1984 Study Guide


1984 by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is an allegorical dystopian novel about the dangers of police states, groupthink, and surveillance of the public. It follows the hapless government employee Winston Smith as he dreams secretly and fruitlessly of rebellion against the all-powerful Big Brother and the Inner Party. Smith's England has been renamed Airstrip One, its citizens stripped of their individuality, its world locked in a constant state of manufactured war. It is a grim vision of the future intended as a commentary on the policies of England at the time of its writing.

Winston Smith

Winston a haunted man: the past, the future, his dreams, his hatred for Big Brother and the Party, and his mother haunt him. His obsession with these things has led to the misanthropic nature of his character. He despises virtually everything in his life and only finds joy in his work. Winston is also a conflicted man. He has a difficult time reconciling his hate for Big Brother with his own admitted indoctrination. This is exemplified by his confusion during the Two Minutes Hate. Winston is unable to focus his hatred on Goldstein and unwittingly finds it wandering from Goldstein to Big Brother and even to Julia. Yet, this speaks volumes about the indoctrination process. Hate is cultivated in Party members for the sake of hatred. It matters very little to whom the hatred is directed. Winston is aware of this fact and attempts to fight it, but finds that the power of mass hysteria overwhelms him.

Despite Winston's moments of rationality, he too upholds the principals of INGSOC as shown by the conflict he experiences during the Two Minutes Hate; thus he is an unreliable character. Orwell carefully constructs Winston's unreliability to reflect and parallel that of Big Brother and the Party. Winston's unreliability is not only a result of his general confusion over his loyalty to the Party, but is also a result of his faulty memory. He vaguely remembers life in London prior to the Revolution and can barely recall current events from as recent as four years ago. The Party's control of the past has much to do with this; however, Winston's automatic, almost mindless obedience to the Party's philosophy is more the root cause. Not only is freedom hindered by INGSOC but it also passively relinquished by Oceania's citizens. Winston's unreliability also stems from his tendency to live in dreams and flashbacks. First there is the cryptic dream of his long-lost mother sinking in a boat and then there is the dream of Julia running through the Golden Country while stripping off her clothes. His dreams and flashbacks speak volumes about his obsession with both the past and the future. Winston is trying to recoup an era of which he has only a vague recollection and he is grasping for future the uncertainty of which is high. Yet, despite these flaws in his character, Winston is more reliable than many of the other characters. The simple fact that he dares to question Oceanic society lends itself to his credibility.

Upon meeting Julia, undergoes radical physical, emotional, and psychological changes. His general health improves as does his disposition. Gone is the obsessive misanthrope and its place is a man who has found some semblance of peace that will permit him to exist under the reign of Big Brother. Unfortunately, the affair is abruptly ended by the couples arrest and subsequent interrogations at the Ministry of Love. They both endure torture and humiliation, but Winston's suffering is seemingly endless given his refusal to succumb to the Party and betray Julia. Yet his reserve cannot withstand Room 101 where facing his worst nightmare leads him to betray Julia. Upon being released, Winston has not only lost his individuality, but his humanity as well.


Julia and Winston make for an interesting match in that she is far more spirited than he. She is extremely active in the community and enjoys the work she does at the Ministry. Unlike Winston, she is intently focused on the present such that she takes each day as it comes. Essentially Julia has a lust for life that allows her to find the joys in each day and as such she is also very resourceful. Late in the novel she often arrives to her meetings with black market treats. Interestingly, she has no memories of life before the Revolution except for those of her grandfather who was vaporized nearly twenty years ago. However, she often says or mentions events that clearly happened before Big Brother. Julia is not intellectually inclined, but she has a rather acute understanding of Oceanic society's operations. In her conversations with Winston, Julia reveals theories that Winston has not given consideration. For example, she doubts the existence of Goldstein and the Brotherhood, but she still participates in the Two Minutes Hate. Another example is her acknowledgement of the Party's brutal practices, but she does not criticize its doctrines. Essentially her strategy for living in relative peace under the Party is simple: follow the big rules so that you can break the small rules. This presents another interesting aspect of her character. Julia gladly and easily adheres to the significant rules because she recognizes the futility of understanding the Party and its motivations for establishing such regulations as the laws prohibiting sex for anything but procreation. Her lack of memories is partly responsible for her disinterest; however, her rather superficial understanding of the Party is largely the reason. She believes their sole motivation is to prevent Oceanians from enjoying themselves so that their energy can be expended on fanatical activities in support of Party doctrine (e.g. the Two Minutes Hate). Although Julia has only scratched the surface of the Party's complexity, the discovery she has made allows her to live her life in relative freedom.

As the two carry on their affair, Julia undergoes a significant change. At the beginning of their affair, Julia has a casual attitude towards sex and relationships; however, later in the novel, she makes an effort to give as well as receive pleasure. For example, she accentuates her feminine attributes by putting on make-up and perfume during their first meeting in Mr. Charrington's room. She declares before getting into bed is that she will purchase a dress, silk stockings, and heals so that she can be a real woman rather than just an asexual comrade. Her change in attitude is also marked by the gifts she brings with her on the visits. She has managed to find real coffee, tea, sugar, milk, bread, and jam: all things that are virtually impossible for even Inner Party members to obtain. Though she does not explain how she obtained these items, one can assume she went to great lengths in order to please Winston. Unfortunately, she too betrays her love, though much sooner than Winston did.


O'Brien is both Winston's anti-hero and his nemesis. He is an anti-hero because his exterior is that of a loyal and prominent Party member. Not only does his physique coincide with Party standards, but he also eloquently speaks the Party language of Newspeak. Given Winston's loathing for the Party and its principles, O'Brien makes for an unlikely hero for Winston. This speaks to Winston's unreliability. He has associated attributes to O'Brien that do not or at least partially exist in his character. Winston has also attached a future significance to O'Brien that proves dangerous towards the end of the novel when O'Brien transforms into Winston's confirmed nemesis. O'Brien pretended to be a follower of Goldstein and member of the subversive Brotherhood in order to lure Winston into a thought-trap. Orwell juxtaposes the two men allowing the reader to learn more about O'Brien. This exhibits O'Brien's deliberate and calculated nature. He is also a patient man; a fact we learn from his confession to Winston admitting to having spent the last seven years watching him.

Such an attitude implies another aspect of O'Brien's character that shows itself at the end of the novel. While Winston is being interrogated, O'Brien stands before him as both a father figure and a god. He portrays the father figure through his calm and controlled rapprochement of Winston's unorthodoxy. Interestingly, his rapprochement, though calm, is absurd. His lecture is an exercise in doublethink in that he is trying to convince Winston that he has been hallucinating due to insanity. The reader can assume that O'Brien has used this argument innumerable times with as many prisoners. The condescending tone he uses with Winston enhances the role. In terms of the god-complex, the torture scenes are wrought with obvious references to O'Brien's God-complex. For example, the physical arrangement of the two men emphasizes O'Brien's power. Winston is strapped down in a chair and forced to look up to O'Brien who is standing above him. O'Brien stands over him, virtually hovering with one hand ready to inflict pain on Winston's body through electrocution. O'Brien also makes continuous references to entries in Winston's diary. Clearly he has been reading it; however, how and when is left unanswered. Somehow, O'Brien has been able to read it enough times that he is able to quote it verbatim despite Winston's painstaking efforts to prevent someone from reading his diary without his knowledge. This whole chapter makes inter-textual references to the Bible's Book of Job. Similarly to Job, Winston has forsaken the Party and Big Brother through his quest for the truth beyond what the two ruling entities teach as the truth. He has also forsaken them by engaging in unorthodox activity (mainly with Julia who can be seen as the temptress who leads Winston astray in this story). Similarly to God, O'Brien must prove his omnipotence and Winston's folly by inflicting pain and causing Winston to suffer without an end in sight. O'Brien's self assuredness, a trait that is no doubt specific to Inner Party members, tells the reader that Winston will not prevail in the end. Using his contrived sense of omniscience, O'Brien breaks Winston with his terrible rat phobia.

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