Big Brother is always watching. Although here in America we don’t live under a totalitarian regime, the advent of the digital age means these words from the novel 1984 still ring true. Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Facebook, Twitter, and Google track everything you do, say, and search for. Those are just the biggies too. Tons of other sites gather breadcrumbs of information to send back to the mother ship to be collated, dissected, and analyzed, leaving behind cookies that we willingly accept. Those little bots continue to record everything we do. It’s scary stuff, especially given the fact that we all focus obsessively on politics and forget about the helpful little dictators that we handed our lives over to.
George Orwell’s 1984 remains one of the most relevant and thought-about novels ever written. Classic stories like Lord Of The Flies have influenced countless stories from The Terror to Showtimes latest sudsy genre blender Yellowjackets. 1984 has influenced even more from The ever-growing Matrix Franchise to Snowpiercer. Still, the insidious nature of the final pages of Orwell’s book forces an introspection that is often uncomfortable. Here’s everything you need to know about the devastating ending of 1984.
In 1984 everyone lives in a totalitarian state. Our entry into this world is through Winston, an idealist who hasn’t succumbed to the apathy of his Big Brother existence. He is a low-level worker in the government. His job is to rewrite history into a more politically favorable recounting of the past. The entire country is constantly watched by surveillance for signs of disobedience. The government cranks out propaganda in an onslaught of never-ending ads, sound bites, posters, and news stories called Newspeak. For Americans, the thought is nightmarish even as we ignore the freedoms we have already ceded without realizing it.
The highest crime is thoughtcrime. Thinking things contrary to the Big Brother message is punished swiftly and harshly. The Thought Police constantly round up those who violate the rules regarding sex, reading or writing unapproved content, and questioning their authority. They systematically control all information making people indebted to them for everything and duped into believing everything they tell them.
Winston is initially obsessed with a top-level official named O’Brien because he believes he is a secret member of the Brotherhood, a group that actively opposes Big Brother. This group is secretive, mysterious and works in the shadows to overthrow the government. Most people have never met anyone from the group, and it acts more as a symbol of rebellious possibility than anything else. The supposed leader of the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein, is considered the most dangerous man in the country. Winston is troubled by everything happening in the Ministry of Truth where he is employed and in the government in general. He dreams of overthrowing the Inner Party and changing things.
Winston spends his time writing in a hidden, forbidden diary about his concerns and walking through the poor parts of Oceania. The proletarians or “proles” have next to nothing but live a fairly meddle-free life. They are not monitored nearly as much as those with more money and agency. It seems the trade-off for a comfortable if not lavish life is subservience. Winston begins having an illegal affair with Julia, and his hatred for the government grows. After months of the affair, he and Julia receive an invitation to O’Brien’s opulent apartment. He claims to be a member of the Brotherhood and hands their manifesto to Winston. Following this, Winston reads the book to Julia in a room above the shop where he first bought the diary.
Winston is betrayed by both the shopkeeper and O’Brien, who pretended to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood but were spies. Winston is then tortured and brainwashed for months in the ironically named Ministry of Love before being taken to the infamous Room 101, where he is finally broken. In Room 101, you are forced to face your worst fears. For Winston, that is rats. A large cage filled with rats is set to be placed on his head until the rats eat their way out. He becomes overwhelmed with fear and begs to be spared. Finally, he offers up Julia in his place, and he is let go. Having given up his ideals and his love, O’Brien lets him go.
Hope is the natural enemy of repression. Many have posited rightfully so that Big Brother wanted to destroy Winston and Julia’s relationship because love couldn’t be allowed to win. They equated Winston’s idealism with love. Love is only the catalyst for Winston’s hope, though. He has hope of a happier life with Julia, the hope of a new country, and the hope that he is a good person who could subvert everything in favor of acting to preserve the greater good instead of himself. However, all of that is shattered when he gives up Julia for his own life.
In the early parts of the novel, Winston sees himself as already dead. That identity allows him to be a hero despite his later admittance that he would harm innocents for the rebellion. He believes he is already preparing for his eventual capture and thinks he will refuse to be broken. The real tipping point is not losing Julia but losing that vision of himself. When he is forced to confront his failings, it is the last straw, and he mutters, “I Love Big Brother,” as he feels a bullet rip through his brain.
The act of love and Julia, in particular, represents free will. He swears he would never betray her but ultimately does when he begs for the rat torture to be done to her, not him. For Winston, “if they could make me stop loving you, that would be the real betrayal.” In the final paragraphs of the novel, Winston rejects his childhood memories. Big Brother won, and the Inner Party has squashed even the most innocent of happiness and love.
Throughout 1984, Winston protects himself with the false hope that things aren’t as bad as they seem. He envisioned himself as a hero and the Brotherhood as an inevitability instead of a pipe dream. However, instead of seeing the situation clearly and acting in direct defiance to events, he gives up his autonomy and declares his love for Big Brother. The critical thing is Winston knew all along that he was hopeless. Nevertheless, he constantly masked his fatalism with bravado. That false flag of hope when torn apart was what finally broke him. We all have delusions we labor under. Some are as simple as believing that things will improve, and others are more complex. Sometimes the truth will set you free, but other times it can destroy you. O’Brien used that to his advantage.
Does Winston die at the end of 1984?
The answer is more complicated than yes or no. It all depends on your view of life. Those who believe his death would be mercy accept that he is executed at the end. For them, this is as positive an outcome as the story could have. For others, the fact that he can live in his dreams represents hope that he could recover and become a force for change as long as he is still living. But, like V for Vendetta, rebellion is unstoppable, and eventually, someone will succeed in overthrowing the government.
In any case, his true self, the free-thinking, self-rationalizing part of his brain, was killed by O’Brien in Room 101. All that is left is his body and the memories he is haunted by. He rejects fond memories of his mother because O’Brien indoctrinated him to do so. He can no longer distinguish fact from fiction. O’Brien threatened to shoot Winston, but he is more useful left alive, especially since he is no longer a threat. Some believe this dream of death is Winston’s last and only form of rebellion left. He chooses to descend into a dream world where death is preferred to a life controlled by the Party. Another possibility is that Winston had been told repeatedly that he would only be killed once he admitted his love for Big Brother. When he finally does, it could have been a lie to hasten his death.
The Party is cruel, and by keeping him alive, they continue to torture him and maintain a productive cog in their wheel. Reprogramming him would be pragmatic, but forcing him to face the fact that he could be a monster is worse. He becomes a willing participant in their continuation all while hating himself for it. A hint that this is true is other executions are done by hanging. The Party wanted control and used those hangings as a warning to further thwart any uprising. The entire point of the novel is control. Death is a foil to governmental control because it permanently severs their control of the individual.
In 1984, their hubris that omnipotent, omniscient control is possible will eventually be their undoing. However, Winston would probably be long dead by that point. The Wheel of Time moves slowly, but it never stops turning. An excellent film by Michael Radford starring William Hurt is available on Tubi for free right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.