In the novel’s early exposition, we immediately learn that we’re in a world where normal rules don’t apply: “It was a cold day in April, and clocks were striking thirteen.” We learn about the existence of Big Brother, meet the protagonist Winston Smith, and see glimpses of the society he lives in. Through details such as the smell of the building and the electricity that has been rationed in preparation for Hate Week, we learn that the book takes place in a repressive society with few creature comforts.
The initiating incident that sets the plot in motion occurs when Winston begins to write his subversive thoughts in his diary. He begins to think of himself as “already dead,” suggesting he has abandoned the impulse for self-preservation, and his life has little value to him, making him ready to sacrifice it to a cause.
The conflict between Winston’s essential humanity and the dehumanizing policies of the Party is developed when Winston’s coworker, Julia, hands Winston a slip of paper. Winston has suspected Julia is following him, and he views her with a mixture of desire and paranoia, so he expects the paper to reveal a warning or a coded threat from a Party spy. Instead, it says, “I love you,” and Winston and Julia begin their affair, setting Winston’s personal desires on a collision course with Party ideology and raising the stakes of how far Winston will go to maintain his autonomy.
Julia serves as a character foil to Winston, as Orwell compares and contrasts their political philosophies and their styles of resistance. For example, Winston believes that the Party must be resisted and overthrown, but Julia thinks it’s better to evade its authority while pretending to acquiesce to it. Winston, frustrated, tells her she’s “only a rebel from the waist down,” which she takes as a compliment.
At the end of Book Two, the police burst in on Winston and Julia and arrest them, reversing the reader’s understanding of many of the characters in the book and turning the tone from momentarily optimistic to despairing and dark. It is revealed that Mr. Charrington, who Winston believed to be a kindly old man and potential ally, was a member of the Thought Police, and that the Party had likely been tracking Winston since he first purchased the diary.
Winston and Julia are taken to the Ministry of Love, where prisoners are shown begging not to be sent to Room 101, creating suspense about what could possibly happen in it, before Winston is called up and discovers that O’Brien was a faithful member of the Party all along. Through psychological intimidation and physical torture, O’Brien breaks Winston’s will until he cannot answer for certain whether two plus two makes four or five. He concedes that two and two might sometimes make five in certain philosophical or theoretical concepts. Then finally he gives in to accept that the answer to two plus two is whatever the Party says it is.
The novel’s climax comes when Winston’s free will, represented by his love for Julia, is directly challenged by the Party, and he must choose between Julia and Big Brother, between individuality and conformity. In Room 101, O’Brien demonstrates a medieval torture device, a cage full of rats to be strapped to the prisoner’s face, playing on Winston’s fear of rats. In a panic, Winston gives up Julia, begging O’Brien to torture her instead of him, breaking the promise he swore never to break: “if they could make me stop loving you, that would be the real betrayal.” In Room 101, the Party succeeds in breaking Winston not just physically and mentally, but emotionally. In the battle between personal freedom and political repression, repression has won.
In the novel’s falling action, Winston is reintegrated back into society as a loyal and faithful Party member. He meets Julia again and realizes that they both betrayed one another under torture, and he can no longer stand to be near her. In the novel’s final chilling moments, Winston reflects on how foolish he had been. “He had won the battle over himself. He loved Big Brother.”