1984 by George Orwell – Summary and Themes | History Hit

1984 by George Orwell – Summary and Themes

Analysis of the plot and key themes in George Orwell's dystopian novel about totalitarianism.

Image Credit: Teet Ottin

Published in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (also stylised as 1984) was Orwell’s ninth and final book completed in his lifetime. A dystopian science fiction novel and so-called ‘cautionary tale’, it explores themes of mass surveillance, totalitarianism, the repressive regimentation of people and their behaviours, torture, the manipulation of history and facts and the class system. Orwell was himself a democratic socialist, and modelled the government within the novel on the systems of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.

The story takes place in an imagined future, the year 1984, when the majority of the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, propaganda and historical negationism. Great Britain is now named Oceania, is ruled by ‘Big Brother’, i.e. the Party, and employs the Thought Police to monitor everyone’s thoughts and behaviour, and prosecute people for exhibiting even the smallest sign of individuality.

Protagonist Winston Smith is a member of the Outer Party. He works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where he is required to rewrite history to suit Oceania’s political agenda. He decides to start a diary – an act punishable by death – as a means of retaining a sense of individualism and humanity. However, telescreens, which monitor every move people make, mean that he risks his life every time he writes in it, or does anything at all that could be perceived as anti-Party.

He catches the eye of an Inner Party Member, O’Brien, who he thinks is an ally. He also catches the eye of a dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department, Julia, and starts an affair with her. The pair meet in secret and rent a room above an antique shop in an area lived in by proles – or the Lower Class – where they believe that they won’t be caught. Together, they dream of rebellion. O’Brien makes contact with Winston, and persuades him that he is a member of a resistance group called the Brotherhood that has a plan to overthrow Big Brother and the party. Winston and Julia talk of their lives, their repressed memories and their desire for a better world.

However, it is revealed that O’Brien was actually a member of the Thought Police all along, and Julia and Winston are arrested, tortured and interrogated. Winston betrays Julia, and Julia betrays Winston. After weeks of torture, Winston is re-programmed to love Big Brother and the party, and can scarcely believe that he had revolutionary views before. His relationship with Julia ends.

Here’s a breakdown of 4 of the key themes in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.


One of George Orwell’s aims in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four was to warn the West of the dangers of a totalitarian government. Writing in the 40s, before the Cold War escalated, Orwell had witnessed the sheer scale to which totalitarian governments in Spain and Russia would go to to maintain their power, and wanted to warn those who were unsure about communism of its certain dangers, rather than a moral experiment that might work. Orwell was particularly disturbed by the rise of technology to monitor and control populations.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell presents Oceania as the most ‘perfect’ or extreme totalitarian society, since the government has absolute power. At the time of publishing in 1949, the title was meant to indicate that the situation held a true and real possibility for the near future. This is realised through the character of Winston, who, though he has anti-Party thoughts and believes that he will be able to rebel against the system, is ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer might of the Party’s methods of control.

These methods include psychological manipulation, since citizens are constantly being watched and are encouraged to watch each other, as well as parades and displays that encourage hatred against foreign nations and individuals, who may not even exist. Physical control is also used, since the threat of torture – in the famous room 101 – looms heavy over Winston and Julia throughout, who both (correctly) claim that they would not be able to stop from implicating the other in the face of torture.

Language as Mind Control

A central theme of Orwell’s novel is the power that language holds as a method of mind control. Winston’s job is to change the history of recorded words and language by editing newspaper articles, photographs, public records and so on. This fundamentally limits human ability to formulate and express thoughts and ideas, which in turn makes it difficult to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because the language surrounding rebelliousness doesn’t exist.

This idea is manifested through Newspeak, a Party rewriting of the English language, which aims to remove words from the dictionary, rather than add them. For instance, the opposite word to ‘good’ becomes ungood, rather than ‘bad’. By limiting people’s language, the Party aims to limit people’s capacity to conceptualise challenging authority.

Interestingly, Orwell may have been drawing a comparison to the legacy of colonialism, whereby colonial powers often made it mandatory that their language be spoken in the lands they forced control over, and made engaging with indigenous language and culture a crime.


Throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia discuss their revolutionary ideas, and believe that a group called the Brotherhood led by a man called Emmanuel Goldstein are planning a coup. For Winston and Julia, their revolutionary ideas begin with personal acts of rebellion such as keeping a journal, buying a decorative paperweight and, later, engaging in an otherwise forbidden relationship with Julia. Their sexual relationship also commits the thoughtcrime of desire towards each other. Though Winston doesn’t believe that he can personally destruct the Thought Police, he holds onto the hope that one day, a revolution will be possible.

Winston’s most concrete hope for actual revolution lies with the proles, the lower class, who he observes have both far greater numbers than the Party and are capable of more independent thought. However, they have been subjugated so severely by their poverty-stricken circumstances that they do not have the strength to carry out a revolution.

Meanwhile, the Party itself claims that it is the product of a Revolution: according to Winston, it was created during the 1960s during a revolution that overthrew the existing British social order. The Party claims that the revolution has not yet ended and will only be fulfilled when they have achieved complete control.

The oppression of writers

Orwell himself lived at a time when it was difficult to have his writing published; he lived during a highly political time in post-war Europe. For instance, he found it difficult to find a publisher for one of his most famous works, Animal Farm. Nonetheless, like Orwell, Winston recognises the importance of writing as a tool of rebellion and an expression of humanity, so decides to write a diary in spite of the severe consequences of being caught. This contrasts with his day job, which involves him re-writing and falsifying historical records, which in itself is a censorship and oppression of the written word.

Orwell utilises writing and the role of the author to emphasise the extent that governments can go to in order to manipulate the written word, and thus the minds of their citizens. In the novel, the written or printed word is so dangerous that Winston has to conceal a little ink mark from his fingers that might betray he has been writing, and later, he has to destroy Julia’s note professing her love. Even books are written by machines, and existing writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Shakespeare are translated into Newspeak: the artist is redundant.

As an act of resistance, Emanuel Goldstein’s book is treated as a ‘bible’ for the revolutionary people, to try and demonstrate that the pen is mightier than the sword. However, Orwell strongly suggests that the book is also a forgery, designed to entrap those with anti-Party ideas.

Chapters of 1984

1984 – Part 1, Chapter 1
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 2
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 3
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 4
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 5
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 6
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 7
1984 – Part 1, Chapter 8
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 1
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 2
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 3
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 4
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 5
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 6
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 7
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 8
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 9
1984 – Part 2, Chapter 10
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 1
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 2
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 3
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 4
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 5
1984 – Part 3, Chapter 6
1984 – Appendix

For an analysis of the novel’s main characters and what they represent, click here.

Tags: George Orwell

Lucy Davidson