him is later revealed to be a lie. As a result, the reader actually knows nothing about O’Brien at all. He is a completely unreliable character. In this he is actually representative of the universe Orwell is imagining, a world where nothing is true and everything is a lie. In the universe of 1984, it is impossible to know if The Brotherhood and its leader Emmanuel Goldstein actually exist or if they are simply pieces of propaganda used to control the population. Similarly, we cannot know if there is an actual "Big Brother," an individual or even an oligarchy that rules Oceania.

O’Brien’s emptiness as a character is thus purposeful: He is as unreal, changeable, and ultimately mindlessly cruel as the world he represents.

Syme

Winston’s co-worker at the Ministry working on a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary is the closest thing to a friend that Winston has. Syme is intelligent and yet seems satisfied with his lot, finding his work interesting. Winston predicts he will disappear because of his intelligence, which turns out to be correct. Aside from demonstrating to the reader how society works in the novel, Syme is also an interesting contrast to Winston: Syme is intelligent, and thus dangerous and is never seen again, while Winston is allowed back into society after he is broken, because Winston never actually represented any real danger.

Mr. Charrington

Appearing initially as a kind old man who rents Winston a private room and sells him some interesting antiques, Mr. Charrington is later revealed to be a member of the Thought Police who has been setting Winston up for arrest from the very beginning. Charrington thus contributes to the level of deception that the Party engages in and to the fact that Winston and Julia’s fates are completely controlled from the very beginning.

Big Brother

The symbol of The Party, a middle-aged man depicted on posters and other official materials, there is no certainty that Big Brother actually exists as a person in Orwell's universe. It is very likely he is an invention and a propaganda tool. His main presence in the novel is as a looming figure on posters, and as part of the mythology of the Party, as "Big Brother is Watching You." What is interesting is that these ubiquitous posters strike those who support the Party as somewhat comforting, seeing Big Brother as a protective uncle, while people like Winston see him as an ominous, threatening figure.

Emmanuel Goldstein

The leader of The Brotherhood, the resistance organization working to foment revolution against the Party. Like Big Brother, Emmanuel Goldstein seems to be an invention used to trap resistors like Winston, although it is possible he does exist, or did exist and has been co-opted by the Party. The lack of certainty is emblematic of the way the Party has corrupted knowledge and objective facts, and the same disorientation and confusion experienced by Winston and Julia in regards to Goldstein's existence or nonexistence is felt by the reader. This is a particularly effective technique that Orwell uses in the novel.