'1984' Summary

There are few novels as influential as George Orwell’s 1984, which permeated pop culture with concepts like Big Brother and doublethink, while exploring the bleak future Orwell saw in totalitarianism.

Part One

1984 begins with Winston Smith coming home to his small, run-down flat. At 39, Winston is old beyond his years and takes his time walking up the stairs, greeted at each landing by a poster stating BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. In his small flat he can dim the wall-sized telescreen and lower the volume but cannot turn it off. He keeps his back to it because it is a two-way screen.

Winston lives in what is known as Airstrip One, formerly Britain, a province of a large nation-state known as Oceania. He looks out his window at the Ministry of Truth where he works revising historical records to conform with the new versions of history the government is always producing. Winston works hard to appear a dutiful and fervent member of the Party, but privately despises it and the world he lives in. He knows this makes him what is known as a thoughtcriminal and assumes he will inevitably be exposed and punished.

Winston has purchased a diary from a shop in a proletariat (the lower class of people referred to as proles) neighborhood, and has discovered that the placement of the telescreen in his apartment allows for a small area where he cannot be observed. He skips lunch at the canteen in order to come home and write his forbidden thoughts in this diary out of the telescreen’s range. It is a small act of rebellion.

Winston admits to a sexual attraction to a woman at the Ministry of Truth, Julia. He has not acted on his attraction because he thinks she might be spying on him, and suspects she would inform on him. He is also paranoid about his superior, a man named O’Brien whom he suspects is part of the Brotherhood, a resistance movement led by the famous terrorist Emmanuel Goldstein.

Part Two

When Winston goes to work the next day, he sees Julia with her arm in a sling. When she stumbles, he helps her, and she passes him a note that reads I Love You. He and Julia begin a sexual affair, which is forbidden by the Party; Julia is even a member of the Anti-Sex League. Their first encounter is in a rural area. Later they begin renting a room above the shop where Winston purchased his diary. It becomes clear to Winston that Julia despises the Party as much as he does. The affair sparks memories in Winston of the civil war and his ex-wife, Katharine.

At work, Winston meets a colleague named Syme who tells him about the dictionary he is working on for the new official language, Newspeak. Syme tells Winston that Newspeak is designed to make it more difficult for people to think in complex ways. Winston expects that this sentiment will cause Syme to disappear, and a few days later Syme is gone.

Winston and Julia create a private sanctuary in the rented room, and tell each other that they are already dead. They believe that the Party will discover their crimes and execute them, but that it cannot take away their feelings for each other.

O’Brien contacts Winston, confirms his involvement with the Brotherhood, and invites him to be a part of the resistance. Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s large, well-appointed home and take an oath to join the Brotherhood. O’Brien gives Winston a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s book. Winston and Julia spend their time together reading it, learning the truth behind how the Party maintains its hold on society. They also learn about the use of a technique called doublethink, which allows Party members to believe contradictory concepts with ease, and how history has been changed to support perpetual warfare, which is used to keep a permanent state of emergency in place for crowd control purposes. Goldstein also argues that a revolution would be possible if the proles rose up en masse to oppose the government.

While in their rented room, Winston and Julia are denounced by the shop owner, a member of the Thought Police, and arrested.

Part Three

Winston and Julia are taken to the Ministry of Love for punishment, and learn that O’Brien is actually a loyal party member who poses as a supporter of The Brotherhood in order to expose the disloyal.

O’Brien begins torturing Winston. O’Brien is very open about the Party’s desire for power, and tells Winston openly that once he is broken and forced to change his thoughts in support of the Party, he will be placed back into the world for a time as an example, and then killed when his usefulness in that capacity is exhausted. Winston endures horrific pain and psychological stress as he is forced to adopt obviously untrue positions, such as stating that 2 + 2 + = 5. The goal of the torture is to force Winston to abandon logic in favor of absorbing and repeating whatever the Party tells him. Winston confesses to a lengthy list of imaginary crimes.

Winston breaks, but O’Brien is not satisfied, as Winston defiantly tells him that he still loves Julia and O’Brien cannot take that away from him. O’Brien tells him he will betray Julia in Room 101. Winston is taken there, and O’Brien reveals that they know everything there is to know about Winston—including his greatest irrational fear, rats. A wire cage is fitted over his face, and rats are placed in the cage. O’Brien tells Winston that the rats will gouge out his eyes and Winston loses the last bits of his sanity in terror, and just as the rats are coming for him he tells O’Brien to substitute Julia.

Having betrayed Julia completely, Winston is truly broken. He is "re-educated" and released. He spends his days drinking heavily at a cafe. A few days later he meets Julia in a park, and they discuss their torture. Julia admits that she broke as well, and betrayed him. They both realize that their love for one another has been destroyed. They no longer care for each other as they once did.

Winston goes to a cafe and sits there alone as the telescreens report an important victory for Oceania in the war against Eurasia. Winston is happy and has no more thoughts of rebellion, thinking that he loves Big Brother, and cannot wait to finally be executed.

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Your Citation
Somers, Jeffrey. "'1984' Summary." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/1984-summary-4588951. Somers, Jeffrey. (2020, January 29). '1984' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1984-summary-4588951 Somers, Jeffrey. "'1984' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1984-summary-4588951 (accessed March 30, 2023).