It's an anti-utopian novel, set in an imaginary future.
The world is divided into three blocks: Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia. Oceania (North America, South Africa, Australia) is a big totalitarian system. Airstrip One, a future England, is an outpost of Oceania. London is a desolated city governed by terror, under the constant control of Big Brother.
Oceania is a huge country ruled by The Party.
The Inner Party (1% of population) controls the country.
The Outer Party (18% of population) is controlled by the Inner Party.
The Proles (81% of population) are the labor power who live in poverty.
The Brotherhood is an underground rebel organization lead by Emmanuel Goldstein.
The Party controls everything through the Thought police, the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love.
In the Ministry of Truth history and facts are manipulated according to the Party’s interests.
In the Ministry of Love dissenters are tortured until they conform to the system and are arrested by the thoughtpolice.
Obviously all these names are ironical.
Free thought, sex without the aim of procreation and any expression of individuality are forbidden. There’s no privacy, as telescreens are everywhere.
“[…] an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound […] would be picked by it” (Chapter 1)
Oceania lives in a perpetual state of war and hatred towards the enemy is promoted through the everyday ceremony of Two minutes Hate.
There’s no private commerce or enterprise, as the Party provides for everything.
Newspeak is the official language of Oceania. The goal of the Party is to have Newspeak replace Oldspeak (standard English). Newspeak eliminates undesirable words and creates neologisms – all to force Party conformity. The aim is to eliminate literature, thoughts and consciousness. Some words are eliminated to make people forget about their meaning, therefore the existence of that specific feeling.
The Ministry of Truth changes history, facts, and memories to promote Doublethink , the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs. The historical reference is to Stalin’s will to change history.
Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, illegally buys a diary, where he notes his thought and feelings. Shortly after, he starts a secret affair with an attractive girl, Julia. O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, invites them to his flat and tells them he hates the Party , so he’s become a member of the Brotherhood led by Emmanuel Goldstein. He gives them a copy of Goldstein’s book. While Winston and Julia are reading the book in their secret apartment, the Thoughtpolice breaks in and arrests them.
Winston is taken to the Ministry of Truth and finds out O’Brien is a spy of the Party’s. He is tortured and brainwashed by O’Brien for months. He resists until he’s brought to Room 101. Room 101 is the place where prisoners have to face their worst fear. When Winston is threatened to have his face eaten by rats, he gives up shouting : "Do it to Julia!“. He’s betrayed her, and relinquished his love for her. He is released soon afterwards. He meets Julia, but he no longer loves her. He’s learnt to love Big Brother.
•Introduction of the protagonist, Winston Smith, in this oppressive world.
•Winston & Julia’s love (happiness).
•Winston’s imprisonment and torture.
His name is carefully chosen.
Indeed “Smith” is the most common English surname so the hero is a sort of Everyman.
“Winston” evokes Churchill’s patriotic appeals during the Second World War: “blood, sweat and tears”.
He experiences alienation from society, rebellion against the Party, search for spiritual and moral integrity. In the first two parts of the novel Winston expresses Orwell’s point of view.
Julia is Winston’s 25-year-old lover. She is a beautiful dark-haired woman who enjoys sex and claims she had affairs with many Party members. She is optimistic and her rebellion is basically personal. Her rebellion is personal: she's not critical against society.
He's supposed to be the leader of the Brotherhood, but never shows up. A dangerous mysterious enemy, whose name is inspired by Trotsky’s surname: Bronshtein. He represents the theme of the necessity of an enemy onto which people’s anger is driven, so... Does the Brotherhood really exist?
Big Brother is the perceived ruler of Oceania. He looks like a combination of Hitler and Stalin. Big Brother’s God-like image is stamped on coins and projected on telescreens , so his gaze is unavoidable. Anyway no one ever met him by far, so he could be an invention of the party just to give people a still point. His title is ironical, as he doesn’t take care of his “little brothers”.
He obviously looks like the villain of the story; anyway we know little about him since even if the narrator is expressed in third person he's not omniscient and adopts Winston's point of view (the reader knows what Winston knows-therefore he knows very much about Winston but very little about many of the party facts and conspirators).
E.G. the picture: Winston took a picture which witnessed some private facts about The Party, and it was later destroyed. Since he's imprisoned and meets everyday O'Brien and gets brainwashed, he's slowly convinced he never took that picture. (abolishment of reality)
When Winston asks O’Brien if he too has been captured by the Party, O’Brien replies, “They got me long ago.” This reply could signify that O’Brien himself was once rebellious, only to be tortured into passive acceptance of the Party. On the other hand, O’Brien could pretend to sympathize with Winston merely to gain his trust.
Themes: the importance of memory and trust:
•Memory is the safeguard of moral values, as it hands down the testimony of eye-witnesses. When it’s destroyed, the truth can be replaced by lies.
•According to Orwell, human individuality cannot survive in isolation, but only in mutual relationship. When Winston has no one to trust anymore, he breaks down and conforms. As a consequence, the novel deals with the abolishment of individuality (comparison of human individuality between nineteen eighty-four and Heart of Darkness).
•It’s realistic, almost documentary, when the main characters and their vicissitudes are involved.
•It’s satirical, when the Party’s rites and propaganda are described. Orwell’s political satire is in the tradition of Swift’s, while he’s indebted to Dickens in his choice of social themes.