Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a dystopian novel that deals with the perils of totalitarianism. It’s set in an imagined future year of 1984 in a superstate called Oceania, which is ruled by an authoritarian government that maintains power through constant surveillance and other insidious means.
Learn more about a fiction classic that’s still relevant today.
In the early 1990s, after the Cold War had come to an end, political scientist Francis Fukuyama had a wild theory. He believed that the very concept of history as we knew it had come to an end. After all, the Soviet Union had been defeated in economic and political competition. Liberal democracy could now spread across the globe, bringing freedom and wealth to all nations. Everyone could live happily ever after.
Turns out, Fukuyama was wrong. In fact, since then, there’s been a renaissance of authoritarianism around the world: the belief that prosperity can only be achieved through a strong political figure with extensive powers.
It’s a dangerous belief: authoritarian leadership goes hand in hand with oppression. When dissenting opinions are silenced and freedom is limited, humans can’t thrive. That’s a lesson we can learn from history, with Stalin’s Soviet regime and Nazi Germany being the two most prominent examples.
Now, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in the late 1940s, the world was still uncovering the secrets of these two oppressive social systems. And this is what makes the book so special: it’s speculative science-fiction, but it manages to depict the current mechanisms of oppression and political force quite accurately.
So, if you’d like to understand what makes authoritarianism so dangerous, let’s take a walk through the most important themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Along the way, you’ll get acquainted with three main characters who have very different ideas about how to survive in a place that’s utterly controlled by an ominous dictator called – yes, you might have heard the name before – Big Brother.
Winston Smith: Torn Between Rebellion and Conformity
It’s the year 1984, and Winston Smith is living in London. Except this isn’t London, England. London is now part of a superstate called Oceania, which includes Great Britain as well as the Americas and Australia. What was once England is now known as Airstrip One.
Winston spends his days working for Ingsoc, which stands for English Socialism and is the ruling party of Oceania. More often than not, it’s simply called The Party. Don’t let the name fool you, though. This isn’t socialism. It’s pure totalitarianism.
One of the main tools The Party uses to exert control over the people is surveillance. As Winston makes his way into his apartment, one poster after another bears the message “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!” Big Brother is the leader of Oceania, and in the poster, he’s represented as a robustly handsome man with a mustache. It’s one of those pictures where the eyes follow you wherever you go. But the words on the poster are more than just propaganda. In most homes and public places, there’s a telescreen. This is a two-way device that shows state-sanctioned programs (which you can’t turn off) at all hours of the day, and it also watches you – even while you sleep. Luckily, in Winston’s apartment, there’s a small alcove where he can sit out of view from the telescreen. It’s in this little alcove that Winston begins to write in his secret diary.
With the help of his diary entries, we begin to understand just how unhealthy and unhappy Winston is. Food is scarce. Things like clothing and razor blades are hard to come by. Winston seems to be surviving on stale bread and terrible-tasting gin. He’s wasting away and deeply conflicted about his position in the Outer Circle.
Now’s a good time to add that in Oceania there are three classes of people. At the top is the Inner Circle – the powerful people who run the ministries of the government. Below that is the Outer Circle, with people like Winston, who have bureaucratic jobs working in the ministries. At the bottom are the people they call the proles, who have manual labor jobs, like working in the mines.
Everyone, but especially the Outer Circle and the proles, is required to watch aggressive propaganda – like the daily Two Minutes Hate. This propaganda usually involves stirring up anger against enemies of the state, be it those who have betrayed the party or dangerous foreigners.
As for Winston’s job, he works for the Ministry of Truth, where he essentially rewrites history. He does this by digging up old documents from the past and changing the contents to match whatever version of events The Party has recently decided should be “the truth.”
In addition to the Ministry of Truth, there’s also the Ministry of Peace, which deals with the ongoing wars between Oceania and the world’s two other superstates Eurasia and Eastasia. Then there’s the Ministry of Plenty, which deals with food, goods, and industry. Lastly, there’s the Ministry of Love, which controls the surveillance of the people, as well as the interrogation and torture of anyone believed to be guilty of thoughtcrimes.
The concept of thoughtcrimes is why Winston must always be aware of the telescreens. Surveillance in Oceania has gotten to the point that even certain facial expressions, or saying something in your sleep, could warrant your arrest by the Thought Police for harboring dissident ideas. If this happens, you could end up being vaporized – all traces of your existence scrubbed away.
The different government ministries also reflect The Party’s three main slogans, which are: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.
There’s a lot to unpack in the first chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. We’re basically presented with the foundation for the ultimate authoritarian state. Three of the main tools are constant surveillance, constant exposure to propaganda, and the constant rewriting of history.
With these tools, The Party can control the narrative decisively, keep everyone under constant psychological pressure, and force people to think a certain way. For example, how you react during the daily Two Minutes Hate is monitored. If you’re not properly booing and cursing the enemy, you’ll be under suspicion for thoughtcrimes.
Through Winston, we can see both the effectiveness and limitations of these tools. Winston admits to feeling appropriately riled up when exposed to the propaganda. He can’t help himself. But he’s also coming undone by the oppressive surveillance and his knowledge that history is being rewritten to suit the needs of The Party. If they’re lying about one thing, who’s to say they aren’t lying about everything? Is Oceania even at war with anyone? Is there even a real Big Brother, or is he just a face on a poster?
One of the recurring motifs in the book is the idea that some truths can’t be made untrue. Winston desperately holds onto facts like two plus two will always equal four. Still, he knows that one day The Party might try to tell everyone that two plus two equals five, and a great many people will believe them. And why shouldn’t they? If anyone goes back to look at past records, they’ll see that this has always been the case.
Julia: A Reason to Live
Winston is understandably paranoid. Even neighbors and family members are known to report suspicious behavior about each other. When Winston bought the diary at a dusty antique shop in the prole district, he knew he was putting himself in extreme danger.
So, when Winston suddenly sees Julia multiple times at work, his first thought is that she’s a spy. This is only reinforced when she pops up later at a very inopportune time. Winston is aimlessly strolling through the streets of the prole district, stopping in a pub, and going back into the antique shop where he bought the diary. All of which could be seen as suspicious behavior, especially since he’s avoiding an Outer Party gathering. When he leaves the shop, there’s Julia again, walking past him down the street. She must be working for the Thought Police!
But the next time the two cross paths at work, Julia slips a note into his hand. The note reads, simply enough, “I love you.” And it’s true. Despite Winston being older and in bad health, Julia does love him, and Winston ends up falling in love with Julia.
Eventually, their secret meetings end up taking place in a spare room above the antique shop where Winston bought the diary. It’s an old room with little more than a bed, but it’s a wonderful oasis, and the shopkeeper is happy to get Winston’s money.
Julia gives us another perspective on life in Oceania. Like Winston, she works at the Ministry of Truth and is aware of The Party’s lies. But unlike Winston, she doesn’t really care. She’s found a way to go along with it all and eke out little moments of happiness by being smart enough and sneaky enough to avoid detection. She doesn’t really see the point in worrying about what The Party is up to or why society functions the way it does.
Despite her apathy, Winston becomes only more determined to do something. Since he began meeting with Julia, he’s become healthier, more energetic, and more optimistic about there being a better life – if not for him, then for future generations.
One thing that gives him hope is the rumors about The Brotherhood, a resistance group that is working against The Party. Also, Winston has been picking up some subtle clues from another coworker, O’Brien. O’Brien is in the Inner Circle. He’s in charge of creating a new dictionary for a language called Newspeak, that will further The Party’s ability to limit undesirable thoughts.
Winston is convinced that O’Brien may be part of the resistance and convinces Julia to meet with him. Sure enough, O’Brien confirms his suspicions and welcomes them into the Brotherhood. He even gives Winston a book that was written by the leader of the resistance, another former Party member, Emmanuel Goldstein.
With this precious book, Winston begins to understand the big picture. It lays out the entire recipe for creating a totalitarian state meant to solidify power into the hands of the few. The book explains that by the 1940s, the industrial revolution had made it possible to eradicate hunger and poverty around the world. The dreams of true utopian Socialism could have been realized. But it didn’t happen. Instead, we saw the rise of Stalinist Russia and the Nazi regime in Germany.
With human beings having an insatiable desire for power, Ingsoc is simply the result of finding the best possible way of holding onto that power. In fact, all three of the world’s superstates have similar governments and social systems in place. They are self-sufficient, but they forever fight over little scraps of land that mean very little. No one can win, no one can lose. But the endless wars maintain stability by keeping the people focused, angry, and motivated. War is peace within the state.
As Winston reads the book in his and Julia’s bed above the antique shop, he becomes more certain that Goldstein is leading up to one major flaw in the design. That the proles, who greatly outnumber the Inner and Outer Circles, can eventually rise up and overthrow The Party. But before he can finish, Winston and Julia fall asleep. And not long afterward, their safe haven comes crashing down.
It turns out that there was a telescreen this whole time, monitoring them from behind a picture on the wall. And Mr. Charrington isn’t a shopkeeper at all. He’s a high-ranking member of the Thought Police who has Winston and Julia taken to the Ministry of Love.
In this section of the book, we get deeper into the internal conflicts going on with Winston. Early on, he’s bitter and distrustful. But when he meets Julia, his world suddenly opens up. Love enters his life and changes it. It gives him hope, but at the same time, it leads him to take more chances.
Both Winston and Julia acknowledge that renting the room and approaching O’Brien are absurdly dangerous things to do. But they do them anyway. Winston can no longer go about his days in the passive fashion that he used to. Love inspires him, but it also dooms him.
Thanks to Goldstein’s book, this section also fills in the rest of the story about how Oceania and Ingsoc came to be. What’s most chilling about this part is how rational it sounds, despite being so pessimistic. The suggestion is that the darker, greedier, more racist, and nationalistic aspects of humanity are unavoidable and that authoritarianism is perhaps the inevitable result of these human qualities.
For example, once we had the technology for constant surveillance, it was only a matter of time before this would be used to consolidate and maintain power – to keep the lower classes from ever being a real threat. We’re also told that cultural homogeneity is of great importance to keeping order. With perpetual war, borders must be strictly enforced and the superstate must vilify and dehumanize anything that looks or behaves differently. As Winston learns, the free flow of people from one state to another can never be allowed. Hate, not acceptance, is what must be taught, or else the system will not work.
O’Brien: Breaking Love
Once Winston is separated from Julia and imprisoned at the Ministry of Love, the book begins its final and darkest section.
Before Winston and Julia were captured, they had the belief that, no matter what the Thought Police did to them, they would not betray each other. They could torture their bodies, but what was in their minds would remain untouchable.
Alas, The Ministry of Love proves to be rather adept at breaking down Winston, both physically and mentally. Part of the effectiveness is that the torture is being overseen by O’Brien, the one person that Winston hoped might rescue him from all of this. What’s more, he discovers that Goldstein didn’t write the book at all. It was written by O’Brien and other Inner Circle members.
Now, while he’s inflicting unimaginable pain, O’Brien has a goal in mind. He wants Winston to see the error in his ways and to start thinking like a good Party member. Central to this is getting him to embrace the concept of doublethink.
Doublethink is kind of a cornerstone of The Party’s philosophy. It demands that you not only agree with a new truth but that you also agree to reject your previously held belief. Perhaps the best example is the idea that two plus two equals four. This is one of those basic truths that Winston has held onto for the whole book. But, if The Party tells you that two plus two equals five, doublethink insists that you not only agree but also believe that two plus two never equaled four.
In a way, doublethink is about proving that the “truth” is only what we believe, and nothing more. Your experience may tell you that the laws of gravity are a real thing, but if The Party tells you that gravity is a lie, you will accept this new truth and forget that gravity was ever a scientifically proven thing. As Winston learns, doublethink is what allows us to break free from history and completely bury the dangerous ideas from the past, like equality.
Winston puts up a monumental struggle, but eventually, he’s broken. He gives in to the doublethink. He understands the logic behind the idea that we each create our own reality – that “truth” is whatever we believe it to be. And at last, when confronted with his worst fear – large, hungry rats – he tries to save himself by betraying Julia.
In a short epilogue, we learn that both Winston and Julia have been released. They briefly meet in the streets of London and admit that each had betrayed the other. Winston then comes face to face with another poster of Big Brother. He understands it all so well now. He feels the bliss in no longer fighting back, in giving himself over to The Party. Tears fall down his face. It’s now true, he loves Big Brother.
The end of the book is indeed rather bleak, as Winston goes through all manner of torture at the hands of the man he believed might be his savior. What makes O’Brien a truly memorable villain isn’t just the pain he inflicts on Winston, but that he’s often described as being like a school teacher. There’s a sense that he may genuinely care about Winston and wants him to get out of The Ministry of Love alive.
Ultimately, what the reader gains in this section is a rather potent sense of just how compelling the twisted logic of authoritarianism is.
In particular, we get a better sense of the meaning behind the slogans “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” O’Brien explains to Winston how much better it is to simply give yourself over completely and to let The Party do the thinking for you. By giving up your individuality, you become part of something bigger – something that will continue to last even after your death. This is real freedom, real strength, real immortality.
Through our main character, we got to see the darkest depths of the authoritarian state. Winston knew he was doomed once he purchased the diary. He felt like it was just a matter of time before the Thought Police put him in a work camp or had him vaporized. But the tragedy proves to be worse, in a way, since Winston never believed he could actually be broken down further and remolded into a true believer.
The story centers around Winston Smith, a government bureaucrat living in London in the year 1984. In this imagined future, the world has been divided into three authoritarian superstates. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites the documents of the past to match the current lies the government is telling. His job leads him to doubt the regime, while constant surveillance and the threat of the Thought Police are always on his mind.
When Winston meets and falls in love with Julia, he becomes more reckless and more inspired to try and fight back. This eventually leads to his arrest and his torture at the hands of the man he believed was part of the resistance. After a prolonged period of both physical and psychological torture, Winston emerges a true believer – someone who loves Big Brother, even though he’s nothing but an empty figurehead to an oppressive regime bent on clinging to power at all costs.
Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to be a relevant look at what happens when fear, propaganda, perpetual war, and mass surveillance are used to control and repress individual freedoms. While Orwell used Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as a basis for his work, the novel shows how vulnerable any society can be once truths and facts are manipulated.
About the author
George Orwell (pseudonym for Eric Blair [1903-50]) was born in Bengal and educated at Eton; after service with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, he returned to Europe to earn his living penning novels and essays. He was essentially a political writer who focused his attention on his own times, a man of intense feelings and intense hates. An opponent of totalitarianism, he served in the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Besides his classic Animal Farm, his works include a novel based on his experiences as a colonial policeman, Burmese Days, two firsthand studies of poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia; and the extraordinary novel of political prophecy whose title became part of our language, 1984.