George Orwell

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Learn about symbols in George Orwell's novel 1984 with Course Hero's video study guide.

1984 | Symbols


Orwell uses symbolism extensively in 1984, weaving symbols into the internal dialogue and plot throughout the novel. These symbols—people or things that stand for ideas—differ from motifs, which are repeated images that help to develop a theme.

Emmanuel Goldstein

It's likely Emmanuel Goldstein doesn't exist, but he symbolizes the power of groupthink. The Party needs to compare itself to something/someone in order to maintain its superiority. Goldstein symbolizes all that is not the Party, which to some makes him an object of hatred and to others makes him an object of hope.

The Telescreen

The telescreen is a symbol of the continual surveillance of the people by the Party. It represents the total power of a regime over its people, right down to their private lives inside their homes.

The telescreen is introduced in Chapter 1 of Book 1. It transmits both ways, presenting propaganda that supports the Party's ever-changing truth and, at the same time, placing people under constant surveillance. Telescreens are everywhere, so they can even detect thoughtcrime by recording the expression on a person's face.

Newspeak and the Memory Hole

Newspeak, the continual revision in word meaning and reduction of the number of words in English, symbolizes the total thought control by the Party. The memory hole, which is where all previously true documents and photographs get tossed, also symbolizes this thought control and the restructuring of what is true.

In Chapter 5 of Book 1, Syme brags to Winston that he is working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary. Being an orthodox Outer Party member, he takes pleasure in knowing that he is helping the Party achieve its goal of controlling consciousness by limiting the people's means of expression. If people don't have words to express themselves, they can't say what they actually think. If all written materials reach the people in a language that the Party controls, then their knowledge and thoughts are also increasingly controlled by the Party. The memory hole serves the same purpose by eliminating all evidence of what people knew to be true. The Party can then insist on its own version of truth as the only real one.

Newspeak limits thought by destroying words and thereby nuance. Eventually, says Syme, all real knowledge of Oldspeak (or Standard English) will be gone so that the literature and wisdom of the past by such writers as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, and Lord Byron will be inaccessible. People won't know the words, so they won't be able to read anything but "literature" written in Newspeak. If people don't have anything to prove that the wisdom of the past existed, how can they learn from it? Newspeak keeps the people ignorant of the past and therefore unable to really learn anything. The memory hole also keeps people ignorant of what really happened in the past by burning it up, making it disappear. Anyone who insists on the truth of past events is told that they are wrong. The proof of the past has been rewritten, and the previous evidence of truth has been destroyed. So Newspeak and the memory hole are symbols not only of thought control but also of total ignorance and lack of real history or knowledge. Nothing is real to the people unless the Party says it is.

Big Brother

Big Brother first appears in Chapter 1 of Book 1. His enormous face is on the telescreen and is plastered everywhere on posters, not only outside but inside Winston's apartment building as well. Big Brother is a direct and literal symbol of the Party, serving as a constant reminder that the people are under surveillance. They are told that Big Brother is watching them, which is supposed to feel comforting, but it evokes terror instead. The name Big Brother connotes family and caring, but the truth is the exact opposite. In fact, Big Brother is a perfect example of doublethink, two concepts that are in opposition to each other but that are believed at the same time.

2 + 2 = 5

2 + 2 = 5 is a symbol of the lies that the Party presents as truth and the people accept as such. The equation is obviously false, but the people call it true because the Party says it is. To do otherwise is to be subject to torture and death.

In Chapter 10 of Book 2, Winston decides that the regime of Big Brother will fall if enough people stay conscious and believe that 2 + 2 = 4.

In Chapter 2 of Book 3, O'Brien holds up four fingers and tries to get Winston to say that he's holding up five. Winston sees four and refuses to lie about what he sees. "Reality," he says, "is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else."

The false equation also serves as a symbol of Winston's defeat at the end of the book. After he is released from Room 101 in the final chapter, Winston plays chess and traces 2 + 2 = 5 in the dust of his table. He has lost his humanity and now accepts lies as truth.

The Glass Paperweight

The glass paperweight with the coral embedded in it first appears in Chapter 8 of Book 1, when Winston sees it at Mr. Charrington's antique shop and buys it. The paperweight is a symbol of beauty for beauty's sake. It is also a symbol of Winston's past, a childhood he barely remembers, and a time when people expressed their individuality in the decor of their homes. The paperweight represents not only history but also creativity, art, and love of beautiful things, all obliterated by the Party.

The coral inside the paperweight symbolizes love that Winston shares with Julia, a secret love hidden away from the rest of the world. It is "fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal." The paperweight therefore also symbolizes a secret and safe place to be a human being who experiences love on his or her own terms, an act forbidden by the Party.

When the paperweight is shattered by the Thought Police at the end of Book 2, Winston's attempts to be safe and secure in private, as well as his desire to connect with his memories of the past and think independently, are shattered too.

The Rented Room and the Singing Prole Woman

Both the rented room above the antique shop and the prole woman who sings beneath its window are symbols that reflect the temporary sense of security and vain hope for a free world, as well as the freedom to love without interference or control by the Party.

Winston first hears a woman singing outside the window of his rented room. The sound of her voice causes him to think that, while the proles are very poor, they have relative freedom. As she sings he catches a glimpse of what kind of life people might have had before the Revolution. No one is stopping her from singing exactly what she wants to sing.

When Winston hears the woman singing again, in Chapter 10 of Book 2, he observes her. In spite of her age, roughness, and size, he sees her as beautiful. She has spent her life having and loving a family, without interference by the Party. That freedom and ability to love makes her beautiful in a way that Winston never sees outside of the prole quarter.

A Boot Stamping on a Human Face

In Book 2, Chapter 3, O'Brien has been explaining to Winston that the purpose of the Party is to maintain power for its own sake, not to make life better for others. He explains that, as time goes on, the Party's power will grow even greater and oppression will increase. To illustrate his point, O'Brien tells Winston that the future looks like "a boot stamping on a human face—forever."

This boot symbolizes a government in complete control of its people. The power of the Party is complete: O'Brien says to Winston, "The espionage, the betrayals, the arrests, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease." The boot represents these things crushing human emotion and freedom forever.

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