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Nineteen Eighty-four

This science fiction book by George Orwell is written for adults, but is studied in some high school classes.

Plot Summary

Winston Smith works as a clerk in London, the chief city of Airstrip One in the provinces of Oceania. The dystopian nation where Winston lives is ruled by the Party, a totalitarian regime whose key phrases include "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength." The face of Big Brother, the Party's figurehead, graces posters on every wall and street corner; the signage warns: "Big Brother is Watching." Inside every home and workplace, telescreens monitor individuals to ensure their behaviors, facial expressions and even dreams show no indication of dissension. Children are urged to spy on their parents and turn them in for any action that might indicate Party disloyalty. The Party has created its own language, newspeak, that is constantly evolving to eliminate words that don't promote their orthodoxy. They also preach "doublethink," where people must believe two opposing thoughts at once if the Party requires it.

Ultimately, the Party seeks to control reality, believing whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past. Government offices, like the one in which Winston works, ensure that any unsavory information about the past is wiped out and rewritten in all publications. The old information is then destroyed as though it never existed. One moment, Party members believe they are at war with the nation of Eurasia. A moment later, they're told they've always been at war with Eastasia, and they are compelled to believe it. Individuals caught rebelling against the Party vanish and are written out of history, becoming "unpersons."

Winston, unconvinced that the Party is right, begins to rebel in subtle ways. He starts an affair with a co-worker named Julia. He also seeks out a man in his office named O'Brien, whom he believes to be working for the rogue anti-Party group, the Brotherhood. O'Brien gives Winston a book that explains the Party's tactics. The book talks about the importance of three people classes (in Oceania's case, the Inner Party, the Outer Party and commoners called proles) and the power struggles between nations that are necessary for keeping these classes intact.

Shortly after Winston has read the book, he and Julia are arrested at their love nest. O'Brien, an operative for the Party, turns them in. He is also Winston's chief persecutor over the time he spends in prison. Winston is starved, beaten and physically tortured. Worse than that, however, is the mental anguish inflicted to convince him Big Brother and the Party are right. O'Brien explains that the martyrs of old died clutching their beliefs, but that the Party would not allow anyone to die unconverted. In session after session, O'Brien tries to convince Winston that reality exists only in his own mind. If Winston tries hard enough, he can make himself believe what the Party preaches. Winston is finally sent to room 101, where each prisoner meets his deepest fear. Winston's is rats. When faced with the prospect of being eaten alive by them, he betrays Julia and begs O'Brien to torture her instead of him. Eventually, Winston is completely brainwashed into loving Big Brother and sent back into the world where the Party finds him completely harmless. He encounters Julia once more. They confess their betrayals and no longer have any interest in one another.

Christian Beliefs

The narrator says the proles would be allowed to practice religion if they'd shown any signs of wanting or needing it. A man is imprisoned partly because he allowed the word "God" to remain at the end of a Kipling poem he was revising for the Party. O'Brien's book likens the Party to the Catholic Church in that one does not achieve membership by inheritance but by opting in.

Authority Roles

The Inner Party consists of the elite Party members, those who rule and are allowed life's luxuries. They go to great lengths, including maintaining a constant state of war, to ensure they remain in power. Big Brother is the Party's figurehead, always watching the actions of Party members. O'Brien will not tell Winston whether Big Brother is a real person, only that he will never die. O'Brien tricks Winston into thinking he (O'Brien) is a dissenter, then betrays Winston. O'Brien shows occasional tenderness in the midst of torturing Winston. He exudes a sense of wisdom and confidence in his beliefs about the Party that intimidates Winston.

Other Belief Systems

A woman in Winston's office cries out that Big Brother is her Savior. Winston tells O'Brien that the world was uninhabited for millions of years. O'Brien objects, saying it is only as old as we are. O'Brien says people could control the laws of nature, such as gravity, if they tried hard enough. He believes power can only be truly asserted when it is done through pain and humiliation. He says God is power, and Party leaders control life, so they are the priests of power. Only in a group setting is power found, he believes, and individuals are infinitely malleable. Winston says he doesn't believe in God but believes there is something deeper in man, perhaps man's spirit, that will defeat evil.

Profanity/Graphic Violence

The word d--n appears half a dozen times. A woman in prison calls someone the f-word along with b--tard. The Party urges its members to develop passionate, violent tendencies. It televises bloody events, such as a little boy's arm being blown off. It holds daily and annual Hate festivities to stir the masses into frenzies where they desire to kill or injure others. In one such Hate moment, Winston fantasizes about tying Julia naked to a stake and shooting her full of arrows before raping her and cutting her throat. Adults and children alike revel in the violence of the Party's monthly public hangings. After a bombing, Winston sees a severed hand and kicks it into the gutter. He tells Julia he's sorry he didn't shove his wife off a cliff when he had the opportunity. Winston and Julia tell O'Brien they will do whatever is necessary for the Brotherhood, including distributing addictive drugs, giving others sexually transmitted diseases, throwing sulfuric acid in a child's face or otherwise killing people. Prisoners, including Winston, are beaten and bloodied until their teeth come out (or are yanked out). Winston is starved and beaten on numerous occasions with fists, boots and steel rods. He often rolls around in his own blood and vomit. As O'Brien prepares to torture Winston with rats, he says the creatures sometimes attack the head and the eyes first and other times burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue. In terror, Winston begs O'Brien to let the rats tear off Julia's face or strip her flesh to the bones rather than doing it to him.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

The Party does not permit its members to marry for love or have sex for pleasure. They look upon sex as a "disgusting minor operation" and train people this way from childhood. Young Party members are urged to join the Anti-Sex league. Party leaders are working on a scientific way to abolish the orgasm altogether; they want that level of excitement and energy reserved for pro-Party sentiment. They fear losing control if men and women are permitted to form passionate relationships. Winston talks about his wife's rigidity and sexual "submission" to him so they could produce a child. He details a sexual encounter with an old prostitute.

The proles have no restrictions on sex and are even granted divorces. The Party produces pornographic, astrological and sensational literature and films for the proles in the Pornosec department. Julia worked there for a while, an indication that the Party felt she had good character.

Winston dreams of Julia flinging off her clothes. Later, they begin a secret love affair. She confesses she's had many and tells him she wants nothing to do with purity, virtue or goodness, but wants to be corrupt. For both, the affair is as much about rebellion against the Party as it is about sex and relationship. He comments on her breasts and about nakedness in general, and they have sex a number of times.

After his capture, Winston wonders if he'll be sent to a prison camp. He's heard they allow homosexuality, prostitution and illicit alcohol use. He confesses (dishonestly) to sexual perversion when he is being tortured.

Awards

Prometheus Hall of Fame Award Winner, 1984

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • What role does language play in the lives of Party members?
    Do you think it is possible to control people by adding or subtracting certain words from a language? Explain your answer.

  • How does the Party use fear to manipulate its members?
    How do people feel knowing Big Brother is always watching them?
    How do you feel knowing God is watching you?
    Is it a fearful feeling or a comforting one? Explain your answer.
    How do God's methods of working in your life differ from Big Brother's influence in the lives of Party members?

  • Why does the Party try to wipe out or reprogram people's memories?
    Why are memories important and valuable?

Notes:
Alcohol: Party members drink a sickly, oily spirit called Victory gin, which burns like nitric acid going down but eventually makes the world look more cheerful. When Julia and Winston visit O'Brien at his home, he gives them wine, a drink reserved for Inner Party members.

Smoking: Winston and other Party members smoke poorly made Victory cigarettes. One of Winston's co-workers smokes a pipe.


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