'1984' Novel Overview

The Novel That Gave Us Big Brother

George Orwell, circa 1945.
George Orwell, circa 1945.

Hulton Archive

1984 is a novel so famous and influential you needn’t have read it to be affected by it. Every time you use the words "Big Brother," "Orwellian," or "Newspeak" you’re quoting it. Orwell’s attempt to highlight what he saw as the existential threat posed by authoritarian leaders like Joseph Stalin is still a vital commentary on the techniques of brutal totalitarian regimes today, and only becomes more prescient and applicable as technology catches up with its nightmarish vision.

Fast Facts: 1984

  • Author: George Orwell
  • Publisher: Secker and Warburg
  • Year Published: 1949
  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Totalitarianism, destruction of the self, control of information
  • Characters: Winston Smith, Julia, O’Brien, Syme, Mr. Charrington
  • Notable Adaptations: A film adaptation released in 1984 starred John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton, in his last role, as O’Brien.
  • Fun Fact: Because of his socialist politics and connections to the Communist Party, Orwell himself was under government surveillance for years.

Plot Summary

Winston Smith lives in what is known as Airstrip One, formerly Britain, a province of a large nation-state known as Oceania. Posters everywhere declare BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, and Thought Police could be anywhere, watching for signs of Thoughtcrime. Smith works at the Ministry of Truth changing historical texts to match the current propaganda being distributed by the government.

Winston longs to rebel, but confines his rebellion to keeping a forbidden journal, which he writes in a corner of his apartment hidden from the two-way television screen on his wall.

At work, Winston meets a woman named Julia and begins a forbidden love affair, meeting her in a room he rents above a shop in the midst of the non-party population, known as proles. At work, Winston suspects that his superior, a man named O’Brien, is involved with a resistance movement called The Brotherhood, led by a mysterious man named Emmanuel Goldstein. Winston’s suspicions are confirmed when O’Brien invites him and Julia to join The Brotherhood, but this turns out to be a ruse and the pair are arrested.

1984 de George Orwell
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Winston is brutally tortured. He slowly gives up all outward resistance, but preserves what he believes is an inner core of his true self symbolized by his feelings for Julia. In the end he is confronted by his worst fear, a terror of rats, and betrays Julia by begging his torturers to do it to her instead. Broken, Winston is returned to public life a true believer.

Major Characters

Winston Smith. A 39-year old man who works for the Ministry of Truth. Winston romanticizes the lives of the non-Party proles and indulges in daydreams in which they rise up and spark a revolution. Winston rebels in his private thoughts and in small actions that seem relatively safe, like his journal-keeping. His torture and destruction at the end of the novel is tragic because of the sheer lack of necessity; Winston was being manipulated from the very beginning and never posed any true threat.

Julia. Similarly to Winston, Julia is outwardly a dutiful Party member, but inwardly seeks to rebel. Unlike Winston, Julia’s motivations for rebellion stem from her own desires; she wishes to pursue pleasure and leisure.

O’Brien. Literally everything the reader is told about O’Brien in the first half of the story is revealed to be untrue. He is Winston’s superior at the Ministry of Truth, but he is also a member of the Thought Police. O’Brien therefore represents the Party perfectly: He is changeable as needed, weaponizes information or the lack of it, and ultimately serves solely to perpetuate power and snuff out resistance of any kind.

Syme. A colleague of Winston’s, working on a Newspeak dictionary. Winston perceives Syme’s intelligence and predicts that he will disappear as a result of it, a prediction that quickly comes true.

Mr. Charrington. A kindly old man who helps Winston rebel, and is later revealed as a member of the Thought Police.

Major Themes

Totalitarianism. Orwell argues that in a one-party political state where all other parties are outlawed, perpetuation of power becomes the sole purpose of the State. Towards this end, a totalitarian state will restrict freedom increasingly until the only freedom that remains is freedom of private thought—and the State will then attempt to restrict this as well.

Control of Information. Orwell argues in the novel that the lack of access to information and the corruption of information makes meaningful resistance to the Party impossible. Orwell foresaw the rise of "fake news" decades before it was named.

Destruction of the Self. The ultimate goal of all totalitarian regimes in Orwell’s opinion. Only by replacing individual desires with a template created by the State can true control be asserted.

Literary Style

Orwell writes in plain, largely unadorned language and a neutral tone, which evokes the crushing despair and dullness of Winston’s existence. He also ties the point of view tightly to Winston, forcing the reader to accept what Winston tells them much as Winston accepts what he is told, all of which is ultimately revealed as a lie.

About the Author

Born in 1903 in India, George Orwell was an incredibly influential writer, best-known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, as well as essays on various topics covering politics, history, and social justice.

Many of the concepts Orwell introduced in his writing have become part of pop culture, such as the phrase "Big Brother is Watching You" and the use of the descriptor Orwellian to indicate an oppressive surveillance state.