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What won't come across in any plot summary is the fact that, in addition to being both scary and prophetic, George Orwell's 1984 is a satiric novel, which means it's humorous, too. A look at any ten pages shows the wry and satiric way Orwell looks at things. Winston is a typical Englishman with a stiff upper lip and an eye for the grotesque. His story is more frightening than any melodrama precisely because it is funny. The novel falls in three parts.
Winston Smith, Party member and civil servant, comes home to the ramshackle Victory Mansions in the capital of Airstrip One, which used to be called England. The London of Orwell's near future is very like London after World War II, with its bombed-out buildings and its shortages and power failures. What's different are the posters of a huge face with eyes that seem to follow you everywhere, and bearing the legend:
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.
He is. Winston knows it. A TV screen dominates his room, and in addition to bringing war news and exercise classes, the thing sees everything within range. It watches Winston. With today's TV monitoring systems and tactics learned from spy movies, we'd probably yawn and throw a blanket over it, but in Orwell's day this was big stuff. TV existed only in laboratory situations, and nobody had thought much about using it to look at things as well as to show them.
Winston is a small, skinny, middle-aged man wearing the blue Party coverall. He has fair hair and ruddy, chapped skin. He keeps his back to the screen in case the Thought Police tune in. From his window he can see the Ministry of Truth, where he works. On the building's face are lettered the Party slogans:
WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Was London always like this? Winston can't quite remember. What he knows is that the government is everywhere.
For Orwell, an absolute government is something to hate and fear. He's trying to warn us against letting any government get this powerful. He communicates this warning through Winston, "the last (thinking) man in Europe."
Lighting a Victory cigarette and taking a slug of watery Victory gin, Winston unveils an antique book he bought illegally in a "free" store (one the Party does not run). Risking capture and death for committing a private act, he is about to begin a diary. His first entry is about a newsreel he has seen in which a gallant refugee mother protects her child from a helicopter attack on the boat they're in. This was a story written years before we saw film of the boat-people fleeing Viet Nam and Cambodia under fire.
NOTE: WINSTON'S WORLD AND OURS
As you follow Winston, notice:
Which things are like conditions in our world today-wars at the fringes of the territory, for instance; totalitarian governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America; the presence of TV in every home to indoctrinate, if not to spy. Was Orwell a prophet or was he pushing events in his world of 1948 to their logical conclusion? Look for critical opinions at the end of this guide, and then decide for yourself.
Which things are different? Remember, Winston's future is our present. How powerful is our government, compared to the government of Oceania as portrayed in the pages to come? How are they alike? How different? On the basis of the first three sections, you'll be able to write about how Winston's life is different from ours, from his private life to his place in society and the role technology plays for him.