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.

Irony and Paradox

Irony is a major device used by Orwell throughout the novel. Chapter 1 opens with ironical references to both Oceanic living quarters and Oceanic food. For example, Winston's hostel is called Victory Mansions thus leading someone to believe that the apartments are luxurious and well appointed. However, upon entering the building with Winston, the reader discovers that the hostel is neither as luxurious nor victorious as an estate. The drab, dusty corridors smell like boiled cabbage and old, filthy rugs. The electricity in the building is shut off during the day and the plumbing is in poor working condition: a fact the reader learns in Chapter 2. The food Oceanians consume is also branded Victory, yet it is all generic. Rather than sugar, Winston must use saccharine tablets. Victory Gin has a faint kerosene smell to it that makes one wonder if it isn't actually fuel oil. The cigarettes, called Victory Cigarettes, are so poorly made that the low-grade tobacco falls from them at the slightest tip of the hand.

Orwell also uses situational irony to describe the Oceanic government. The major institutions composing the government are: the Ministry of Love which oversees matters of law; Ministry of Plenty which oversees economic matters; Ministry of Truth which oversees news, education, and entertainment; and the Ministry of Peace which oversees matters of war. However, none of the Ministries actually deal in the area of expertise implied by their title. Orwell constructs a clever clue to emphasize this point. Their names in Newspeak are Miniluv, Miniplenty, Minitrue, and Minipax thus providing a more accurate concept of their role in Oceanic society. Miniluv actually concerns itself with matters of torture and abuse. Winston notes that it is the most frightening of the four Ministries. Miniplenty concerns itself with matters of unequal distribution, Minitrue deals with the falsification of news and educational materials, and Minpax actually maintains the perpetual state of war in Oceania.

Closely related to the Ministries are the three Party slogans: War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, and Ignorance is Strength. Orwell uses these to disclose an unsettling truth about what lies beneath the structure of Oceanic society. Through their blatant paradoxical nature the reader understands the delicate and not illogical balance maintained by the Party. Despite the Party's use of these slogans as rallying cries for the people, they are actually used to sustain and increase the Party's power.


Conflict is another significant literary device used by Orwell. In fact, he utilizes two of the three types of conflict: 1) the protagonist is in conflict with himself; 2) the protagonist is in conflict with society or man. Winston is the protagonist in each situation; however only in #1 is he also the antagonist. From the beginning of the novel, the reader is confronted with Winston's inner-conflict. This mainly exemplified by the diary he begins in Chapter 1. The diary becomes his outlet for the fight ensuing inside his mind. First and foremost, it is a fight against the psychological and emotional infiltration of the Party. To be more specific, the Party's indoctrination is constructed in such a way as to make it easy for Oceanians to succumb to it. The Two Minutes Hate exemplifies this inability for Party members to maintain control of their emotions under the influence of Party doctrine. Winston even admits that while he recognized the absurdity of the Two Minutes Hate, he found himself unable to resist succumbing to the most basic instinct of hate and fear.

Winston is also in conflict with his memory. He struggles daily with trying to remember life prior to the Revolution. Important aspects of that period in his life include his family life's most basic comforts that are no longer available, and humanity among men. This last one speaks directly to Winston's personally felt loss of the capacity to feel beyond the id (hate, fear, lust, etc.). Something tells Winston that his memories, though vague, are correct; yet, he has no way of verifying their veracity. Again, his indoctrination into the Party has inhibited a faculty normally taken for granted. The diary becomes an important symbol in this respect as well. He attempts to both record what he remembers and construct a rough chronology using these memories and the historical teachings of the Party. His hope is to retrace his life to find resolutions to personal demons while at also uncovering the conspiracy at the heart of Ingsoc.

Winston's inner-conflict is intrinsically connected to his conflict with society and man. His conflict with Oceanic society stems from the blatant contradictions in the Party's doctrine and in the actual structure of the society (e.g. the decreasing quality of consumer goods, decreasing availability of consumer goods in general, etc.). Although it is never really made clear what inspired Winston's unorthodoxy, the reader can safely assume that he reached his tolerance level and events unfolded from there. As each day passes, especially when he begins his affair with Julia, Winston is pushed closer to the edge of rebellion. Upon rediscovering his capacity to love another human being, particularly a woman, Winston chooses to act on his frustration.

Ironically, the climax of this conflict manifests itself in a struggle of wills between Winston and O'Brien, the man who first inspired Winston to begin keeping the diary. Winston demonstrates an extremely high resolve during his interrogation with O'Brien. Despite the months of starvation and the extreme pain suffered, Winston does not betray Julia. However, in the end when Winston is brought to Room 101 to face his worst nightmare, his resolve breaks and he renounces his love for the one woman he loved besides his mother. Yet, both his conflict with himself and that with the Party continue after he has been released from Miniluv. His mind cannot ignore the contradictions that first led him to question Party doctrine and motives and because of this he eagerly awaits his vaporization in the Chestnut Tree Caf where all future unpersons spend their last days.


Setting is a third major device employed by Orwell. He uses it to accentuate the nightmarish world that is Oceania and 1984 . The environment described at the beginning of Chapter 1 immediately confronts the reader with the depressing overtones to life in Oceania. When Winston arrives home it is unseasonably cold and windy spring day. Dust is flying everywhere as well as being swept into the apartment buildings. The cold weather reflects the cold appearance of the city. There is no color on any of the buildings which are dilapidated. Dotting the streets are rotting Victorian homes, wooden shacks, and debris from the frequent air raids. Inside the Mansions where Winston lives, conditions are no better. The interiors also lack color and the building's infrastructure is experiencing a slow decay. Clearly, Orwell is making a very strong statement about the environmental effects oppressive regimes have on cities and states. The Golden Country of Winston's dream presents a striking contrast to the city. There is a bevy of floral and fauna in which Winston takes immediate delight. He even takes a moment to pick from the overabundance of bluebells growing along the main road. Sunlight filters through the ash trees filling the landscape. Additionally, he begins his ill-fated love affair with Julia amidst this budding life. Essentially Orwell is comparing the life of the countryside to the death of the oppressive city; death is the only result of oppression and totalitarianism where as life springs from individual freedom and humanity.

Orwell uses setting at the end of the novel to heighten the dramatic tension of Winston's interrogation. The reader is first confronted with the cell in which all Miniluv prisoners are initially placed. The stark white, brightly lit walls create a claustrophobic environment that only lends itself to increasing the prisoners' and the reader's anxiety. In addition to the walls, there are four telescreens. This accentuates the oppressive feeling associated with constant surveillance. When combined with the extraordinarily bright lighting, it also accentuates lack of escape possibilities. The prisoners can neither escape nor try to escape. Even the location of Winston's various cells, many of which are located either deep underground or as high as the building's roof, plays a large role in Orwell's use of setting. They also underscore the inescapability of the building, the Thought Police, and the consequences of committing thought-crime.


Although there are several examples of foreshadowing in the text, the most striking examples are associated with the print of St. Clement's Dane that hangs in Mr. Charrington's room. The first time Winston visits the room, Mr. Charrington draws his attention to the old print. Oddly, Winston had not shown any interest in purchasing a print; however, he did make notice of the absence of a telescreen in the room. Following his remark about the telescreen, Mr. Charrington points out the print of the old church. Unfortunately for Winston, he declines Mr. Charrington's offer to remove form the wall for a closer inspection. Had he indulged the shop keeper's desire to show him the print, Winston would have discovered the trap being laid for him. The second example is from Julia's first visit to Mr. Charrington's room. She takes special notice of the print and promises to clean behind one day. The peculiar attention paid to the print as well as the bizarre nursery rhyme referencing the old churches in London tell the reader that there is a secret associated with the photograph of St. Clement's Dane which is only to be discovered at the end of the novel.


Orwell uses satire to explore the dangers of a totalitarian regime. For example, dark humor is used to describe the Two Minutes Hate. The mere absurdity of grown people becoming venomously angry at a screen projection of a man who they have never seen in person is amusing albeit disturbing. The use of irony has already been discussed, but the two key points should be enumerated here. First is the irony of the names of the governmental institutions. They do not fulfill the mission implied by their titles, for example the Ministry of Love concerns itself with torturing prisoners rather than creating an environment of love through the maintenance of law and order. The use of exaggeration is prevalent throughout the text. From the setting of the city to the poor quality of consumption goods produced by the Ministry of Plenty, Orwell has exaggerated everything to ensure that the reader understands the severity of a totalitarian regime. Overall, 1984 is considered a darkly satirical text because through humor, exaggeration, and irony Orwell demonstrates the dangers and absurdities inherent to oppressive societies.


Orwell uses flashbacks in the form of dreams to provide a context for Winston's inner-conflict and motivations. The main flashback/dream that recurs in the novel is of his mother sinking away from him while watches from above. Although the reader does not discover the importance of Winston's mother until after he begins his affair with Julia, it is clear that she has ha a major and tragic impact on Winston's present life. What seems like the memory of her death (though it is actually the memory of her disappearance) plagues him well into his adulthood. Then we learn that she was an early victim of the Party's purges of undesirables in the Fifties. Not only do the flashbacks, which increase with frequency, provide a clue to a past he has forgotten, but they also help the reader understand one of the underlying causes of Winston's neuroses.

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