Every human being’s experience of reality is slightly different. While almost everyone shares a common view
of the world, the minor but essential details
of its workings and direction are subject to the will of imagination and desire. Religion
, and science
all aim to define a reality that most accurately conforms with human experience. The myriad of perspectives that result is a testament to the diversity and individuality of all people throughout the world. But in George Orwell
future of the novel 1984
, an immensely powerful authoritarian regime actively attacks this possibility for independent, individual reality. The State, as represented by the IngSoc
Party and their omnipresent figurehead Big Brother
, has crafted a situation in which they can completely control the nature of reality. They can go against all notions of common sense if it fits their whims. Winston, the protagonist
, becomes aware of a reality beyond that dictated by the State, a reality free of Big Brother. He attempts to carve out this independent reality for himself
through connections to the past and hopes for the future, his efforts represented in several physical and abstract symbols
. Yet these symbols also contain the keys to his downfall, predicting and drawing him towards an inevitable conclusion in which those in power shatter and remold his reality to fit their will. As the symbols develop through the book’s three parts, their representation of Winston’s hope for a reality of the free individual twists into a representation of his complete surrender of humanity to fit within the State’s reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy
that he could never have broken.
Symbols of Hope
From the moment of Winston’s intellectual rebellion
, three symbols represent his new connection with a past in which Big Brother had no control and his hope for a similar future; a diary, a paperweight, and his conception of the proles
. These symbols of truth and hope seem to show that the State cannot touch Winston’s private reality, yet the fates of all three by the end of the Part II and moving into Part III help to reinforce his failure.
The Diary - False Friend
While the very thought itself that reality as defined by IngSoc is incorrect is an immediate and complete rejection of the State, his diary in Part I provides the first tangible evidence that he has developed his own conception of reality informed by the past and future. The object itself is a symbol of the past, “It was a peculiarly beautiful book. Its creamy paper, a little yellowed by age, was of a kind that had not been manufactured for at least forty years past” (9). It is a beacon from a world before Big Brother, a message in a bottle floating through the ocean of time to give Winston reason to believe something different. What he writes in the diary connects him with the future. “For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn” (10). He hopes that a past in which reality wasn’t under control of the government might again come about in the future.
The rebellion against present circumstance releases his internal hatred of the government, which rises to the surface of its own accord, so strongly had IngSoc repressed it. “He discovered that while he sat helplessly musing he had also been writing, as though by automatic action… DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (19). This gives the first indication that Winston’s independent reality is truer to the human condition than that provided by IngSoc, it takes no effort on his part to strike out against it as soon as he has denied Big Brother. Even under the threat of discovery, he seems to be inexorably devoted to his rebellion. “He realized, even in his panic he had not wanted to smudge the creamy paper by shutting the book while the ink was wet” (20). He will go to previously unthinkable risks to preserve the purity of his connection to the past. It is sacred to him, worth more than his own safety. Near the end of Part I, the diary serves to bring him into contact with the two other symbols of hope, a unification in the place where he first bought it, a junk shop in which he also finds the paperweight, observes the proles, and gives his new reality substance through his romantic relations with Julia.
The diary takes a minor, but important role in Part III, going full circle from a physical expression of Winston’s rebellion to a tool used in crushing that rebellion and returning him to the controlled reality of the State. It provides perfect material for his own breaking, helping to introduce another symbol which powerfully fulfills his downfall. “’Do you remember,’ [O’Brien] went on, ‘writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?’” (206). Nothing was ever actually out of the State’s control. They were perfectly aware of his activities and allowed him to pursue the fantasy of escape before the inevitable full surrender. The omnipresent O’Brien twists his connection with the past and future into a bludgeon to beat him back into the present.
The Paperweight - Independence's Delicacy
The paperweight, a second symbol also found in the junkshop in Part I, provides a physical representation of his reality independent of the State and another connection to a past in which he would have been free. It encompasses a piece of coral in its glass hemisphere, preserving a beautiful portion of years far before the ascension of Big Brother. “It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the color and texture of the glass” (80). The connection is hazy, much like the past of only memory, surviving in no written records. Yet the glass separating the coral from the rest of the world puts it physically and metaphorically beyond the control of Big Brother; a single weak link that brings down the entire false reality of IngSoc. It fills him with a sense of purpose, emboldens him.
When he believes he is being followed by Julia, he considers the glass as a tool to murder her. “He could keep on her track till they were in some quiet place, and then smash her skull in with a cobblestone. The piece of glass in his pocket would be heavy enough for the job” (85). This is a microcosm of his greater rebellion against the State (represented by Julia) by creating his own reality free of its control (represented by the paperweight). He believes it might be possible to dismantle the entire illusion woven by IngSoc through something so simple as that.
The paperweight grows to be an immense expression of Winston’s new freedom beyond the control of Big Brother in Part II. It takes a permanent place in Julia and Winston’s abode above the junk shop. “In the corner, on the gateleg table, the glass paperweight which he had bought on his last visit gleamed softly out of the half-darkness” (115). It is an essential distillation of their resistance through the expression of their sexuality, their world of pleasure contained within a figurative glass hemisphere of secrecy. This equivalence between their position and that of the historic coral within the glass is directly stated. “He had the feeling that he could get inside, and that in fact he was inside it… The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal” (122).
But neither their independent existence nor the paperweight is eternal. When the thought police come for them, the paperweight is unceremonially shattered. “Someone had picked up the glass paperweight from the table and smashed it to pieces on the hearthstone” (183). Its destruction concurs with the dismantlement of Winston’s hopes that he could continue within his independent reality. There was never any chance, as he was aware and as all signs subtly indicated. “The fragment of coral, a tiny crinkle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat” (184). From that point on, he is dragged painfully back into IngSoc’s communal reality of horror.
The Proles and the Prole Woman - Humanity Penned
Along with his idealism, Winston pins his practical hopes on the proles in Part I, a group as close to true humans as anyone in IngSoc’s world can approach. He believes that in their base humanity, their impurity and relative freedom from the State, the proles are another link to reality beyond Big Brother’s control. “If there is hope [wrote Winston] it lies in the proles” (56). Almost nothing is done to stop them from seeing reality as they wish, a state to which Winston aspires. “Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern” (61). While the two physical objects provide him with connections and motivations, the proles are his strongest base of support for intellectual rebellion. “It became an act of faith” (73). He violates the very definition of IngSoc reality by putting his trust in the ability of the proles to eventually overthrow the State and free its party members from total control.
The symbolism of the proles focuses during Part II into a single figure, the prole woman outside the junkshop window. He sees her as strong and powerful, more vigorous than anything the State could ever suppose to construct. “A monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle” (114). She testifies to the human experience, continuous from hundreds of years past and entirely unaffected by the presence of Big Brother, pointing at a weak spot in the false reality of IngSoc through the proles as a whole.
The mystical reverence that he felt for her was somehow mixed up with the aspect of the pale cloudless sky, stretching away behind the chimney pots into interminable distances. It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same – people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. (181)
But while the proles continue on despite his own apprehension by the State, even they dance to the tune of the State’s pied piper
when it deems necessary. “The proles, normally apathetic about the war
, were being whipped into one of their periodic frenzies of patriotism
” (124). While the prole woman’s song of love outlives the song of Hate Week, she is only one, human in individuality, but just another automaton in the collective. The proles can still be controlled as a group, even if the individual prole is beyond the State’s control. Winston’s strongest base of support is shown through gradual progression in Part II to be weaker than he originally thought.
Symbols of Prophecy
Another group of important symbols in the novel serves to clearly foreshadow Winston’s downfall
, serving as necessary foils to the symbols of hope he cherishes. He seeks after them, not full aware of the horrid ending they prophesize for him. His dreams, a nursery rhym
e, and the Chestnut Tree Café
serve as signs pointing toward the true nature of 1984, the absolute impossibility of constructing a viable reality outside Big Brother’s control.
Dreams - Riddles of Despair
Strange dreams dog Winston throughout the novel, some reminding him of the parts of the past he wishes to forget even as he seeks after it desperately, others indicating his future. This parallel between the past-future connections of his diary and those of his dreams show a perfect symmetry between his misplaced confidence in his rebellion and the true strength of the State. One dream of his mother and sister suggests an inevitable separation from the joys of the past. “They were in the saloon of a sinking ship, looking up at him through the darkening water. There was still air in the saloon, they could still see him and he them, but all the while they were sinking down, down into the green waters which in another moment must hide them from sight forever” (28). The past without Big Brother from which he draws inspiration to carve out his private reality is quickly fading, even as he reaches after it. It will be lost entirely to him by the end of the novel.
Another dream, this of the future, is misinterpreted by Winston as a sign of good. “Someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’ … It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark” (24). He thinks that this means O’Brien is the key to taking overt action against Big Brother, and that he will meet the man in a world untainted by the State’s presence. It actually predicts with total accuracy his eventual torture at O'Brien’s hands in the ever-lit Ministry of Love. The dreams, countering his rebellion of connection with the past and hope for the future, symbolize the inevitability of his surrender.
In Part II, Winston’s dreams seem to indicate that he’s reached exactly what he desires through Julia, bringing his dream into the real world. “’It’s the Golden Country, almost,’ he murmured. ‘The Golden Country?’ ‘It’s nothing, really. A landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream’” (103). He still recognizes that his independent reality is not completely separate, and this symbolic bit of hesitancy is all that’s needed to drag him back into Big Brother’s reality.
Another dream connects decisively the paperweight to his conception of a past and reality free of Big Brother, yet in that past his mother took a hopeless action that did not alter her fate, much as he is doing now. “It had all occurred inside the glass paperweight, but the surface of the glass was the dome of the sky… The dream had also been comprehended by – indeed, in some sense it had consisted in – a gesture of the arm made by his mother” (132). But the paperweight is symbolically destroyed at the end of Part II, much as his private reality.
Winston’s dreams, like other symbols in the novel, reorient themselves under the will of the State toward his dismantlement. Meeting O’Brien in the Ministry of Love reinforces that the dream in which his counterpart played a key role was actually a prophecy of his downfall. “’I told you,’ said O’Brien, ‘that if we met again it would be here.’” (202). Even as Winston begins his willful reeducation, the presence of good dreams still indicates that something fundamental in his intellectual rebellion has not yet been reversed. “[They were] talking of peaceful things [in the dreams]. Such thoughts as he had when he was awake were mostly about his dreams” (227). When he makes the final sacrifice and betrays his love for Julia, the dreams truly end and he is left with nothing but reality as IngSoc dictates.
Nursery Rhyme - "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."
The nursery rhyme in Part I and II provide Wilson with a connection to the past and future like other symbols in the novel, but it also defines the reality of IngSoc in which all independence is turned inevitably to surrender, which he never clearly recognizes. In Part I, the running nursery rhyme of London’s churches is introduced by a kindly shopkeeper. Winston believes this as yet another way of getting at reality beyond Big Brother’s control, and presses for further revelations of the rhyme. All the information he really needs, however, is already there. “How it goes I don’t remember, but I do know it ended up, Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” (83). The shopkeeper is actually a member of the thoughtpolice. He tells Winston exactly what will happen in clear, but metaphorical terms.
As the novel continues into Part II, further portions of the nursery rhyme are revealed as Winston grows closer to the turning point. His meeting with O’Brien in what he thinks is an effort toward the resistance provides the full nursery rhyme, but O’Brien passes over a significant symbolic indication of what is really occurring. “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch. ‘You knew the last line!’ said Winston” (147). But O’Brien did not give him the last line. He left off the unalterable conclusion, his falsehood given away in the omission. Winston completely ignores the absence of the nursery rhyme’s last line, showing how far into his hopes he has become embedded.
The Chestnut Tree Café - The Dead's Last Haunt
The Chestnut Tree Café is introduced from the very beginning of the novel, evoking another full-circle image. It is clearly identified as a foreshadowing symbol for Winston. “There was no law, not even an unwritten law, against frequenting the Chestnut Tree Café, yet the place was somehow ill-omened” (49). There he saw men completely broken, because they were forced to do the one thing that would surrender their humanity. The full betrayal of all feelings to the State is expressed by the song of the Café, “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me: There lie they, and here lie we under the spreading chestnut tree” (66). Winston’s own downfall is in the betrayal of Julia; the symbol clearly predicts this from Part I. In Part III Winston finds himself in the place of the discredited Party leaders he once observed, hearing the same song and filled with the same emptiness. What he once saw in Rutherford becomes precisely his own actions. “The tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle” (241).
Symbols of Terror
Three symbols make decisive contributions to ensuring the strength of Big Brother’s reality against Winston’s brief independence
and also illustrate its vicious inhumanity; the very force that drove Winston to attempt breaking away from it in the first place. The equation “2+2=5”, Wilson’s fear of rats, and the image of a boot stamping a human face make these contributions mostly in Part III, where the unfortunate man’s reprogramming occurs.
2 + 2 = 5 - Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted
Winston makes a clear statement of purpose in Part I by breaking out of the State’s reality to define his own. He bases it on what he knows is true, no matter what Party doctrine says, symbolized by the equation “2+2=4”. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows” (69). It is common sense, unassailable, a simple concession most any reasonable human being would make. IngSoc does not grant it. “’Two and two are four.’ ‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once” (207). O’Brien speaks nonsensically, yet he is decisively defining Party policy with the symbol of the false equation “2+2=5” in Part III. It is Big Brother’s reality, completely separated from all notions of sense and logic, thus from humanity. It is the willful and corrupt distortion of truth to serve the needs of absolute power, with no element of reality which the State cannot change and control. Winston concedes to this horror of mental gymnastics at the end of the novel, writing himself with satisfaction that two plus two makes five, as long as Big Brother says so.
Rats - Fearing Fear Itself
While torture, interrogation, and mindwiping are effective in destroying most of Winston’s commitment to an independent reality, his love for Julia and refusal to surrender his feelings mean that he is still not quite totally within the State’s control. The last portion of his breaking is accomplished by playing on his greatest fear: rats. This symbol suggests the pessimistic notion that everything which makes one human can be burnt out. Only the right pressures are required. The State has acquired the means, using its prisoners’ worst fears against them, and thus can force its twisted and inhuman version of reality upon everyone without exception. Rats play a role in Part II as yet another foreshadowing device. “’There’s a hole down there. I gave him a good fright, anyway.’ ‘Rats!’ murmured Winston. ‘In this room!’” (119). Their presence in the junkshop suggests that the purity of Winston and Julia’s reality in which they can love each other freely is in fact a trap; as the revelation of the shopkeeper as a member of the thoughtpolice later shows. From the very beginning of their rebellion, both were allowed to go only as far as the State felt appropriate.
Everything which makes them human, even their love, can be subverted with enough brute force. Winston gives up the last portion of his resistance in room 101, “It is merely an instinct which cannot be disobeyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wish to” (234). Through the rats, Big Brother’s control is absolute and unassailable.
A Boot Stomping on a Face - The Poetics of Terror
Throughout the novel, the terrible nature of the IngSoc government is progressively revealed through direct description and symbolic representation. Nothing more clearly states this point, however, than the image O’Brien gleefully evokes for the goal of the State in Part III. “Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” (220). The enemy is not just some nebulous national force, it is the very human race itself. Everything that gives meaning to life will be crushed beneath the heel of the State, swallowed by a systemized machine of hatred that cannot be fought by the very definition of reality in which citizens of Oceania are forced to operate. By having taken control of reality, removing all means of seeking truth beyond that supplied Big Brother, IngSoc can make this symbol concrete without any chance of reversal. Its mockery of the human condition will be continuous and eternal.
Nine symbols of 1984 -- a diary, a paperweight, Winston’s dreams, nursery rhymes, the Chestnut Tree Café, rats, the proles and their embodiment in the prole woman, a boot stamping on a human face, and the indisputable equation “2+2=4” subverted to the nonsensical “2+2=5 -- develop throughout the novel to fulfill a cycle of rebellion and failure. Winston’s hopes are given symbolic form by a group of three objects -- his diary, the glass paperweight, and the proles – connecting him to a past and future free of Big brother, yet by the end of Part II they are all physically and metaphorically destroyed by the State
, twisted into the material of Winston’s own destruction. Throughout all three parts, his dreams, nursery rhymes, and the location of his final surrender provide a prophecy
of his unavoidable fate to be forced back into the mold of IngSoc’s reality completely. Rats, “2+2=4”, and the image of a boot stamping on a human face provide the tools necessary to warp Winston’s conception of himself and the world around him back to the control of the State. Orwell’s dystopic view
of the future under an authoritarian regime shows the crushing of basic humanity under the will of the state, all sense of truth and independence eliminated from possibility by the very nature of reality within which citizens of Oceania live. His novel provides a powerful and pessimistic view on the ability of power to corrupt everything good and noble about the human condition.