George Orwell’s 1984: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

In this lesson, we will discuss George Orwell’s novel, ‘1984.’ After a brief summary of the plot and the characters, we will discuss and analyze a few of its main themes.

Plot Summary

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. The dystopian novel is set in 1984 – Orwell’s near future and our recent past – but the novel is still relevant today, due to its depiction of a totalitarian government and its themes of using media manipulation and advanced technology to control people.

Winston Smith lives in London, but not the London we know. Instead of being a part of England, 1984‘s London is part of Oceania, one of the three huge governments that exist in the book’s world. Oceania is controlled by a powerful and mysterious elite. The government, referred to as ‘Big Brother,’ uses cameras and listening devices to constantly observe all of its citizens. There is also a secret police force dedicated to reporting both rebellious thoughts and general misbehavior to the appropriate authorities.

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For the most part, Winston is a typical cog in the machine. He works at the Ministry of Truth, but he has a very low-ranking position. His job is tedious and involves altering records to promote the government’s version of history.

Winston has a few problems with the government. To begin with, he does not buy into all of the propaganda he is fed. Some of the things he reads or hears contradict with his memories. For example, the government claims that they are at war against Eurasia, but Winston remembers being at war with Eastasia.

Winston also has a vision: he does not want to live under such a repressive government. He commits tiny acts of rebellion. He starts to keep a diary, and he begins to look for allies. This is a dangerous task, since Big Brother is always watching.

Despite his desire to rebel, Winston thinks he will be discovered soon by the Thought Police, the secret police force that searches for and punishes members of society that dare to even question how the government is run. The Thought Police also run a fake underground resistance in an attempt to discover rebellious Party members.

Then, Winston meets Julia at work. Despite the danger of exposing himself to a potentially fake rebel, Winston reveals his true thoughts to Julia. Julia turns out to be a rebel, too. The two start an affair, which is illegal in their country, especially because Julia is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Winston and Julia share a mutual dream of a world free from war and oppression.

O’Brien, another rebel, befriends Winston and Julia. He invites them over to his place. Unfortunately, O’Brien turns out to be one of the Thought Police working undercover. He has spent the last seven years watching Winston for rebellious tendencies. O’Brien busts them with the help of Mr. Charrington, a man from whom Winston and Julia rented a secret room to conduct their affair.

Winston and Julia are separated, and Winston is tortured. Winston resists all the torture until he is sent to Room 101 where O’Brien straps a cage of rats to his head. Winston, terrified of rats, begs O’Brien to torture Julia instead. O’Brien stops torturing Winston. In fact, he even releases him back into society. By making Winston betray Julia, O’Brien succeeded in destroying his spirit. Grateful at being released, Winston is completely recommitted to Big Brother and no longer has any feelings for Julia.

Characters

There are many minor characters in 1984, including coworkers at the Ministry where Winston and Julia work, or other prisoners at the prison Winston is taken to at the end of the book. There are only a few major characters.

Winston is the main character. He works at the Ministry of Truth, altering history for the government. He tries to rebel but is caught by O’Brien. He betrays Julia and recommits himself to the Party.

Julia, like Winston, is a secret rebel against the party. They have an affair. When she is separated from Winston at the end of the book, she is also tortured and released back into society only after she has similarly betrayed her values.

O’Brien poses as a secret rebel within the Inner Party, but he has always been a loyal Party member. He has been setting a trap for the last seven years to trick Winston.

Big Brother is the nickname for the leader of the Party and also the government. Propaganda used by the government claims ‘Big Brother is watching you.’ Because of the symbolic nature of ‘Big Brother,’ the name can transfer to each new Party leader in turn so the Party will never weaken or die.

Mr. Charrington owns a shop and rents a room to Winston and Julia. He sells black market antique goods, such as paper and pens. Mr. Charrington betrays Winston. He spies on Winston and Julia while they commit their affair and then reports them to the Thought Police.

Winston is actually married. He and his wife, Katharine, are separated. They separated after they were unsuccessful at having any children. Winston has ill feelings towards Katharine.

Themes

There are multiple, important themes at work in 1984.

Manipulation takes many different forms in 1984. Winston manipulates history for a living at his job. He is supposed to ‘correct’ mistakes made in past articles. In reality, he alters past articles so that people looking up past events will only know the version of history that those in control of the present want them to know.

In the novel, some of the characters also manipulate each other. For example, O’Brien appears to be a friend of Winston’s, when in reality he has been setting up a scheme over the course of seven years to get Winston to betray the party and prove his disloyalty.

Language is also manipulated in the novel. While not a critical part of the plot, part of the novel is devoted to the idea of ‘newspeak.’ Newspeak is similar to English, especially grammatically, but there is only one word for any concept and no vocabulary for words or concepts the government does not want discussed. The reasoning behind it is to control people’s language and also their thoughts.

Another important theme in 1984 is technology. While the novel was written in 1949, it was set in 1984, and a lot of the technology present in the book was very advanced for 1949. Every home has a television screen, for example, through which the government spies on the home’s occupants. There are also listening devices everywhere to assist the government spying on its own people. In addition, history is doctored physically, even photographs, so that people who commit crimes are retroactively erased from history.

While some of this technology is either at the same level or outdated compared to the type of technology we have now, 1984 remains thematically relevant today. While more advanced methods might be used now, the ability to secretly spy on people has grown considerably since this novel has been published. Furthermore, since most of our information is online now, if a government similar to the one in 1984 were to gain control, it would be much easier, at least in some ways, for people like Winston to alter historical ‘fact.’ While technology undoubtedly makes life better in many ways, 1984 remains an eerie warning about a few of its downsides.

Lesson Summary

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. The dystopian novel is set in 1984 – Orwell’s near future and our recent past – but the novel is still relevant today, due to its depiction of a totalitarian government and its themes of using media manipulation and advanced technology to control people. Winston is the main character. He works at the Ministry of Truth, altering history for the government. He tries to rebel but is caught by O’Brien. He betrays Julia and recommits himself to the Party.

Julia, like Winston, is a secret rebel against the party. They have an affair. When she is separated from Winston at the end of the book, she is also tortured and released back into society only after she has similarly betrayed her values. Big Brother is the nickname for the leader of the Party and also the government. Propaganda used by the government claims ‘Big Brother is watching you.’ Because of the symbolic nature of ‘Big Brother,’ the name can transfer to each new Party leader in turn so the Party will never weaken or die.

One key element of the manipulation in 1984 is newspeak, which is similar to English, especially grammatically, but there is only one word for any concept and no vocabulary for words or concepts the government does not want discussed.

Important Characters ; Themes in George Orwell’s 1984

1984 character
  • Characters
    • Winston Smith
    • Julia
    • O’Brien
    • Big Brother
    • Mr. Charrington
  • Themes
    • Manipulation
    • Language
    • Technology

Learning Outcomes

Viewing the lesson on George Orwell’s 1984 could prepare you to take the following actions:

  • Provide a summary of 1984
  • Note the importance of several of its characters
  • Discuss and analyze the importance of the major themes of the novel
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