- Introduction – 5
→ A note on the text – 12
- Summaries – 13
→ A general summary – 13
→ Detailed summaries – 14
- Commentary – 35
→ Purpose – 35
→ Form – 36
→ Structure – 39
→ Language – 56
- Hints for study – 59
→ Useful quotations – 61
→ Answering questions – 62
→ Some questions and answers – 63
- Suggestions for further reading – 68
- The author of these notes – 70
- It is 1984. Winston Smith, a member of the Party, which constitutes fifteen per cent of the population, works in the Ministry of Truth, re-writing the records of the past. He falls in love with a girl, Julia, and they create a private world of warmth in the grey, predictable life of the time. They hire a room in one of the working-class areas of London, and they meet there as often as they can.
- Winston feels an affinity with O'Brien, an Inner Party member, who he imagines is a kindred spirit. One day O'Brien mentions a former acquaintance called Syme, who is, strictly speaking, no longer supposed to have ever existed. In so doing O'Brien and Winston become accomplices.
- Winston and Julia go round to O'Brien's luxurious flat and declare themselves opposed to the Party. They wish to become part of a secret society they have heard of, the Brotherhood. O'Brien pretends to explain the Brotherhood to them, getting them to swear allegiance to it, against the Party.
- A few days later Winston is given The Book, which contains a scathing and brilliant analysis of the Party's methods. Winston reads it, with Julia, in their room.
- They have been betrayed. The man who rented the room to them, Charrington, is a member of the Thought Police, and O'Brien has set out to trap Winston. And yet, oddly, Winston still feels an affinity with O'Brien, even in the Ministry of Love, where he and Julia are taken separately.
- Winston is tortured as part of his 'reintegration', as O'Brien calls it. There are three stages in this: learning, understanding, and acceptance. He learns, through pain, how reality may be controlled; he comes to understand, through pain and through conversation with O'Brien, why the Party works the way it does; lastly, in the dreaded Room 101, he surrenders his inner self to the Party. He accepts.
- Winston and Julia have always vowed that they would remain true to each other. In Room 101 they have betrayed that vow. Their spirits are broken. At the end, Winston loves Big Brother, presiding image of Ingsoc, or English socialism.
Examine Winston Smith's obsession with the past in Nineteen Eighty-Four1
- Julia, the girl with whom Winston Smith falls in love, cannot understand why he is so preoccupied with the past. She is inclined to live for the moment and to let the future take care of itself. But as O'Brien makes Winston repeat in the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love: 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' The Party depends for its survival on the control of the past. There must be absolute and total submission to the Party, therefore it cannot allow any memory of things other than those of which it approves. As the Party's policy is constantly changing (it switches from being at war with Eurasia to being at war with Eastasia every few years), and as its policy is that it never changes, it needs to have complete control over people's memories. Existing records are constantly being re-written to fit in with new developments; that is the function of the Ministry of Truth: to make history one huge, shifting lie.
- Any problems individuals might have in their minds, in altering their memories of past events to fit in with the new information, are dealt with by the technique of doublethink, the ability to know something is the case, and yet, at the same time, know it is not the case.
- Winston is not perfectly orthodox. The continual altering of the past, to fit in with new developments, which he himself is very good at, disturbs him deeply. Doublethink disgusts him. He is drawn, imaginatively, to the past. He buys a diary in an old junk shop in a prole quarter of London. The diary attracts him because of its old-fashioned creamy paper. In it he wants to make a kind of personal history that will be true, that will connect him as he is living now to how he was when he was living in the past. In other words he is a man in search of continuity, of identity. In this he is like many heroes of modern fiction, from Meursault in The Outsider (1942) by Albert Camus (1913-60) to Yossarian in Catch 22 (1961) by Joseph Heller (b. 1923), the American novelist. He seeks continuity with the past because he knows he cannot be fully human until he remembers and understands himself.
- The Party gets rid of unwanted records by sending the papers down the memory holes. For the Party there is no such thing as a fixed record, that is, there is no such thing as objective truth. The Party is the Truth; individual memory of different truth is not just insignificant – it is a crime. Winston's quest, in the novel, is to find his truth, and this can only be done by understanding his past. He seeks individual self-knowledge, where the Party would have him believe that the individual does not matter. He seeks clarity, understanding, and this comes through love, his love for Julia. Love restores him, and it restores his memory. He remembers, in a dream, his mother's love for his tiny starving sister, when he grabbed her share of a precious slab of chocolate. He remembers the way in which she put her arm around the little girl in a protective gesture, and this enfolding of the arm connects, in his mind, with the gesture he saw a woman make in a film, when she tried, vainly, to protect a little boy from a hail of bullets. This circular gesture also connects with the soft roundness of the paperweight (itself 'a chunk of history' the Party has left unaltered) inside of which the dream of recollection takes place. The coral at the heart of the rainwater softness of the paperweight stands, in the novel, for the love between Winston and Julia.
- The past, regained through love, was a time when there was in society in general, and not just between exceptional individuals, a code of loyalty and kinship. This gave dignity to life, a tragic dignity. Now there is only pain, fear, and heartlessness. The past, in Winston's mind, is associated with his dream of the Golden Country, a beautiful country landscape in which life was sane and whole. When he dreams of it he wakes with the word 'Shakespeare' on his lips. For a brief time Winston gains a Shakespearean dignity, through Julia, when the love he lost once comes back, only to lose it all over again, hopelessly, in the Ministry of Love.
- The book is a handy reference and reminder of the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four and its literary background and general import.
- It’s not very deep as it’s intended for GCSE and A Level students, but is well-enough done.
- I’m really most interested in the book – Nineteen Eighty-Four – because of the Party’s attitude to the past. This is covered to a degree in the Q&A above.
- However, it doesn’t really address the metaphysical questions – in particular the consequences of presentism, where the past no longer exists, and “the past” just reduces to the best interpreted evidence for what happened. This makes it subject to manipulation as in the Ministry of Truth.
- In "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History - A Philosophical Inquiry with Dr Sophie Botros" and "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History: A Philosophical Enquiry", Sophie Botros puts her trust in the integrity of historians, but this is a contingent fact. But she seems to accept O’Brien’s arguments.
- Most people’s intuitions follow (FitzGerald’s translation of) the passage from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
- What has happened has happened and is unchangeable whatever our desires or our evidence may be.
In-Page Footnotes ("Welch (Robert) - York Notes: George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty-Four")
- This is the 2nd of three “questions and answers in Section 4 of the book.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)