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A Bluffer's Guide To Great Books: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Updated on November 11, 2015
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Kevin was born in Stevenage New Town, UK in the summer of 1959, and graduated from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge in 1980.

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s one of the C20th’s super-novels – Nineteen Eighty-Four!

A warning, a prophecy, or just a story?

In retrospect, it can be seen as all three. Indeed, it would appear to have over-fulfilled its literary quota and moved from being a Sci-Fi inspired future-history novel, to become a piece of historical fiction. The old, worn-out debate about its prophetic significance has gone by the board; look around you – do you get the feeling you are being watched?

But the significance of this novel is not merely that it pointed the way, however doomily, but that it did so so thoroughly, so tangibly, so well. The grit, the dust, the despair: one can taste all three in Orwell’s carefully constructed dystopia; the terrible gin, the awful food, the rickety cigarettes, and not just these - the chained-up words, the visible thoughts, the cowering fears and traitorous dreams..

John Hurt as Winston Smith
John Hurt as Winston Smith | Source
Suzanne Hamilton as Julia
Suzanne Hamilton as Julia | Source
Richard Burton as O'Brien
Richard Burton as O'Brien | Source

The Main Characters

Winston Smith works for MiniTru (the Ministry of Truth - in other words, the totalitarian government's propaganda arm), where he destroys inconvenient facts and replaces them with suitable fictions.

An Outer-Party member, he was married, but is now separated and lives alone in a grim little flat in Victory Mansions.

There, in an alcove hidden from the prying eye of the telescreen, he writes treasonable thoughts in a recently purchased notebook. He is, in the words of the regime, a thought-criminal. He hates Big Brother (the notional leader of the Party and the state) and hopes for a future when humanity may once again live and think freely.

Julia is a worker in the Porn section of MiniTru, and despite her apparent fidelity to the cause of the Party (which includes membership of the AntiSex League) she is also a thought criminal and rebel, who takes delight in having illicit sex with as many Party members as she can. The thrill is as much that of revolt as it is of sensuality.

O'Brien is an Inner-Party member whom Smith takes at first to be a part of the secret opposition. He is in fact a stalwart of the Party who draws Smith out and then imprisons, tortures and brainwashes him.

The 'Book'
The 'Book' | Source
Goldstein - the author of the 'Book'
Goldstein - the author of the 'Book'

The Plot

Winston Smith commits thought-crime by 'secretly' writing anti-Party slogans in a newly acquired notebook.

He attracts the attention of Julia (another undercover rebel) and O'Brien, an Inner-Party member.

Julia and Winston visit the countryside and make love. They later rent a room where they continue their illicit affair.

O'Brien invites Smith to his apartment, where he hands over the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary, which contains within it the subversive Anti-Party book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

Winston and Julia are arrested in flagrante delicto by the Thought Police and taken off to the Ministry of Love where they are tortured (Smith by O'Brien, in reality a Thought Policeman) and only released when they have both been thoroughly brainwashed into accepting Big Brother.


Words, words, words

Nineteen Eighty Four (amongst other things) is a primer on how to write – including how not to write, if you aspire to being a compleat human being. Unsurprisingly, Orwell attaches great importance to words, and much of the novel centres around what is and isn’t said, and especially what is sayable. All sorts of things get said, and then unsaid. Some things get said that should never have been said, and can never be unsaid. “Do it to Julia!”, for instance.


In Orwell’s terrible world, Newspeak words have become so well established that they are themselves almost as real as chocolate bars once were and, conversely, by the operation of these new words, certain other things lose their substantiality. Such as Love, Peace and Freedom. Orwell was a big fan of Swift and in Gulliver's Travels the academicians of the Grand Academy of Lagado, have begun to replace words with the objects themselves. In Airstrip 1, words are beginning to replace other words, and with them their attendant ideas and emotions.


At the heart of the novel is betrayal - the betrayal of one's real thoughts and feelings; the betrayal of others, even lovers; and perhaps above all, the betrayal of language, that slippery swarm of referents, made manifest in Smith's Room 101 horror of horrors - rats.


The Historical Background

Orwell was a socialist, not a communist - and certainly not a Stalinist. He had already fallen foul of the Communists during the Spanish Civil War whilst fighting for the Nationalist side. The communists were supposed to be on the same side as Orwell and his POUM* comrades , but they had a different agenda, and that did not include the support of a party with Trotskyite origins.

The Stalinist style of government was totalitarian, and pursued much the same policy as IngSoc, the Party in Orwell's novel - everything was subsumed to the interests of the Party and had little to do with the liberation of the workers, or anyone else for that matter. The point of the Party is the Party itself, and both IngSoc and Stalin's regime employed much the same terror and propaganda methods. In particular, Winston's rewriting of history was commonplace in the Soviet Union (see illustration), as well as spying on the populace by the security services. The only difference is that Orwell's Party is technically more sophisticated and much further advanced in the destruction of ordinary language and prevention of Thoughtcrime.

Orwell was long dead when CCTV and electronic spying became so prevalent, but he would have recognised the totalitarian implications of our modern system of public surveillance and may have had a lot to say about our modern version of the telescreen - the computer with a camera attached.

You have been warned!

*Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista/Workers' Party of Marxist Unification

Nineteen Eighty-Four - John Hurt, Richard Burton

The 23rd greatest fiction book of all time

This book is on the following lists:

- 4th on The Greatest 20th Century Novels (Waterstone)

- 6th on Koen Book Distributors Top 100 Books of the Past Century (

- 9th on Radcliffe's 100 Best Novels (Radcliffe Publishing Course)

- 10th on D. G. Myers’ 50 Greatest English Language Novels (D. G. Myers)

- 13th on 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Complex)

- 13th on The Modern Library | 100 Best Novels (Modern Library)

- 21st on The Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read (Telegraph)

- 22nd on Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century (Le Monde)

- 30th on 20th Century's Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction (Larry McCaffery)

- 46th on 100 Essential Books (Bravo! Magazine)

- 59th on The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time: The List (The Observer)

- 59th on The 100 Greatest Novels (

- 91st on The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time (The Novel 100)

- Great Books (The Learning Channel)

- The Graphic Canon (Book)

- Recommended Books (Academy of Achievement)

- 50 Books That Changed the World (Open Education Database)

- Select 100 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

- 100 Best Novels Written in English (The Guardian)

- 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime ( (UK))

- 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Barnes and Noble)

- TIME Magazine All Time 100 Novels (TIME Magazine)

- The Best Classics (The Times)

- 110 Best Books: The Perfect Library (The Telegraph)

- Top 100 Works in World Literature (Norwegian Book Clubs, with the Norwegian Nobel Institute)

- 100 Most Influential Books of the Century (Boston Public Library)

- The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written (Martin Seymour-Smith)

- 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime ( (USA))

- 50 Books to (Re-)Read at 50 (nextavenue)

- Books That Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History (Book)

- The New Lifetime Reading Plan (The New Lifetime Reading Plan)

- Masterpieces of World Literature (Frank N. Magill)

- The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Book)

- From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books (Jeff O'Neal at

- "Our Readable Century", The Best Books of the 20th Century (January Magazine)

© 2013 KevinStantonMcClintockMACantab


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    • KSMcClintock profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Stevenage, Herts, UK

      Thanks - I recently wrote this - I hope it is up-to-date. Yours KSMcC (& others)

      The Rat: A Very Short Essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four and its Central Metaphor

      Nineteen Eighty Four is a great book with great themes: truth, lies, history, memory, love, sex, and betrayal. It is the last that concerns us here in the figure of the rat, the only animal to appear in the novel (if we discount the droning of the ring doves). The rat is the fellow-traveller of death, destitution and figuratively, betrayal. Winston’s fear of rats is in essence a psychopathological fear of what he takes to be the greatest evil – self-betrayal, betrayal of others (“Do it to Julia!”), ratting or being a rat in general (especially a greedy one). In his youth he steals a 2oz slab of chocolate from his mother and younger sister. It is a nightmare of guilty betrayal that haunts Winston’s night-times.

      "One day a chocolate-ration was issued. There had been no such issue for weeks or months past. He remembered quite clearly that precious little morsel of chocolate. It was a two-ounce slab (they still talked about ounces in those days) between the three of them. It was obvious that it ought to be divided into three equal parts. Suddenly, as though he were listening to somebody else, Winston heard himself demanding in a loud booming voice that he should be given the whole piece. His mother told him not to be greedy. There was a long, nagging argument that went round and round, with shouts, whines, tears, remonstrances, bargainings. His tiny sister, clinging to her mother with both hands, exactly like a baby monkey, sat looking over her shoulder at him with large, mournful eyes. In the end his mother broke off three-quarters of the chocolate and gave it to Winston, giving the other quarter to his sister. The little girl took hold of it and looked at it dully, perhaps not knowing what it was. Winston stood watching her for a moment. Then with a sudden swift spring he had snatched the piece of chocolate out of his sister's hand and was fleeing for the door.

      ‘Winston, Winston!’ his mother called after him. ‘Come back! Give your sister back her chocolate!'

      He stopped, but did not come back. His mother's anxious eyes were fixed on his face. Even now he was thinking about the thing, he did not know what it was that was on the point of happening. His sister, conscious of having been robbed of something, had set up a feeble wail. His mother drew her arm round the child and pressed its face against her breast. Something in the gesture told him that his sister was dying. He turned and fled down the stairs, with the chocolate growing sticky in his hand.

      He never saw his mother again. After he had devoured the chocolate he felt somewhat ashamed of himself and hung about in the streets for several hours, until hunger drove him home. When he came back his mother had disappeared."

      Later a rat intrudes into Winston’s and Julia’s love-nest (prefiguring the intrusion of the Thought Police).

      "‘It's twenty-three at the hostel. But you have to get in earlier than that, because — Hi! Get out, you filthy brute!’

      She suddenly twisted herself over in the bed, seized a shoe from the floor, and sent it hurtling into the corner with a boyish jerk of her arm, exactly as he had seen her fling the dictionary at Goldstein, that morning during the Two Minutes Hate.

      ‘What was it?’ he said in surprise.

      ‘A rat. I saw him stick his beastly nose out of the wainscoting. There's a hole down there. I gave him a good fright, anyway.’

      ‘Rats!’ murmured Winston. ‘In this room!’

      ‘They're all over the place,’ said Julia indifferently as she lay down again. ‘We've even got them in the kitchen at the hostel. Some parts of London are swarming with them. Did you know they attack children? Yes, they do. In some of these streets a woman daren't leave a baby alone for two minutes. It's the great huge brown ones that do it. And the nasty thing is that the brutes always—’

      ‘Don't go on!’ said Winston, with his eyes tightly shut.

      ‘Dearest! You've gone quite pale. What's the matter? Do they make you feel sick?’

      ‘Of all horrors in the world — a rat!’

      She pressed herself against him and wound her limbs round him, as though to reassure him with the warmth of her body. He did not reopen his eyes immediately. For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness. With a deadly effort, like wrenching a piece out of his own brain, he could even have dragged the thing into the open. He always woke up without discovering what it was: but somehow it was connected with what Julia had been saying when he cut her short.

      ‘I'm sorry,’ he said, ‘it's nothing. I don't like rats, that's all.’"

      The rat stands for betrayal – not only the original act (it is clear that Smith has formed a connection between the rats, the women and their babies and his betrayal of his mother and sister), but also both the ‘self-deception’ and the dragging the’ thing into the open.’ The ‘rat’ is an instance of self-betrayal and threatened self-exposure (or betrayal).

      O’Brien has made the connection too. His exposition on rats is eerily familiar.

      "‘The rat,’ said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, ‘although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.’"

      And then there is the final terrible betrayal of Julia, the only person he could usefully interpose between himself and the rats.

      "‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’"

      Betrayal or ‘ratting’ provides the very core to the book, with each of the major themes an offshoot of this powerful, central idea. From the revolution itself down to the sinister ‘Spies’, all is betrayal: the revolution betrayed by the Party; Parsons by his own children; History is betrayed by the Ministry of Truth; natural, more or less autonomous human thoughts and feelings are betrayed by torture and brainwashing. Nothing is left untouched by the Rat.

      edited 2 days ago

      answered 2 days ago

      Kevin Stanton McClintock

      Is it not also something as simple as in 1948 (when the book was written) with most of Europe was still recovering from the Second World War, rats would have been a common sight on bomb sites etc (and so an easy fear to relate to)? – The Wandering Dev Manager 2 days ago

      You are quite right - rats everywhere - real and symbolic. Newton's Apple is a real thing and a metaphor - except in 1984 this one has a worm within. – Kevin Stanton McClintock yesterday

      I think '1984' is difficult to understand because it is hard to to realise that what O'Brian says about Power is sadly true - nothing to do with extra 'wine' or turning down the volume - just power.- – Kevin Stanton McClintock yesterday

      Rats represent depravity more so than snakes and spiders. The proles live in conditions more likened to those in which rats are associated with. Winston believed that the proles were the only hope left, quote "If there is hope, it lies with the proles". The rats

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great article- I read 1984 in high school and it was one of the few, at the time, I really enjoyed. It is interesting to dwell on what it must have been like for people that read it before the actual year 1984 as well I wonder what high schoolers currently think of it since to them 1984 was so long ago.

      Really nice recap and I appreciate how you tied in Orwell's beliefs as well.


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