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George Orwell

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1984 | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


Why might Orwell have given the main character of 1984 the common surname Smith?

Because Smith is a common last name, it is possible that Orwell gave it to his main character to show that Winston is an Everyman to whom readers can easily relate. He is not a heroic character in appearance; he is thin and middle-aged and has an ulcer on his leg. Nor does he have any political power. At the same time, Winston's last name can be viewed as an example of verbal irony. In his rebellious thinking and actions, Winston is highly uncommon. He is an individual in a society where those who fail to conform become "unpersons."

In 1984 Winston often describes people in unflattering ways. What are some examples of this, and what does this say about his class consciousness?

Winston describes the proles in ways that dehumanize them and reduce them to "parts." It isn't enough, apparently, to point out their destitution, but each time he mentions them (except mainly in the case of Charrington), he describes them with phrases such as "swollen waddling women," "old bent creatures," "hook-nosed," with "crudely lipsticked mouths," and so on. These descriptions mirror the Party's perception of the proles as being on the level of animals rather than human beings. When speaking of his own class, Winston is less critical of physical appearance but brutally critical of intellect. In Chapter 2 of Book 1, he speaks of his neighbor, Parsons, as a "man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms." Parsons' wife is described as being afraid of her children, which is common because children often report their parents to the Party for thoughtcrime. These are all people whom Winston believes are below him in some way, likely because they are fully controlled by the Party. Because all the classes are controlled by the Party, however, his class consciousness indicates that he has absorbed some of its ideology.

What is the concept of ownlife, and what does it make clear about Party expectations in 1984?

The Newspeak word ownlife means individualism and eccentricity. These are both frowned on and slightly dangerous because, as the narrator tells readers, it is assumed that, whenever a person is not "working, eating, or sleeping," the person is taking part in a communal activity sanctioned by the Party. Readers see an example of ownlife in Book 1, Chapter 8, when, for the second time in three weeks, Winston rashly opts out of an evening at the Community Center to go for a walk among the prole homes and establishments in the seedier part of London. What it makes clear about Party expectations in Oceania is that no one (except possibly the proles, because they are destitute and therefore relatively ignored) is expected to have anything approximating a personal life. The only activities people should be participating in are those prescribed by the Party.

In 1984, after a rocket strike, Winston mindlessly kicks the bloody stump of a hand into the gutter. Explain how this might change readers' impression of the character.

Up until Chapter 8 of Book 1, the reader may have felt that, given the conditions in which Winston lives, he is a better person than the people around him. For example, he helps Mrs. Parsons and bears up under the taunts of her horrible children, and he is friends with Syme even though Syme is an orthodox member of the Outer Party. Winston seemed to represent a ray of hope for humanity in Oceania. Yet he can walk past prole houses that were demolished by a rocket bomb and kick a severed hand into the street without a shred of compassion. With this action Winston seems as insensitive as everyone else in this dystopian world, although his reaction should not come as a complete surprise. When he describes people, especially proles, he focuses on their "parts"—arms, teeth, a nose—rather than on the whole person. The disembodied hand is just another part.

Why might Orwell have included the scene in which Winston offers to buy an old man a drink in Chapter 8 of Book 1 in 1984?

In Chapter 8 of Book 1, Winston offers to buy an old cockney man a drink in order to ask him questions about life before the Revolution. Winston dimly remembers a childhood when life was better than it is in the present. However, he can't get straight answers from the old man and realizes that soon no one will be alive who will be able to remember life before Big Brother. The scene reminds readers of the value of survivors' memories. After those who have witnessed history die, the events they experienced become vulnerable to interpretation. The past is being controlled by the Party, and, of course, "Who controls the past controls the future." By creating an alternative version of the past, the Party improves its image and ensures that the citizens of Oceania look to the government for guidance and protection.

In Chapter 1 of Book 1 of 1984, a glance between Winston and O'Brien assures Winston that he has found an ally. Is Winston's perspective convincing?

Winston says he knows that O'Brien shares his contempt for the Party, but the reader may harbor doubts that O'Brien is really an ally. Readers do learn in Chapter 2 that Winston had a dream years prior in which O'Brien said to him, "We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness." That dream and O'Brien's statement in it have helped to convince Winston that O'Brien is an ally. The careful reader will wonder, however, if the image of the place where there is no darkness is a hopeful place or one of danger. Orwell may be giving the reader, and Winston, hope for the future. Or he may be foreshadowing a terrible fate.

How is Mr. Charrington different from other proles in 1984, and what do his differences suggest?

In Chapter 8 of Book 1, readers are told that, while it is quite late, Mr. Charrington's antique shop is oddly still open, which gives the impression that Mr. Charrington is always available, no matter what time of day it is. The narrator describes him as about 60 and frail, with a benevolent nose and mild eyes, wearing glasses. His "gentle, fussy movements" give him "a vague air of intellectuality, as though he had been some kind of literary man, or perhaps a musician." This description sets Mr. Charrington up as a generous character whose shop serves as a sort of safe house for Winston. This is all very different from the way other proles are described in the novel. Mr. Charrington seems kind and unassuming, friendly, and even helpful to Winston. His interest in old things symbolizes, for Winston, a hope for understanding the past and therefore having some control over the present. However, the fact that he is so different from the rest of the proles in the neighborhood, and so willing to interact with Winston, may raise suspicions in astute readers that Mr. Charrington is not all that he seems.

How does the children's rhyme about St. Clement's church symbolize the past in 1984?

The rhyme symbolizes the past for several reasons. First, nobody can remember the full poem. Mr. Charrington knows the opening lines,"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's," and the ominous ending, "Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!" Julia and O'Brien remember other parts but not the complete rhyme. It is like the past that has been eradicated by the Party. The rhyme also symbolizes the past because it lists several churches and religion is illegal in Oceania. Finally, it is a children's rhyme, and childhood lies in the very dim past for Winston. Of course, the pleasures of childhood do not last in 1984, and the rhyme's ending symbolizes Winston's own demise.

In Chapter 3 of Book 1, Winston says his mother's death was tragic in a way no longer possible. Tragedy, he says, belongs to an ancient time. What does he mean?

Reflecting on his mother's death, Winston says it was tragic and sorrowful in a way that is no longer possible. Tragedy belongs to an ancient time when there was love and when family members stayed together. It is also the case that the very words used to describe the relationship with his mother, and his feelings about losing her, either no longer exist or soon will not exist. The novel poses the questions: If there is no word for love or sorrow, can those emotions exist? If the Party vaporizes people and turns them into unpersons, how can people experience loss when there's nothing there to lose?

Why is Winston willing to believe that there is no telescreen in the room above Mr. Charrington's shop in 1984?

The narrator has already told us that the proles are largely ignored by the Thought Police and that many of them don't even have telescreens in their homes. Therefore, when Mr. Charrington tells Winston that the room above his shop never had one because it was too expensive, Winston believes him. Mr. Charrington is a prole. He doesn't need to have one. However, it is also true that Winston deeply wants it to be true that there is a place left in the world where he is not watched by the Party.

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