By George Orwell
This story features an unnamed narrator who we presume to be the same as Shooting the Moon, and his companion, Jack Mitchell. This distinctive feature adds weight to the view that the conclusion of Shooting the Moon is more of a pause than an end, and as such reinforces the significance of relaxation to the bush experience – that is, that relaxation and the exchange of stories was something that bushmen enjoyed and prolonged when given the opportunity.
The significance of rest and relaxation to the bush experience is further conveyed through the narration ‘We had tramped twenty-five miles on a dry stretch on a hot day – swagmen know what that means.’
The story is set in a dystopian vision of England in the year 1984. Britain, now known as Airstrip One, is a province of the superstate Oceania, which is perpetually at war with its rivals Eastasia and Eurasia for global dominance. The governing body of Oceania, known simply as “the Party,” is headed by the even more mysterious “Big Brother,” whose face appears in posters and on screens around the city, constantly reminding citizens of the threat posed by dissidents, spies, and war.
We are first introduced to the protagonist, Winston Smith, as he returns home from work at the Ministry of Truth, where he edits historical records to conform to the state’s constantly changing needs. It is immediately clear that Winston resents his life: his living situation is dire, he suffers from a physical ailment, and he is unconvinced that life under the Party is better than how it was before the Revolution.
During a visit to a “prole” area of the city, Winston enters an antiques shop owned by a Mr. Charrington and purchases a diary. Writing, especially the recording of events, is strictly prohibited by the Party. Nonetheless, Winston writes his thoughts down, concluding that “if there is hope, it lies in the proles.” Somewhat unnerved but also excited by this burst of rebelliousness, Winston visits another prole area, where he is disappointed to find that the people there have no political consciousness; an old man struggles to recall what life was like before the Revolution.
At the Ministry of Truth, Winston notices the movements of a colleague, Julia, who works the novel-writing machines. Winston suspects her of being a spy against him, and develops an immense, violent hatred of her. Meanwhile, he has also come to think that his superior, O’Brien, is actually part of the secret resistance known as the Brotherhood, formed by Big Brother’s rival Emmanuel Goldstein.
Winston has lunch with his colleague Syme, who appears remarkably intelligent but is also obviously completely consumed by the Party’s mandate. Syme is working on the updated version of Newspeak (the official language of Oceania, which resembles a basic version of English with extremely limited vocabulary). He reveals that the true purpose of Newspeak is to reduce the capacity of human thought. Winston acknowledges to himself that though Syme is an effective worker, he is doomed, for he is “too intelligent” – the Party will have him disappeared. The conversation switches to preparations for Hate Week, an event organised by the Party with the aim of energising the population and reminding them of who the enemy is.
One day, Julia hands Winston a note saying the loves him. This marks the beginning of their relationship, which becomes for them both an escape from the cold, hostile world of the Party. The affair must remain a secret, making it even more passionate and intense, as the Party has strictly forbidden emotional relationships, going so far as to mandate people’s sexual partners, as the Party intends sex to be only for reproduction. The two bond over their shared hatred for the Party, but while Winston fantasises about revolution, Julia is disinterested and apathetic, and has accepted the Party’s rule. Their meetings move from the countryside to room they rent from Mr Charrington above his antiques shop.
The affair reminds Winston of the life he shared with his wife Katharine, and the disappearance of his family during the civil war of the 1950s. He also notices Syme’s absence from work.
Some time passes, and Winston is approached by O’Brien, who invites him back to his apartment. Upon his arrival, Winston immediately notices that the apartment is of much higher quality than his own. O’Brien reveals himself to be a member of the Brotherhood and gives Winston a copy of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” Goldstein’s manifesto.
Later on, during Hate Week, as a Party official reads a speech denouncing Oceania’s enemy Eurasia, the official pauses for a moment before continuing, but it is now Eastasia that his words are directed against. No one seems to notice the change, but Winston is recalled to the Ministry in order to make the necessary historical revisions. After work, Winston and Julia read Goldstein’s manifesto, which articulates the nature of perpetual war, the meaning of its slogans (most importantly, “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”) together which form the basis of the Party’s strength. Winston notices though that the text fails to mention why the Party is motivated to maintain power.
During one of their visits to the room above Mr Charrington’s shop, Winston and Julia are captured and it is revealed that Charrington is actually an agent with the Thought Police. The two are separated from one another, and Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love, where he encounters colleagues who have also been detained. O’Brien arrives and reveals that he too is a member of the Though Police. O’Brien states that Winston will never know if the Brotherhood really exists, and that Goldstein’s manifesto was written collaboratively by himself and presumably other Party members.
Winston is tortured over the next few months, with the intention of moulding his brain to accept the Party’s ideology. The question of why the Party pursues power is answered by O’Brien – it “seeks power for its own sake.” O’Brien asks Winston if there’s any humiliation he has not yet been made to suffer, to which Winston points out that he has not yet betrayed Julia, despite the concessions he has made about the Party’s absolute power. Though Winston has revealed Julia’s crimes, he believes that by continuing to love her, he has remained loyal to her. He fantasises about dying a martyr.
In order to break this one last strand of rebelliousness within Winston, O’Brien takes him to Room 101, which contains each prisoner’s worst fear. Here, Winston is confronted by a cage holding rabid rats. It does not take long for Winston to betray Julia by wishing the suffering upon her instead. Realising he has been successful, O’Brien stops the torture.
Winston is released back into the community. While at the Chestnut Tree Café one day, Winston encounters Julia, who was also tortured. Both reveal that they betrayed the other, and no longer have any feels for one another. Winston returns to the café, where an emergency broadcast announces a massive victory for Oceania over Eurasian forces in Africa.
The novel concludes with the passage
"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the side of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
Context and purpose
Orwell’s dystopian social science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949, a time where the world found itself still reeling from the devastation of the Second World War, but was also confronted with the new, even more terrifying threat of the Cold War. The Cold War began at the end of WW2, as the alliance between the US and USSR became strained as both powers turned their attention towards what the world should look like following the collapse of fascist, imperialist and colonialist powers. With the collapse of fascism in Europe and colonialism in Asia in particular, the USSR sought to establish communist rule in those regions, whereas the US endorsed capitalist democracies. Naturally, these competing visions brought both powers into conflict with one another, resulting in the latter half of the twentieth century being dominated by proxy conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars as both sides competed for global dominance.
The world at this time should be imagined as being divided into two distinct blocs. It is life within the USSR that is the focus of Orwell’s text, but it must be remembered that in satirising the excesses of Stalinist Russia, he is cautioning audiences to be vigilant to the emergence of any similar forces within Western democracies, and ultimately to beware the inherently nefarious nature of tools such as propaganda and surveillance, which the West of course employed too. Of particular concern to Orwell were the cult of personality, by which Soviet leaders were elevated to God-like status, totalitarianism, which requires complete submission to state power, and mass surveillance, which is used to enforce that submission.
Referring back to Orwell’s broader global context, his text also reflected the aforementioned state of perpetual war the world ostensibly found itself in from the 1950s onwards. War itself was weaponised against local populations as a means of securing conformity and justifying repressive government tactics such as censorship and historical negationism, by which history was whitewashed so as to minimise governmental accountability and encourage support for current developments.
Human Experiences Explored
The Human Capacity for "Double Think"
A central inquiry of Orwell’s text is the capacity of humans, both on an individual and collective scale, to convincingly lie to themselves in order to appease some other urge or objective. But at the same time, that motivating purpose – to appease something – is suppressed, and the act of lying to oneself, of disbelieving what your eyes see, is masked as the obvious, natural thought process, with no further questioning about it allowed. In 1984, we see this most clearly as the Party rewrites history, and the population accepts it with no hesitation. The strain this process puts on an individual who is even just slightly more aware of their oppression is captured in the scene where Winston is forced to accept that “2 + 2 = 5.”
Orwell’s purpose in exploring this phenomenon is clear: he is scrutinising the way in which humans can so easily deceive themselves and can be deceived by others. In doing so, he touches on the immeasurable scale of the power held by institutions, especially political and corporate ones.
The Cost of Asserting Individuality in a Repressive Society
Orwell’s protagonist is raised as a glimmering sign of hope against the totalising power of the Party. As we follow his journey, we are torn between allowing ourselves to feel that his acts of individualistic expression will somehow inspire a rebellion and recognising that such a feat could never happen in this world: the Party is simply too oppressive and too efficient in its governance. And it is because of the unflinching grasp of the Party that Winston’s small acts of expressing his humanity become elevated to something resembling martyrdom, and why he and Julia are punished so severely. We see that in a repressive society, asserting one’s individuality is met with swift resistance, as it constitutes one of the most significant threats to any authoritarian or totalitarian regime, which require absolute submission to their agenda, or at least the capacity to silence any dissent.
Humanity as Resistance and Rebellion
Orwell counterpoises the cold machinery of the Party with the deeply human qualities and desires of Winston – curiosity, freedom, romance, companionship – to demonstrate the extent to which in such circumstances where an oppressive force is demanding total obedience, even such ordinary things as the aforementioned qualities can become subversive. Through his exploration of this dynamic, Orwell reminds his audiences of the capacity we all have as individuals to express ourselves, and cautions us to hold close the things that make us human. Orwell’s exploration of the way in which human forms of expression can be exploited for both subversive and suppressive aims is best captured in his metaphor of sexuality.
The Party has essentially eradicated sex from people’s lives, reducing it from an expression of emotion to its function as a reproductive act. It is no coincidence then that Winston speaks of the “Two Minutes” hate in terms of sexual excitement; here, Orwell conveys the extent to which the Party has displaced organic human emotions and desires with manufactured experiences, in order to keep the population more submissive. Similarly, that Winston and Julia pursue an affair together is symbolic of the power of expressions of humanity to challenge systems that thrive off dehumanising their subjects. Though Winston fantasises of large-scale rebellion, Julia does not, and as the reader, we see that their romance, fleeting and secretive as it may be, is the most powerful act of resistance they could perform, because it is so totally counter to the Party’s orthodoxy.
Abuse of Power
1984 provides a haunting vision of a future where humanity has become complacent with the power structures that exist, to the point where societies lack the resources to restrain them, and those bodies of power are free to do as they please. Orwell satirises this abuse of power through the Party’s motific slogan, which in its three contradictory statements, reveals the grasp the Party has on all aspects of life, and the freedom it enjoys to do whatever it wants without any accountability. That the Party is personified in the form of the enigmatic ‘Big Brother’ – who is obviously not a real person – is seen to be the basis of how they sustain their abuse of power, as they manipulate traditional conceptions of the family unit to subdue the citizens of Oceania into thinking their leader plays a protective role in their life.
The abstraction of the Party into the singular figure of ‘Big Brother’ serves another purpose: to diffuse the Party’s sources of power into an intangible target, so that it cannot be pinned down or attacked – it is omnipresent and infallible. The Party’s understanding of power is surmised by O’Brien as “not a means, it is an end.” It is because power is an end that the Party is so free to abuse it, because it has nothing more to achieve.
Loss of Freedom
Orwell’s text is best known as a warning of what inevitably follows the rise of authoritarian power structures, and when people become complacent to infringements on their liberties: the total loss of freedom. The ‘Thought Police’ represent the completeness of this loss of freedom, as even people’s private thoughts are regulated, with the actual impossibility of this being dismissed – the Party’s power overwhelms rationality. In response to the motific “2 + 2 =5,” Winston’s reflection that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” provides a haunting summary of the extent of the loss of freedom that exists in Oceania, where even basic truths and logic itself are manipulated by the Party, and its subjects are forced to accept the delusions they witness.