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The protagonist of the novel has been given a very interesting name by the author. The first name reminds one of the famous British statesman, Winston Churchill, and the surname Smith is a very common English name. The combination of Winston and Smith, therefore, gives the impression that the main character is like any common English man, and yet uncommon in many ways. It is Winston's uncommon character that unfolds and develops as the novel progresses; it is also his uncommonness that sets him apart and above all the other characters in the novel. Through Winston's eyes and thoughts, the reader gains an idea of the new society, which has no place for freedom, truth, or human emotions.
The uncommon Winston makes the reader hate the society in which he is living. In fact, the reader is made to empathize with all of his thoughts and feelings about the Party and the society created by it. The reader recognizes that Winston is different than most of his peers, for he tenaciously holds on to his human spirit, the thing the Party most wants to break in him. In a society where everyone is merely existing and fulfilling the Party's wishes, Winston continues to think, question, love, and feel like all free human beings should.
Through Winston Smith, Orwell also brilliantly portrays a common man's struggle to retain his identity, sanity, and natural rights in a society that is filled with fear, loneliness, listlessness, and insecurity. Winston is portrayed as a man who just wants to satisfy his natural urges and find peace. He is able to do this for a short while, through Julia, but the contentment cannot continue, for it is an abomination to Big Brother. As a result, Winston is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Orwell's skill makes the reader identify with Winston's pain, torture, and brainwashing in prison. He reacts much like any common man would react, and in the end, he appears to be totally broken and defeated. After he is declared "healed" by the Party and "freed" to the outside, Winston sees Julia again and realizes, in spite of his brainwashing and declarations to the Party, he still feels love for her. Such emotion cannot be tolerated by Big Brother; as a result, the Party kills Winston (see notes for Part III, Chapter 6).
In Winston Smith, Orwell has created a remarkable blend of the common and uncommon in mankind. Every reader is able to identify with him and experience his pain and agony, caused by living in a society where life is mechanized like any other machine and where all thoughts and actions are controlled by the Ingsoc. He is also an extremely tragic figure, who suffers beyond endurance and faces total failure in the hands of Big Brother.
Julia is a young woman who rebels against the Party Ingsoc, but in a more subtle manner than Winston does. She does not care about the political views of the Party; instead, her whole focus is on how the Party restricts her personal freedom. Representative of the typical youth, Julia does not think twice about breaking traditions, rules, and taboo. Even when she thinks of the consequences or repercussions of her actions, she is not deterred from doing what she strongly believes is right.
At the same time, Julia is not a reckless youth. She is an intelligent and practical woman who is cautious in selecting the meeting places for Winston and herself and careful in not being seen in public with him. Like Winston, she is a government worker; unlike him, she is not bothered by her work. She simply does not think deeply about her employment or the Party, even though she has a better grasp of Ingsoc's inner working than does Winston. Her superficial knowledge is all she wants; when Winston tries to talk to her more deeply about the Party's methods or ideas, she responds by dozing off.
One of the reasons for Julia's indifference to the Party's political views is attributable to her youth. Unlike Winston, Julia has not experienced life before the revolution; she knows only the new society, except through the history books that give a false picture of the past. She cannot compare the dull and mechanized uniformity of life in Oceania to anything else, for it is all she knows. As a result, she is not troubled by it in the same way as Winston is.
Because Julia feels that the Party curbs her individual rights and freedom, she wants to rebel. To the animalistic Julia, love and sex are her only weapons against the Party. In blatant defiance of the Party's rules on chastity, Julia jumps from one sexual relationship to the next, with young and old alike. Her human desire for companionship and love, however, attracts her to Winston.
Julia is portrayed as a brave, sensitive, and practical young woman. Although not an intellectual like Winston Smith, she is an intelligent woman who understands the workings of the Party and tries in her own small way to rebel against it.
The character of Big Brother, the head of the Ingsoc, does not exist in reality, but his presence is felt throughout the book. His life-like image appears right until the end of the novel when Winston dies under the caption: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. The caption, along with the piercing eyes of Big Brother, serves to increase the feeling of fear and suspicion in the new society. It suggests that man is not free and that he is constantly being watched.
Big Brother is a symbol of the Party, with its prying eyes and ears that observe every minute aspect of an individual's life, thoughts, and actions. The fact that Big Brother is not a living person in the novel is a reflection of another distortion on reality that is deliberately done by the government. The people of Oceania sincerely believe that Big Brother is still the leader of the Party, and his speeches still appear in the papers.
Although he is not alive, the image of Big Brother has a definite purpose in the story. His image serves to build aggression and hatred for the world outside Oceania. For the ones who believe that Oceania will rule the world, Big Brother is their leader, an all-powerful and charismatic statesman who will lead Oceania in its path to victory.
In O'Brien's character, there is a combination of charisma (which attracts Winston towards him) and an almost fanatical urge for power. In fact, O'Brien can be compared to Adolf Hitler who enjoyed mass appeal, in spite of his fanaticism and single-minded hatred towards a particular race.
O'Brien is a character surrounded by mystery. Until the third part of the novel, the reader, like Winston, believes that O'Brien is an ally, a friend. Then the true character of O'Brien is revealed. O'Brien represents the fanaticism and totalitarian power of the Ingsoc. The torture and pain that he inflicts on Winston is a reflection of what a Party can do to someone who dares to resist or question its principles.
Through the character of O'Brien, the writer reveals to us that the top party members lead a life of privilege and luxury as compared to the rest of society. In doing so, Orwell criticizes the belief that 'all men are equal'; he does not believe that equality can ever exist in a society.
In the story, O'Brien reveals the motives of the Party to Winston. He declares that the Party has the power to change the laws of nature. Another significant aspect of that conversation between Winston and O'Brien is that the aim of Ingsoc is power -- 'Power over all men'. When Winston counters with his belief in the human spirit and the natural rights of man, O'Brien tells him that human spirit does not exist. This terrifying answer reveals the true goal of the Party; Ingsoc seeks to create a society where men do not think, but act like the machines around them. In other words, the dehumanization of man is the ultimate aim of O'Brien and the Party he supports.
Syme is an intelligent and witty philologist who likes to spend time with Winston. He is 'vaporised' by the Party because he can see through the lies that the telescreens churn out and is rather blunt and frank in expressing his opposition. As a result, Syme is seen as a threat to the Party and is silenced forever.
Before his death, Syme reveals that Newspeak, the new language of the new society, is another political endeavor on the part of the Party. By eliminating offensive words, like sex and emotion, from the language, it is another means of controlling the minds of the people.