George Orwell 1984 Summary and Lessons

What a book this is! 1984 will leave you thinking about very tricky topics like freedom, control, censorship, fear, love, hate, truth, individuality, collectivism, the function of government, the best type of government, and even where you get your information from. So, it can get pretty deep and there is a lot to cover. Let’s get started.

1984 by George Orwell was published in 1949 and is truly a nightmare vision of the future where we’re ruled and controlled by fear and intimidation. It’s a world where ‘the party’ has all the power and ‘we the people’, have no rights, no freedoms, no families, no individuality, no joy, laughter, love, and no intimacy…, we’re told what to do, what to think, feel, eat, and drink. We’re fighting in endless wars and we’re constantly being monitored by the government via cameras and spies living among us. There’s even a camera in your home so that the govt can monitor you. For the last 70 years, this book has served as a serious warning of what could happen:

If we don’t pay attention to and safeguard our rights and freedoms. It has served as a warning of what could happen if we don’t pay attention to the limits of authority and the checks and balances within the government. For example, overreaches of the government in the form of new policy on things like surveillance, data collection, and censorship need to be very, very carefully understood and analyzed before being passed because they could destroy our way of life.

Obviously, these are hot topics in today’s society… and rightfully so! As long as we’re in the kind of society we have now, a somewhat free society (and I’m specifically speaking about the US here, but it can be applied to other developed countries as well), things like censorship, freedom, privacy, the limits of power, and so on, will always be highly debated topics. So, the fact that we are debating and pushing back on certain policies is a good thing just as pushing propositions we want to implement is also a good thing. As citizens, it’s our duty to be more involved and to know which policies are being pushed through and passed, so that we can prevent this 1984 type of government from emerging.

Now, before we get to the plot, I would like you to consider something:

Where do you think we would be today without the emergence of a democratic government?

First of all, someone had to invent democracy. It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the day of oligarchies, monarchies, autocracies, and dictatorships, the idea of democracy was laughable (and still is in some countries). It was a ridiculous notion back then that would have probably gotten your head put on a spike. The invention of a democracy and the implementation of it was a revolution!

Think about it… We’re standing on all of those who came before us. All of the societal evolution that came before us from tribes to city states to nations. We’re standing at the top of thousands of years of societal progress thanks to those who came before us and built it. The luxuries (and yes even Internet, tv, comp, cars), conveniences, and freedoms you enjoy exist because of the government and complexity that society has built up over the last 5,000+ years.

A lot of us like to put our government down and say how bad it is – the government is taking all my money and government is to blame for everything. It’s the perfect scape goat.  I get it, it’s not perfect – there are tons of things that need to be reformed, but, people really underestimate what the government has done for us as individuals and for us as a species. Government has laid the foundation and has made what we have today possible: roads, utilities, schools, social security, healthcare, certain rights and freedoms, courts, welfare, and on and on and on.

Without a formal government, we would still be living in some tribal society, a village of some kind, or under some monarchy or dictator regime. All of which would be much more brutal and violent than our current system.  

Modern day democracy has only been around for a couple hundred years! Respect and understand that it’s a work in progress.

Number of Democracies Worldwide

So, keep in mind that the govt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The intent of this book isn’t to get rid of government. That would be going backwards. The book’s purpose is to remind us that we have to remain vigilant and be actively involved to get the kind of government we want: An accountable, transparent, efficient, and good quality government for the people by the people. And to fight for that as wisely as possible.

What we need to do is continue developing it, refining it, making it better, making better policies, and as we continue to develop and evolve as individuals and as a species, we’ll become more and more conscious and in turn, our government will get better, our society will improve, and the world as a whole will reach new heights.

I’m sure many of you disagree with me, and that’s fine.. let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I am always open to different perspectives.

1984 george orwell book covers

George Orwell 1984 Plot Summary

After a nuclear war, the world is split up into three states, which are approximately equal in size and strength, named Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. The story revolves around Winston Smith, a low ranking member of the party, who lives in Oceania. The ruling party is always watching him and the rest of its citizens through a telescreen. A telescreen is basically a television with a camera on it (which can’t be turned off). The party’s omniscient leader, aka big brother, is typically on the screen peering down at you, feeding you propaganda and telling you what to think and feel in order to manipulate and override your own thoughts and feelings. The camera on the telescreen is always watching everything you do. It’s the ultimate form of control.

Cameras aren’t just in the citizen’s homes; they’re everywhere you go. The party controls everything from food to language, and even history. What you say and even what you think can get you taken to the ministry of love (and don’t be fooled by the name, its name should be the ministry of hate). Any kind of rebellious thought against the party (which is called a thought crime) is met with your disappearance and every trace of you being wiped from the world. Rebellious thought = thought crime = your disappearance.

1984 big brother

Screenshot taken from the movie Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Free thought, individuality, and sex are prohibited. There is no such thing as the family unit. Year by year, food rations are reduced in an effort to support the never ending war against Eastasia and/or Eurasia (whichever state the party tells us we are at war with at that time).

The language is slowly being replaced by newspeak, which uses fewer words and is supposed to be more efficient. In reality it’s being implemented to prevent political rebellion. By eliminating words like freedom and rebellion, the citizens can’t express themselves or even think about rebellion if they don’t have the words for it. The population is spoon-fed information that big brother approves of. They are, in short, brainwashed to believe and do what they are told.    

Winston works in the ministry of truth (which should be called the ministry of lies) as a historical records editor. When a party prediction is wrong, someone is wiped out, or when the party wants to eradicate something, Winston goes into the records and changes it. He alters historical records (which is obviously a huge red flag) in order to keep the political party in a positive light. One day Winston gets the urge to write down his thoughts in a journal (which is also illegal). He knows he is doomed as soon as he has the thought to do this, but does it anyway. He begins to suspect that if he can have these thoughts, then maybe there is a secret underground society of citizens that also have these thoughts.

1984 by george orwell telescreen

Screenshot taken from the movie Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Sometime later, Winston catches a beautiful woman named Julia, who also works in the ministry of truth, staring at him. He found this suspicious and began to suspect that she’s a spy and on to him for his illegal activities. The more he thinks about this, the more he begins to hate her and even thinks about killing her. Later, they bump into each other in the hall and she slips him a piece of paper that says “I love you”. Winston is surprised by this, but in a good way. They begin spending time together and making love in a rented room above a second-hand store that doesn’t have a telescreen. As they continue meeting in secret, their emotions start to come back to life, but Winston knows it’s only a matter of time before they’re caught.  

Winston’s urge to find an underground society grows and he suspects one of the higher ups in the inner circle, O’Brien, is part of this society. Now, he believes that O’Brien is part of the secret society because O’Brien invited him over to his house after work to pick up a 10th edition newspeak dictionary. Subordinates never go to superiors homes, so he took it as a sign that he is in the underground society.

newspeak dictionary winston smith 1984

Screenshot taken from the movie Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

He shows up to O’Brien’s house with Julia and O’Brien hands him a book. He isn’t handed a newspeak dictionary. Instead, he’s handed a secret book that tells the truth about the political party and exposes all of its lies. O’Brien welcomes them to the underground society and tells them to read the book. Over the next several days, Winston and Julia read the book together in their secret hideaway. Winston is fascinated and reads the book with great interest. After a few days of reading the book, soldiers burst into the room. It turns out that the store owner is a member of the thought police and had turned them in. There was a secret telescreen in their room the whole time. They are both arrested and taken to the ministry of love.  

winston smith 1984

O’Brien enters his cell and reveals that he had tricked Winston. O’Brien wasn’t against the party at all.  O’Brien then spends several months torturing and brainwashing Winston so that he accepts the party and loves big brother. Winston resists for a long time, and says that the party will never be able to break the spirit of man, but he finally breaks when he is brought to room 101.

1984 george orwell room 101

Screenshot taken from the movie Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Room 101 is where you meet your worst fear.  Winston had a deep fear of rats. O’Brien then straps a cage to his head full of rats and threatens to let the rats eat his face. At this point, Winston breaks and begs O’Brien to do it to Julia instead and not to him. O’Brien had finally broken his spirit, which is what he wanted to do all along. Winston finally accepts the party and loves big brother.  

After he is released, he meets Julia again. They are both broken and don’t feel anything for each other. They have both been successfully brainwashed and reintegrated back into the dystopia. Needless to say, this book doesn’t have a happy ending. The book is a warning about the dangers of a totalitarian government.

8 Lessons from 1984 by George Orwell

1 – Obviously the BIG one! We need to maintain the freedom to say, write, and read whatever we choose

Now, freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. There are exceptions like true threats, obscenity, defamation, fraud, and so on. These exceptions have come about through various court cases over the past hundred years or so. As we continue to change and evolve as a society, we’re probably going to add more exceptions or alter existing ones. When we do so, we need to be very careful here because limiting our freedom of speech and expression can lead to censorship overkill.

Censorship, as you saw in 1984, can be very powerful and dangerous. It can be used to manipulate the information we’re allowed to view as well as the kind of information we are allowed to distribute. Really, censorship is the suppression of information and ideas… it’s control. So, we need to be very careful here. Every limitation is an infringement on your individual freedom, so we need to think critically about any limitations’ implications and challenge them if necessary. We need to be able to hear both sides of an argument in an open forum and come to our own conclusions. If you don’t keep it in check, it will run amuck.

For example, if we continue censoring everything that offends someone, we’ll have no language left (or maybe some ridiculous form of newspeak)! What if some law was passed that censors government critics. How do you think that will turn out? Just look at NK, China, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. We need critics. Not the kind that want to burn everything to the ground, but critics with ideas, suggestions, and solutions because they help shape government. They can bring about necessary change.

This topic can get very complicated very quickly, especially when you start considering things like: hate speech, freedom of information, national security, internet censorship by private companies, and disinformation. Some countries even have laws against denying the holocaust for example.

It’s such a delicate balance between individual freedom and protecting the society, so again, these topics need to be carefully considered and discussed openly. When we can no longer communicate openly and freely about these topics, we’re in trouble.   

2 – Be informed

I get it, government policy can be veeeeeery boring. I mean, have you seen C-span! Laws and regulations can be very boring, but, we really need to pay attention to what’s happening for our own sake.

Consider this: the characters in 1984 didn’t even know what year it was because the party had altered the past so many times. They don’t even know what year it is. That’s how little they know.

First, being informed means knowing and understanding your rights and freedoms. Have you ever read the Constitution and its amendments? Have you ever read the Bill of Rights? If you don’t fully understand your rights, you’re at a huuuuge disadvantage. Educate yourself on these foundational documents.

Bill of Rights USA

Second, consider where you’re getting your news and information from. How reputable is it? Do they have an agenda that they are pushing? This will help you see through any sort of surface level propaganda. Look for differing viewpoints on issues so that you can have a well-rounded understanding of the problem, which will lead to a better solution. If you’re in an echo chamber of people who think just like you, your ideas will just be reinforced instead of thought about critically.

Study history, study politics, study the media, be open minded, study other points of view, and try to be, as much as possible, objective and selfless. If you’re not selfless and objective when it comes to scrutinizing policy, you’ll simply object or approve based on the advantage or disadvantage it gives you as an individual. We definitely have to think more collectively. You can’t do it alone, you didn’t get here alone and you’re not going to continue into the future alone. If you don’t think about society collectively, or from a systems thinking perspective, some part of that society will come back and bite you. To be clear, I’m not advocating for collectivism. I’m just saying that we need to think about our society as a system.  

3 – Think for yourself

Most people are just executing a script. They’re not critically thinking about tough topics. They never think for themselves because they absorb it from culture. Don’t blindly believe everything you’re told. Learn to question things that don’t seem right to you, discuss it with others, and think about the problem deeply. This goes for everything in life: from history, to advertisements, to what you read on the internet, (especially what you read on the internet), and so on.

If you don’t think for yourself, you will end up believing whatever you’re told. For example, in 1984 they are told: war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. That is not a belief system I would like to adopt thank you very much. This leads to the next lesson.

4 – Stand up for what you believe in 

This is about going from being informed to being engaged. Before you go all hard core with your beliefs, reflect on why you believe what you believe. Were these ideas planted in your head by your parents, religion, community, friends, or someone you admire? Are these strong held beliefs really yours or were they adopted? Don’t immediately answer otherwise that reflex answer will fool you. Think deeply about where your beliefs came from. It’ll be easier to stand up for what you believe in if you actually understand why you believe in it.

If your leader said 2 + 2 = 5 and held a gun to your head, would you correct them?

5 –Keep authority in check   

This is a similar lesson to the first one about free speech because it’s about keeping a fair balance between the individual’s rights and the power of a government that wants to protect those people.

For example, national security vs privacy. This is a highly debated topic that I’m sure you’re well aware of. We need to continue to do everything we can to keep those three letter agencies like the NSA, CIA, FBI, etc. in check. We all know what happened with the Patriot Act. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time because people were frightened of terrorist attacks, but is your security really worth the loss of your privacy? In some cases, a little infringement might be ok in order to protect us (checks at airport for example), but in the really close calls, privacy needs to win out.

When new policies are pushed through that we don’t agree with or that infringe upon on our rights, we need to push back on it. Remember, it’s a government for the people, by the people. We can and will continue to push the govt. to be more accountable and more transparent.

6 – Remember and learn from the past  

…Otherwise we are doomed to repeat it. Even if something is a black mark on our nation, it’s better to learn from it and grow instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Just like when you do something in your own life, you learn from it, grow, and don’t let it hold you back in the future.

7 – Remember, fear can be used as a tool to break and control you (room 101)

Fear is a complex beast. Fear can override your critical thinking and put you in a state of survival where you’ll agree to anything in order to stay alive. It’s very easy to control a group of people by keeping them in a state of fear and stress. Again, back to the Patriot Act. People were fearful and thought it would be a good idea to allow the govt to monitor citizen’s communications because we wanted to root out terrorists. But, you see what that did? It gave the government so much power over you. Unbelievable power! And we let that happen because of fear. Once a government gets that kind of power, they’re not going to give it back easily. So, we must continue to call them out when they overstep their authority.

Look, groups have always tried to control other groups through fear and also by dumbing them down. Limiting access to ideas and information (which is censorship) makes you ignorant and easy to control, which is why, going back to lesson 2, being informed is critical to this effort!

At the end of the book, Orwell suggests fear conquers all when Winston begs O’Brien to torture Julia instead of him. I personally don’t believe that fear conquers all, but it can come very close. I for one still believe that love conquers all, as sappy as that may sound…. It’s what we all want in life. 

8 – Balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the society

It’s clear by now that we need to protect and fight for your individuality while at the same time understanding that you are part of a society and you do have a responsibility to maintain it.

I get it. Most individuals want to be left alone to do their own thing. As long as we are not harming anyone else, then just leave me alone! I get that and I think that’s fair up to a certain point.

But, understand that it’s not quite that simple because, as stated earlier, you’re part of a society. You’re part of a group. There are individual problems, but there are also societal problems that we all need to take responsibility for. We must learn how to balance the individual rights and freedoms while at the same time being in harmony with the group you live among.

It’s challenging and it will continue to be until we raise our level of consciousness and get beyond the type of society we have today.

Anyways, with all that in mind, here is my question to you:

Where does our government need to go? Let me know in the comments what type of government you think would be best for you??

Now, expand your sense of self to include your family, friends, and local community. What kind of government would be best? Not just what’s best for you, but what’s best for the whole community?

And what kind of govt would be best if you expanded your sense of self to the entire nation? Probably nationalism or something along those lines, right? We have to take care of ourselves first and foremost… and screw everyone else! It’s basically tribal warfare on the global scale. This is kind of where we are today, although some countries are moving away from this way of thinking.

Let’s expand a little more. What kind of government should we have if we consider the entire planet’s population? Ha. If you’re conscious enough, you’ll realize that everything you do impacts the rest of the world and if you’re an asshole, it will come back on you because it is all interconnected. For example, if you attacked a country for whatever reason, then they’ll just come back and attack you later. So, that’s probably not the best type of government.  

(Note: I understand that this is a gross over simplification on international relations. My point here is: violence begets violence. Warring between countries is pretty stupid and it is mostly (if not completely) avoidable. We can live harmoniously, even with differing values, ideologies, beliefs, religions, motivations, etc. It’s about balance, equality, dignity, and respect for each other and other cultures and beliefs (as long as those beliefs don’t oppress people). But, then you say, but we must stop oppression if it’s happening, right? Yes! But it can be done without going to war! If our leadership wants to go to war, they better have an incredible justification for it because we can accomplish national objectives without war. This begs the question – is war ever really justified? Defense against aggression, sure, but that statement can be twisted into anything, so be careful what you consider a just war. I’m not blaming anyone for our current state of affairs either. This is just part of our evolutionary process as a planet and species. We are, as a global species, making progress in the right direction. Global violence, homicide, and brutality are on the decline ( we will overcome and push through to reach new heights!)

Wouldn’t you want a govt that is supportive and cooperative with other nations? Or would you want a nation that’s all me me me, and screw everyone else? Obviously, that’s going to bite you in the butt at some point, so to me the choice is clear – Thinking about our entire species and planet as a whole rather than just being hyper focused on our little group of people would be much wiser and it wouldn’t elevate one country at the expense of another. It would elevate the entire planet. We’re beginning to recognize that we’re a global species. People are waking up to the idea that we’re part of a super organism and that the only way ahead is together.

But hey, I’m just spit balling here and would love to hear your comments on it. Again, what type of government would be most beneficial for all involved? Not just for you. you have to think bigger than yourself.

Bonus: Doublethink

doublethink george orwell 1984

All 3 party slogans are contradictory, paradoxical, and the key to the party’s power. They are all examples of doublethink – a process of indoctrination whereby the subject is expected to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. 1 for the party and 1 for the people. This belief system also allows for the people ‘forget’ the past.

War is peace

We must continually fight in wars abroad in order to maintain peace at home.

Constant warfare leads to an obedient and fearful population (devotion and sacrifice).

Freedom is slavery

Individualism leads to slavery because you’ll become enslaved to your senses, emotions, vices, and weaknesses.

Free people represent a threat to the party, so make freedom taboo.

Ignorance is strength

We don’t need individual knowledge because we are stronger together as a united mind. When you trust and believe in what the party tells you, you become part of the fabric of the party. You have no individual responsibility. Let big brother do the thinking for you.

A population that’s ignorant to the facts won’t be able to raise questions against governments.

Orwell defines doublethink as:

To know and to not know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy is impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy. To forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.


Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world

Visualizing 200 years of systems of government

More than half of countries are democratic

Has global violence declined?

10 most censored countries


PATRIOT Act Critics

Myths and Realities about the PATRIOT Act

Spiral dynamics

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