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In the near future of 1984, the world is divided into three superpowers, which are always at war. In battered London-a part of Oceania-middle-aged Winston Smith works as a minor member of the ruling Party, under the leadership of all-seeing, all-powerful Big Brother. He lives under the eye of a TV monitor. If he does anything out of order, a voice barks out instructions. The trouble is that the Party frowns on art, on sex, on the life of the mind-in fact, on everything except Party business, hatred of the Party's enemies, and love of Big Brother.
Every Party member knows the worst crime of all is Thoughtcrime: having evil thoughts against the Party or Big Brother. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, warn the posters.
As Winston's story opens he's committing a crime in spite of Big Brother. Troubled by dreams and memories of better times, inspired by secret glances from O'Brien, a member of the powerful Inner Party, Winston is starting a diary. Practically the first thing he writes is a major offense: DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.
At work in the Ministry of Truth, Winston alters books and periodicals to keep up with the changing Party history. Oceania is allied with Eastasia in war against Eurasia-but were they always? Rebel leader Emmanuel Goldstein is the public enemy in the daily Two Minutes of Hate-but was he always? Three enemies of the Party confessed and repented their Thoughtcrimes-did they really? Troubled by questions and memory flashes, Winston retreats to the "down and out" or prole (short for proletarian) neighborhoods, where the lower classes breed and squabble without Party interference. He spends happy hours in the second-hand store where he bought the diary.
Meanwhile Winston is afraid the dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department where he works is going to turn him in for Thoughtcrime. He's certain O'Brien is a secret enemy of the Party. To his astonishment, the dark-haired girl slips him a note: I LOVE YOU. Julia wants to meet. They go to the prole sector to begin an affair, another crime against the state. Winston is seduced not only by Julia but by the idea of rebellion. He and Julia continue their affair in a private room above the second-hand store. He thinks it's love like theirs that will eventually destroy the Party.
What Winston most hopes for happens. He gets a message from O'Brien. At night he and Julia go to O'Brien's lavish home and swear they'll do anything they can to help O'Brien's secret group, The Brotherhood, to overthrow the Party.
Winston's determination is strengthened by a sudden political change: Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia, now Eurasia is at war with Eastasia. Eurasia is the ally. According to Big Brother it has always been this way, so Winston has to change all the records to make this true.
In the midst of his despair and confusion, he has one thing to cling to. O'Brien has given him a forbidden book by Goldstein, the enemy of the Party. Winston takes the book to his secret room and begins to read the extensive writing on Party philosophy. When Julia comes, he reads it aloud to her. By the time he's finished, she's asleep. After dozing, Winston goes to the window to watch a huge prole mother singing as she hangs out the wash for her enormous family. He is thinking that the proles are the hope of the future when suddenly his world collapses.
Within seconds the Thought Police crash in. Winston's nice landlord is not what he seems. Neither is O'Brien. Winston is held prisoner and tortured in the Ministry of Love, where O'Brien spends months trying to brainwash him. The final step comes when O'Brien takes Winston to Room 101, where that which he most fears is waiting. As a cage of rats closes over his face, he forgets everything, even his love for Julia. His spirit is broken. As the novel ends, Winston is back at work, his affair ended and his diary destroyed, along with his memories and the last fragments of his personality.
The State has triumphed. Winston has learned to love Big Brother.