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.

Chapter 1 Summary

Brief Summary

Winston Smith, the protagonist of the story, begins the dangerous venture of a diary while home from work for lunch. He manages only to scribble a few disjointed thoughts about some war films he saw, his hatred for Big Brother, and his disturbance from the Party's attempts at thought control. He is inspired to do this by an incident that occurred at the day's Two Minutes Hate (9). He believes that O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party, exchanged a glance telling of his disloyalty to Big Brother. He is interrupted by his neighbor Mrs. Parsons who needs her kitchen sink unclogged. Her two overzealous children accuse Smith of being a thought-criminal and physically assault him. That night he dreams of his mother and sister drowning in a ship as he watches from above. He also dreams of young woman from work that he saw at the Two Minutes Hate. He spends most of his next day at work altering previously published records as part of Big Brother's reality control (35) initiative.

Detailed Summary

It's a cold, windy April day in the province of Air Strip One in the supernation of Oceania, one of three remaining countries. Winston Smith returns home to the Victory Mansions for his lunch break from work. Winston laboriously climbs seven flights of stairs rather than take the elevator to his apartment because the electricity is turned off during the day as ...part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week (1). A menacing poster featuring the enormous face of a middle-aged, handsome, mustachioed man beneath which reads the caption BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU (2) hangs in each landing. This same poster is hung on every corner and house in the area surrounding his building. From his window, Smith surveys the dreary and severely decaying cityscape of London and tries to recall if it was like this when he was a child. He sees the Ministry of Love and his office building, the Ministry of Truth, on which is written the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE/FREEDOM IS SLAVERY/IGNORANCE IS TRUTH (4). There are also two other ministries, the Ministry of Peace which deals with matters of war and the Ministry of Plenty which deals with economic matters. He keeps his back turned to the wall behind him in order to prevent his drift into nostalgia from being captured by the telescreen: one of the many weapons used by the terrifying Thought Police to constantly monitor every citizen's thoughts and behavior.

After adjusting his countenance for the telescreen, Smith serves himself some Victory Gin and grabs his few remaining Victory Cigarettes, neither of which are of as good a quality as is implied by their brand name. He returns to the living room where he sits at his desk nestled in an alcove safely out of the telescreen's visual range. He takes out a blank journal that he purchased several days ago in the prole (proletarian) section of the city and begins a diary: a dangerous, though not illegal, act. He experiences trouble as he starts to write because he neither remembers how to write by hand nor what the date is. He scrawls April 4th, 1984on the page and ponders its accuracy. He also begins to question for whom he is writing the journal: For whom was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn. His mind hovered for a moment round the doubtful date on the page, and then fetched up with a bump against the Newspeak word doublethink . For the first the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless (7).

Suddenly he hurriedly scribbles that he watched several war movies the night before. His written ramblings lead him to remember the incident that inspired him to begin his diary sooner than he first planned. During the Two Minutes Hate (9) an event during which each citizen within the Party system must focus extreme, violent hatred on the the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People (11), he exchanged a brief, conspiratorial glance with O'Brien, an Inner Party member. Winston believes he saw the same secret hatred he has for Big Brother in O'Brien's eyes. Winston has conflicting feelings for Big Brother and the Party. Even though he cannot remember much before the Revolution, Winston does have some memories that contradict the historical teachings of the Party. He also finds current living conditions more intolerable than they were in vaguely remembered earlier years. However, the Two Minutes Hate is such an intense exercise that he cannot prevent himself from joining his comrades in their violent reactions to Goldstein's face. Winston realizes that he has been writing the entire time he was thinking about O'Brien. He scrawled DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER several times on the page, an act that is far worse than keeping the diary. However, he knows that is does not matter what he writes or if he writes because he has already committed the essence of thought-crime, something that he could not hide forever. He knows that the Thought Police will eventually get him. He continues to write treasonous thoughts in his journal when there is a knock at the door.

Chapter 1Analysis

Chapter 1 provides a general overview of the setting (time and place) of the novel. From the first sentence describing the cold day in spring (1), the reader knows that it is not yet spring. In fact the harsh wind may be making it unusually cold for the month of April. Moving from the exterior to the interior, Orwell describes the apartment house, Victory Mansions, in such a way as to emphasize the discrepancy between the building's name and its actual condition. The hallways smell of spoilt food and filth, there is no electricity, and the only dcor is a large poster featuring Big Brother and his infamous warning/slogan Big Brother is Watching You (2). Taking these factors into account, the reader can assume that the Oceania is a totalitarian state. This is confirmed by the mention of the Police Patrol hovering above rooftops and the Thought Police: both groups charged with monitoring Air Strip One ...the third most populous of the provinces in Oceania (3).

Attention is then drawn back to the exterior as the protagonist, Winston Smith, gazes at the street from his window. The cold temperature and consequently cold appearance of the outside world are noted as is the lack of color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere (2). There are dilapidated Victorian homes, wooden shacks, and numerous piles of rubble where bombs have exploded. Orwell uses parallelism here to demonstrate that the exterior world is a reflection of the interior world and vice versa: cold, dreary, and rotting. This is also true in terms of the inhabitants of this city. They, too, are dreary, rotting shells who must divest themselves of any warm emotion for fear of being vaporized by the Thought Police. Smith demonstrates this by the caution he exercises while standing in front of the telescreen in his apartment.

Orwell uses Winston as the narrative key to explore the dominant theme of 1984 : life under complete political control or life in the absence of absolute freedom. Based on Chapter 1, one can surmise the author's definition of absolute freedom: to think and feel as one desires without the specter of interrogation and death looming over one's head. In fact, freedom=desire and acting on desire is one way of manifesting Orwell's vision of freedom. Through Smith, the reader is shown what becomes of people whose existence and essence are monitored to the point of destruction. While there are several examples of the depths of insanity and stupidity to which people sink when they are forbidden all sense of self, the Two Minutes Hate is the most exemplary. Winston's co-workers fail to acknowledge the absurdity of dedicating two minutes of everyday as well as an entire week to despising one man who they have never seen. They also seem to overlook the failure of the Party's campaign against Goldsteinism, an ideology that is contrary to Big Brother's INGSOC: [n]ewspeak, doublethink, the mutability of the past (26). None of them have ever seen Goldstein or know for certain that he is a real person, yet his influence is pervasive and largely as a result of the Party's incessant focus on Goldstein as an enemy of the state.

The beginning of the diary is a supporting element to Orwell's intention with Winston. In a democratic society, neither keeping a journal nor questioning the government has punishable consequences. Rather, thought and expression of thought is encouraged. However, in Oceania, thought alone is a punishable offense. From the beginning of the chapter, the reader's attention is called to Winston's mental environment. He hides his face as he thinks about the appearance of the city and forces himself to change his countenance before facing the telescreen. In regards to the diary, his only concern is that he will be unable to hide his opposition to the Party for much longer. The act of writing, though it can be read as a revolutionary act, is not as important to becoming free in Oceania as is the development of one's personal thoughts. To have a personal thought that is not issued or mandated by the Party is the freedom for which Orwell is arguing. Yet, as the reader learns later in the chapter, the thought process has dried up for Winston: All he had to do was transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running in his head for years... however, even the monologue had dried up (7-8).

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