1984 by George Orwell- Summary of Chapter One

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About chapter One:

Main Characters:

Winston Smith: The central character and a small member of the party but dislikes Big Brother – the top figure in the party. Winston is 39 and has a varicose ulcer.

Big Brother: The lead member and the face of the party (a dictator).

O’Brien: A senior member of the party who Winston believes hates Big Brother just like him.

Dark-haired girl: She works at the Ministry of Truth like Winston but he hates her because he thinks she is a spy working for the Thought Police.

Settings and Events:

London: The main city in Airstrip one, the third most populous province in Oceania.

Victory Mansions: Winston lives in Victory Mansions on the sixth floor.

Telescreen: A television like device but used to spy on people and to relay important messages from the government.

Four Ministries: The Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty. Each occupies a large building that dwarfs everything else in its surroundings. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth.

NewSpeak: The official language of Oceania. The four ministries are called in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

Hate Minutes: Two minutes of hate are observed daily at the Ministry where the traitor Goldstein, and rival nations are denounced by party members.

Eastasia and Eurasia: These are two enemy nations and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other.

First Chapter in Brief:

George Orwell describes the condition of things in London and Oceania ruled by a dictator called Big Brother in Chapter One. In this chapter, he sets the tone of the novel and introduces us to the main characters and themes. Winston, the central character in the novel, lives at Victory Mansions and hates big brother. He finds a diary to write against the dictator. It is a crime in Oceania where there is no freedom of speech or press or assembly. Everyone is watched all the time through telescreens. The thought police of Oceania are always looking for people who are against Big Brother. Winston dislikes his heavily watched and lonely life. He finds a secret corner in his apartment where he can write. George Orwell also describes other things about London like the official language Newspeak and the four ministries through which the government carried out its affairs.

Winston thinks that O’Brien, a senior party member whom he had seen a few times, also hated Big Brother. However, he is not sure. Today, two minutes hate was observed at the Ministry of Truth where Winston worked, in which they denounced the traitor called Goldstein. Goldstein was one of the early party members who had turned against the party and since then started a brotherhood to eliminate Big Brother and his rule. He advocated freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Winston was unsure if the Brotherhood really existed. There was only a faint hope in him that it really existed and could bring the dictatorship to an end someday.

Winston hates young girls since he thinks they are the blindest supporters of the party and its slogans. He hates the dark-haired girl working in the department of fiction but also lusts for her. He did not like how people had sacrificed their freedom and behaved like thoughtless animals. However, he cannot help joining others at the party office during the hate minutes where they act like savages to demonstrate their support for Big Brother and the party.

Winston wants to rebel and break free. However, he is unable to connect the dots. He is desperately trying to find freedom. His unease grows every day and he is also looking for others who might share his emotions but everyone except O’Brien seems to have become an animal and surrendered his control to the government and the thought police.

He returns home early to write his diary. Winston cannot bear the oppressive control exercised by the party and so decides to write. When he has written a few pages against Big Brother, he feels slightly ashamed and confused. There is a knock at the door, and Winston is shocked that he might be caught.

1984 Chapter One: A Brief Analysis

Orwell sets the foundation for the novel in the first chapter, introducing the leading characters and main themes. Interestingly this chapter opens on the same day when Winston decides to write his diary and let his rebellious thoughts flow. The protagonist, Winston Smith lives in a cruel and oppressive world. Orwell provides the readers the necessary details to understand how life is under a totalitarian regime. Orwell also provides a glimpse of the techniques used by the totalitarian government to control the actions and thoughts of people. The protagonist’s life has been under the control of the arty for the past several years but now the idea of freedom and rebellion are occupying his mind. The techniques the government used to control its people in chapter one are frightening. The thought police used telescreens to police people’s minds and keep a watch on their actions and personal lives throughout the day.

In chapter one, Orwell’s main idea is to emphasize how much people’s lives and minds are controlled by the government. He seeks to spell out that people have no freedom of expression in Oceania. The main action in the first chapter includes Winston writing his diary. He can be punished for this act of rebellion but after preparing for the past several weeks, he found the courage to do so at least. One of the primary themes in chapter one is the government’s psychological manipulation of the people to exercise control. People have lost control of their minds and they think and behave the way the government wants them to.

This becomes most evident during the Two Minute Hate when they vent their hatred for the rival nations and Goldstein, the sworn enemy of the government and Big Brother. Winston is particularly frustrated by his inability to break free. Seeing others around him surrender their personal will and thought to the government also frustrates him but he himself feels drawn into it. While he finds the government’s oppression difficult to tolerate, it appears to him that beyond this point, if he does not write or express himself, then like most others, he too would have lost all his self-control in the favor of the totalitarian government that cannot bear rebellion or even the slightest dissent.

A Detailed Summary of 1984 Chapter One:

George Orwell introduces us to the central character of 1984, Winston Smith, in the novel’s first chapter. It is an April morning, and Winston, 39, is returning to his flat on the seventh floor of a building called Victory Mansions. As he enters the building, there is a large picture on the wall of a man’s face in his mid-forties and with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston does not take the lift since he knows it would not be working.

The government was preparing for Hate Week, and so there was no electricity during the day hours. Winston had a varicose ulcer that made climbing stairs difficult for him. He had to rest on each floor while climbing, and on each floor the large face of Big Brother was there before the lift. The large eyes in the picture watched everyone with suspicion, who walked past it and seemed to be following everyone’s back. The picture was captioned – BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU – in all caps. 

Winston is surveilled inside his apartment too. There is an instrument in his apartment called the telescreen that observes and transmits at the same time. It can pick anything in the apartment above a whisper and transmit it to the authorities. However, while one can dim the instrument’s voice, he cannot shut it off completely. It is not like a TV that you can handle using a remote but a surveillance instrument that the party and the thought police had installed in the apartments to watch party members.  

The author also gives us a brief description of Winston’s appearance: 

“ a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.”

1984. George Orwell.

When Winston entered his apartment, a voice was reading out something about pig iron and over fulfillment of the government’s Ninth Three Year plan on the telescreen. Outside his apartment, as Winston could see through his window, the world appeared cold. Everywhere the posters of Big Brother stood at each corner, reminding every citizen that he was being watched. A police helicopter was patrolling in the area. Police officers from inside the helicopter were peeping into people’s windows and keeping an eye on people’s private affairs. However, the real problem was not the police patrol because the only police that really mattered were the thought police.  The thought police were the government’s secret police and kept a watch on party member’s personal lives so nobody thought against the government or rebelled. The thought police were the main control apparatus the government used to keep a tab on its people. It used horrific methods to control people’s minds and help the government exercise full control by exercising fear. Every activity in Oceania had to be in line with the government’s agenda. Winston had a glimpse of how fear made people act like savages during the Two Minute Hate.

The authorities could use the telescreen to spy on him inside the apartment, but Winston was visible only till he remained within the field of vision of the telescreen. The thought police were watching everyone behind his back. It would know what was going on inside any individual’s apartment just by plugging into a few wires. Nobody knew how much and how often he was being watched, and possibly people were being watched and heard all the time. While Winston felt insecure, he kept his back turned towards the telescreen since it gave him a sense of security.

The Ministry of Truth where Winston worked was a kilometer away from the place where he lived. However, remembering the vast white building gave rise to a sort of distaste in him. He tried to remember if London, the main city in Airstrip One (the third most populous province in Oceania) had always been like this, but could barely recall anything from his childhood. He tried to remember if these rotting nineteenth-century houses had always been there with their sides shored up with balks of timber, windows patched with cardboard, and roofs with corrugated iron. He thought of the bombed sites, now covered with willow herbs and if they had always been there or the line of wooden dwellings that looked like chicken houses. He could barely recall anything. Whatever he recalled was unintelligible. 

The Ministry of truth (also called MiniTrue in the official language of Oceania – MiniSpeak) rose 300 meters high. It was an enormous pyramid-shaped structure and vastly different from anything in its surroundings.  

The three slogans of the party written on the face of the enormous building were visible from Winston’s apartment. These slogans were :

  • War is peace.
  • Freedom is slavery.
  • Ignorance is strength.

While there is enough sarcasm in the first chapter of the novel, at this point, it becomes particularly deeper. The slogans, apart from being offensive, represent what Big brother’s face stood for. You could not know anything you were not expected to know. You had to relinquish the thought of being free in Oceania, and you had to be indifferent to everything. War or peace did not really matter.

In Oceania, the entire government was divided into four ministries, each occupying a large building like the Ministry of Truth. From the roof of Winston’s apartment building, one could see all four ministries. There were three thousand rooms in the Ministry of Truth above the ground level and several more underground. 

As already mentioned, the entire government apparatus was run by these four ministries, which included the Ministries of truth, peace, love, and plenty. 

The Ministry of truth was concerned with news, entertainment, education, and fine arts.  The Ministry of Peace was concerned with war, whereas the ministry of love was concerned with law and order. The last ministry, the ministry of plenty, was concerned with economic affairs. In the official language of Oceania, NewSpeak, these ministries were called: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

Of the four ministries, the most frightening one was the Ministry of Love. There were no windows in its building. Winston had never dared to get close to the Ministry of Love. Anyone had to go through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests to enter it. However, entry was not possible unless on official business. Gorilla-faced guards stood outside the external barriers guarding the building armed with jointed truncheons. 

Whenever Winston stood facing the telescreen, he would wear an expression of quiet optimism on his face.

He had left the ministry at midday and missed his free lunch at the canteen. So, he moved to the kitchen. There was nothing to eat except a large piece of dark bread that he needed to save for tomorrow’s lunch. So, he took a bottle of Victory Gin from the shelf and took a large gulp. It was a strong liquid with a deep, pungent smell. Taking a large gulp made him feel like being struck on the back of his head. The liquid felt like nitric acid. Tears ran down his cheeks. However, everything in his belly calmed the next second, and the world again started looking cheerful. 

Winston pulled out a Victory Cigarette and moved to the table to the left of the telescreen in the living room. He pulled out a penholder, a bottle of ink, and a thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover from the table drawer. The author suggests that Winston is about to start doing something mysterious. While it appears clear that the table is hidden from the view of the telescreen, it is yet not clear if Winston always sat there to write or if it was his first time. However, he is about to begin something. In the next few lines, Orwell makes it clear that the idea of doing so, erupted in Winston’s mind from the unusual geography of his apartment.

If that corner space, hidden from the telescreen, was not there, he would not be sitting at the table. The telescreen was not set in a position to cover the entire living room but in the longer wall opposite to the window. There was a shallow alcove to its left, which was perhaps meant to hold a bookshelf. It is where Winston had fitted the table and was sitting now. He could sit in the alcove without being watched through the telescreen, and as long as he made no noise, nobody would know what he was doing. However, apart from the settings, it was also the book that he had pulled out of the drawer that gave him the idea to do what he was about to start doing.

It was a peculiarly beautiful book with creamy pages and somewhat yellowed due to age. Winston knew such a book had not been manufactured in Oceania over the past forty years. The book could have been even older. Winston had obtained the book from a junk shop in the slums. It looked just so beautiful that he immediately wanted to possess it. Being a party member, he was not expected to visit these junk shops. The act was called ‘dealing on the free market.’ However, it was not possible to obtain a  few things like shoelaces and razor blades without going to these junk shops in the slums, and that’s why the party members did not strictly follow the rule. Winston had checked around for anyone who could be watching and then entered the junk shop. He bought the book for two and a half dollars. He brought the book home guiltily in his briefcase since even a bare book with nothing written on it was a compromising possession or something against the law.

Winston was on his table and about to open a diary. There was nothing illegal in it since there were no laws. However, if he was caught, he could be punished by death or forced labor for 25 years. Pens were not used around in London for anything apart from signing. However, he had obtained one with some difficulty since he felt that he needed to write something on the creamy paper.  He wanted to write with a real nib rather than use an ink pencil to scratch on the paper. Winston was about to start writing when he shuddered. It was a decisive moment. Write or not to write.

He started writing in small clumsy letters and wrote down the date at the beginning. April 4, 1984. He was unsure if this was the right date. It was not possible to know the exact date, but he was sure he was 39 now, and he was born in 1944 or 1945.

Suddenly a question popped up in his mind – who was he writing for? He thought he was writing for the future generations or those who were not born yet. The Newspeak word Doublethink came to his mind and the magnitude of his crime also. He did not know why he was writing. If the future was going to be like the present, his readers would not listen to him and if it was different, his predicament would be meaningless.

He stared stupidly at the paper, not knowing what to write. The telescreen had started playing military music. Winston seemed to have lost his power of expression and all the ideas he had in his mind for weeks seemed to have dried up suddenly. He had been making up his mind for weeks believing that he only needed more courage and that the actual writing was going to be easier. His ulcer had started itching, but he decided not to touch it. Suddenly, he started writing in sheer panic. 

Winston started writing about the film he had watched last night at the cinema. It was a war film with scenes of refugees being bombarded somewhere in the Mediterranean. The audience looked amused to watch a fat man trying to escape the helicopter and getting drowned after they rained bullets at him. Then they bombed a boat full of refugees. There was a middle-aged Jewess sitting on it holding a young kid who had been shrieking with fear. The 20 kgs heavy bombed turned everything into matchsticks. While the party seats were applauding all this, a prole woman started making a fuss that they should not show such things before the kids. The police moved her out.

Winston stopped writing, thinking about what had made him write all this. Suddenly, a very different memory surfaced in his mind. He felt reminded that this other incident had made him hurry home and start writing the diary today. They were going to observe Two Hate Minutes today. At eleven, they were pulling chairs out of the cubicles and setting them in the hall opposite the large telescreen. Winston was trying to set himself in one of the chairs in the middle rows, when he saw two people getting into the hall that he had often seen but never talked to. One of them was a young girl who worked at the ministry in some mechanical role.

He did not know her name. Winston had seen her in the fiction department carrying a spanner. She was a bold-looking girl and wore a scarlet sash (emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League) around her waist. He had disliked her from the moment he first saw her because of the atmosphere of general clean-mindedness she carried about with her. While he hated all the women, he hated the young and pretty ones the most because they were among the blindest and most bigoted adherents of the party’s propaganda. They consumed the party slogans and spied out for signs of unorthodoxy in their society. However, this one looked particularly dangerous and for a moment Winston suspected that she was a member of the thought police. Chances were low but he still felt afraid and uneasy to see her.

The other person that caught Winston’s attention was O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party. He held some important post at the party and Winston had only a dim idea of the nature of his position. People around Winston hushed as they saw an inner party member approaching wearing black overalls. In Orwell’s words,

O’Brien was a large, burly man with
a thick neck and a coarse, humorous, brutal face. In spite of
his formidable appearance he had a certain charm of manner.

Orwell, 1984.

His style made Winston recall the image of an eighteenth-century nobleman offering his snuffbox. Winston felt particularly drawn to O’Brien; not because of the contrast between his physique and his manners but also because he thought that O’Brien was not what he appeared. His face looked unorthodox and intelligent. Winston felt curiously drawn to him and believed he could confide in O’Brien. Something in O’Brien’s face suggested it to him. He sat in the same row as Winston, just a few seats away.

Soon, the hate speech was being telecast on the large telescreen. It was a hideous speech and the sound was like a monstrous machine running without oil. The face that flashed across the telescreen was that of Emmanuel Goldstein. He was a traitor and called the enemy of the people. Goldstein was once among the leading figures in the party at almost the same level as Big Brother but then he started engaging in anti-party activities. After getting caught, he was sentenced to death, but he managed to escape. While the content of the two-minute program varied from day to day, the main object of the speech was Goldstein. He was the original sinner, the biggest traitor, and the first defiler of the party’s purity. All the subsequent crimes against the party including treacheries, heresies, and other deviations were believed to have originated from his teachings.

Goldstein was believed to be still alive and hatching his conspiracies, living in the protection of his foreign paymasters.

Goldstein’s face looked sly. He was attacking the party’s doctrine and abusing Big Brother. He denounced all that the party did and stood for. Apart from demanding the conclusion of peace with Eurasia, he advocated freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. He was crying hysterically and frequently used Newspeak words, more than the party members normally did. His hysterical exclamations seemed to have enraged the people watching it. In the background of his face, there appeared the Eurasian army which was enough to turn people furious.  His sheep-like face and his bleating voice added fuel to the fire. More than Eurasia or Eastasia, people hated Goldstein’s face in Oceania. However, despite everything, his influence did not seem to wane. He could still seduce dupes daily and not a day went by in London when the Thought Police did not unmask one or another spy working under his directions. 

People believed that he ran an underground network of spies called the Brotherhood. They also talked about a book in Oceania that Goldstein had authored and which contained all his heresies. However, in the end, whether the Brotherhood or The Book, all was just a rumor and a topic that any party member did his best to avoid. 

The Hate turned into a frenzy in its second minute and people were hysterically shouting. Their shouting drowned Goldstein’s bleating voice. Behind Winston sat the dark-haired girl who shouted at the top of her voice calling Goldstein a swine and hurled a dictionary at the telescreen which hit Goldsten’s noise and then flung off. His bleating voice continued. Winston also joined the others. The most vicious thing about the Hate meeting was that one could not avoid joining others in the frenzy. 

The people inside the room had turned into screaming lunatics, ready to torture and kill. Their rage was an undirected emotion that could be directed at a different object the next moment. 

There was a moment when Winston was not angry at Goldstein at all. Instead, he was admiring him as the sole guardian of truth and peace in a world so remarkably full of lies. He just hated Big Brother so much that his heart went all out to the derided heretic on the screen, which appeared to him as a hero and the sole savior.

However, the next moment, he was again a part of the lunatic crowd in the hall screaming and believing that every word being said against Goldstein was true. Big Brother had become the hero that very moment towering higher than Goldstein and protecting his people from the hordes of Asia. Goldstein, despite his sheepish appearance and helpless bleating voice, appeared to be a sinister enchanter who was capable of breaking the structure of civilization merely with the power of his words. 

The next moment suddenly, Winston’s anger shifted towards the dark-haired girl. He started hallucinating. He was thinking of flogging the dark-haired girl to death or shoot arrows into her, while she was tied naked to a stake like Saint Sebastian. Winston even thought of cutting her throat. However, he soon realized why he hated her so intensely. He wanted to have sex with the young and sexless girl, but the scarlet sash around her hip, an aggressive sign of chastity, stopped him. 

The Hate had reached its climax and Goldstein’s face seemed to have melted into a Eurasian soldier who appeared advancing with his submachine gun. People in the front row were shocked for a moment when suddenly Big Brother’s face appeared on the screen and relieved them. Nobody was actually listening to what Big Brother was saying. The three slogans appeared on the telescreen.

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

The woman sitting in Winston’s row cried savior to see Big Brother’s face on the screen after which she started praying. The crowd was growing overwhelmingly emotional. They started chanting B-B, B-B and kept doing it for the next thirty seconds. They were praising Big Brother’s wisdom and majesty, but they were also drowning their own consciousness under those rhythmic noises. Winston felt horrified to hear the chant and his intestines grew cold. While he remained a part of the delirium for some time, he could not bear the subhuman chanting.

It was impossible to do something else and so Winston also joined in the chant. However, his heart was not in it and during that moment as he appeared distracted, he caught O’Brien’s attention. Their eyes met for a second but in that moment Winston knew that O’Brien was also thinking like him. In that moment, it seemed like O’Brien had given him a clear message and that was he was with Winston. At least, Winston believed so firmly. It happened only for a second after which O’Brien’s face again bore the same expression that was impossible to read.

The next moment, Winston again felt uncertain if it had really happened. There was nothing to prove that it had happened, but Winston hoped that there were others like him – enemies of the party.

While there was nothing around him to firmly suggest that the brotherhood existed, he felt that it was around him. Sometimes Winston believed in the notion of the Brotherhood and at other times not. He could not clearly form an interpretation of O’Brien’s glance either. Just a glance for a second or two and that was the end of the story. However, it still offered a break from the loneliness Winston lived in.

Thinking, Winston sat up straight at the table. He did not know that while he was thinking of today’s event, he was still writing something automatically. He had filled an entire page writing the same thing again and again. Down with Big Brother – in large bold letters. His writing was also clearer. He panicked for a second and felt a strong urge to tear away the pages he had written upon. The effect of the gin had started fading away. However, nothing made a difference anymore. What he had committed was a thought crime. He was thinking against Big Brother and that was a crime. He knew sooner or later, the Thought Police would have caught him. He could hide it for days or months but not for years. The Thought Police always made the arrests at night. These arrests were never reported and no public trial was ever carried out. After the arrests had been made, every sign of your existence was deleted from the registers and everywhere else. The person was completely annihilated or what they called it usually, ‘Vaporized’.

Winston felt hysterical and started writing quickly. He did not care if they were going to shoot him in the back of his head – Down with Big Brother. Nothing was going to force him to change his mind. He felt slightly ashamed of himself and laid the pen down. He was trying to sit back in his chair when the noise of somebody knocking on the door startled him. He rose up since a delay could give rise to suspicion and moved towards the door with an expressionless face.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.