Study Guide

1984 Summary

By George Orwell

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1984 Summary


Need a synopsis of George Orwell's 1984? Don't worry, our 1984 summary explains the plot of this literary classic along with important themes and characters.

How does the novel 1984 start?

Where in the world does 1984 begin? We’re glad you asked because the world in 1984 looks pretty different from ours. Our story unfolds on a cold April day in 1984 (what a surprise) in Oceania, the totalitarian superpower in post World War II Europe. Actually, “Oceania” is a little too broad, seeing as the superstate encompasses the continents formerly known as the Americas, Australia, parts of Africa, and the British Isles. 1984 takes place on those Isles, now referred to as “Airstrip One.”

The ruling party in Oceania is English Socialism, sometimes known as Ingsoc, more commonly known as The Party. The Party is an ominously vague entity with an ominously vague mascot: Big Brother. Unlike the fun-loving scamps of daytime television who’ll pick you up from school and take you out for ice cream, the Big Brother character in 1984 is there to remind all the Party members and citizens of Oceania not to step out of line. Essentially, Big Brother’s face is on telescreens in every room of every building, with the words “Big Brother is watching you.” Say it with us: Creepy.

Who’s the protagonist of 1984?

Against this bleak backdrop, we find Winston Smith. He’s employed as an editor in the records department at the Ministry of Truth, one of the divisions of The Party created to push government propaganda (so, not truth). The Ministry of Truth deals in “Newspeak,” a Party-approved language system specialized in rewriting plain English into catchy slogans like “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”

This government position in the Ministry of Truth classifies our very own Winston Smith as a member of the “Outer Party,” meaning he’s a trusted worker with some authority over the lower class, also known as “the proles.” However, he doesn’t have any real decision-making power like members of the “Inner Party,” a.k.a. the head honchos, do.

What actually happens in 1984, anyway?

When we first meet Winston Smith, he’s dragging himself home to his apartment building, Victory Mansions, and if you’re following along, you’ve probably guessed by now that there’s nothing victorious about the dilapidated, run-down complex. Depressed and oppressed, Winston starts a journal of his rebellious thoughts against the Party. If discovered, this journal would be considered a “thoughtcrime”—hence why Big Brother is always watching—and would result in his execution. Now that's playing with fire. For the sake of added precautions, Winston only writes when safe from the view of the surveying telescreens—and when that shot of industrial grade "Victory Gin" kicks in.

1984 world map with Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia(Click the map infographic to download.)

At work, Winston becomes curious about "the brunette" or “the dark-haired girl” (a.k.a. Julia), a machine-operator in the Fiction Department. Although at one time he feared that she was a member of the Thought Police—that’s the literal militant force that arrests people for thoughtcrimes—all his paranoia ends when she slips him a note reading "I love you" in the corridor one day. The two begin a secret love affair, first meeting up in the countryside, and then in a rented room atop Mr. Charrington's shop in the prole districta, short for proletariat. All of these places are away from surveillance — or so they think.

As Winston and Julia fall deeper in love, Winston finds that his views about their government (the Party) change. There's something about Ingsoc that doesn't seem quite right— is it the manipulation? The doublethink? The “two-minute hate”? The changing of historical records? The all-around sketchiness? On second thought, maybe there are a lot of things about Ingsoc that don’t seem right.

Winston is drawn to the revolutionary "Brotherhood,” because, well, they're revolutionary. The Brotherhood is supposedly a group of dissidents led by the mysterious Emmanuel Goldstein, who never actually appears in the book outside of the telescreens. In other words, Emmanuel Goldstein may just be a fictitious “enemy of the state” created by The Party to help them rally citizens against “thought criminals.” Eventually, Winston makes contact with O'Brien, who Winston thinks is a member of the Brotherhood, but who in actuality is a member of the Thought Police. O'Brien arranges for Winston to receive a copy of "Goldstein’s book," a resistance manifesto which supposedly exposes the how and the why for the resistance.

Unfortunately, Winston never finds out the why. Instead, he gets tortured. But before the torturing, he and Julia are apprehended by the Thought Police. Turns out that secret hiding place wasn't so secret after all. The happy couple is then brought to the Ministry of Love, where criminals and opponents of the Party are tortured, interrogated, and "reintegrated" before their release and ultimate execution. O'Brien runs the show as far as Winston's torture sessions are concerned.

How does 1984 end?

Well, it’s a dystopian novel about totalitarianism, so it probably isn’t surprising that 1984’s ending isn’t exactly made for Disney. Months after being arrested, poor Winston Smith is sent to Room 101, where every person who enters is faced with their greatest fear. For Winston, it’s rats—why did it have to be rats? Musing on the impending rats-chewing-on-his-face scenario, Winston calls out, "Do it to Julia!" That's pretty much what O'Brien was looking for, so Winston gets to go back to being a happy member of the rat race. Released, Winston's heart is filled with love for the Party. Even when he and Julia meet again by chance at the Chestnut Tree Café, they feel apathetic towards each other. The last man in the superstate of Oceania has been converted and destroyed. Quite the fine point there, George.

1984 Plot Summary(Click the plot infographic to download.)

By the way, here's our super-Shmoopy 1984 plot summary in paragraph form:

Here’s how it all goes down.

1) Winston Smith - We meet Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania, who works at the Ministry of Truth.
2) Journal - Winston copes with his misery by writing in a secret journal when the telescreens are not watching.
3) Julia - Winston becomes attracted to Julia at work. Winston fears she is a member of the Thought Police until she slips him a love note.
4) Love nest - Winston and Julia fall in love and meet in secret where they believe they’re unwatched.
5) O’Brien- Winston is drawn to the Revolutionary Brotherhood. He then seeks out their leader, O’Brien, who plans to share the Brotherhood’s manifesto.
6) Surveillance - O’Brien turns out to be a member of the Thought Police. Winston and Julia are arrested and find that their room was being watched.
7) Room 101 - O’Brien tortures Winston in Room 101. Faced with his deepest fear, rats, Winston tells O’Brien to torture Julia instead.
8) Reconditioned - In the end Julia and Winston are turned back into true members of the Party. They now ignore each other as if nothing happened

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