Here's What Actually Happened In '1984', The Book That All Kinds Of People Who Never Read It Are Talking About

big brother

America started using a new word this week. 

Everyone is talking about the NSA, and everyone is talking about how “Orwellian” the PRISM program is. 

As Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic pointed out today, it’s really not the perfect word to describe the situation.

There are a lot of better alternatives, but since Orwellian has become a thing, people all across America must now feign in-depth literary knowledge of a book that most of them skimmed through in High School, at best. 

Below the dotted line is a synopsis of George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen 80 Four for those who may need to make it seem like they’re familiar with it. 


Winston Smith is a low-level member of The Party in 1984 England, termed AirStrip One in the nation Oceania.

Oceania is in a state of perpetual war with the other two nations, Eastasia and Eurasia.

Eurasia is an extension of the Soviet Union.

Eastasia is an extension of China.

Oceania, which practices English Socialism (IngSoc), is essentially the English speaking world. 

1984 orwell

Winston works in Government at the Ministry of Truth (MiniTru).

MiniTru oversees all historical revisionism as well as the appropriation of language through Newspeak.

The point of Newspeak is to make it impossible to articulate rebellious thought. 

1984 orwell

The inner party, led by a figure known as Big Brother, operates a surveillance state, with a television in every home that constantly spouts party propaganda. Those suspected of thought crime or thoughts against the party control are taken in and re-educated. 

1984 orwell

Winston spends his days at work eradicating evidence of people who have been removed from the state for such political reasons and revising historical documents to reflect current party needs.

One day at work, he meets Julia, a member of the Junior Anti-Sex league. They both realise that they hate the party and begin an affair. 

Eventually, Winston meets O’Brien, a member of the inner party who Winston believes to be an operator in The Brotherhood, an organisation seeking to take down the party.

O’Brien gives Winston a book written by the Trotsky of Oceania. 

1984 orwellO’Brien and Winston

Eventually, Winston and Julia are captured, since their affair is illegal.

Both are ruthlessly tortured individually until they are once again loyal to the state.

O’Brien was actually a mole, and Winston is brainwashed to the point where he betrays Julia.

Winston becomes an alcoholic, once again content with the status quo. 

1984 orwell


That’s a basic rundown of the plot, but be sure to pick up a copy of the book — currently flying off shelves — to become more intimately familiar with the specifics. 

Other dystopian novels that could give you a more nuanced perspective on what is going on include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Also be sure to check out Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault for an interesting and relevant discussion of panopticism. 

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