1984 Themes, Symbols, and Motifs – George Orwell

March 1, 2024

1984 themes symbols motifs

Written in 1949 at the height of Stalinism, George Orwell’s 1984 is a prescient examination of totalitarianism, government surveillance, and state violence. The events that befall 1984’s protagonist – Winston Smith – continue to speak to the uneasy relationship between government and the individual. In this blog post, I’m going to be talking about some of the major themes in this dystopian masterpiece. (A quick note: Because I’ll be looking primarily at 1984 themes, I won’t be talking too much about the plot (but if you need a handy chapter-by-chapter summary, I’d look here).)

If you’ve just started George Orwell’s seminal 1984, you’re in for a (depressingly bleak) treat. If you’ve just finished the book, you’re probably wondering how to make sense of the main themes of the book. These themes include surveillance, the relationship between the individual and society, and the body (sex and/or violence). This is certainly not an exhaustive list of themes, but it will likely cover most of the major points of discussion.

Looking for other great study/teaching resources for 1984?

1984 Themes and Motifs 

Themes are generally “big idea” words – e.g., violence, faith, hope, etc. They help us by suggesting ways to connect characters, images, and events. As opposed to symbols, which tend to end conversations, themes help us generate discussion and organize our analysis of texts. After all, it’s impossible to tackle an entire book at once, so themes allow us to break the text into manageable, analyzable chunks.

Motifs are a bit harder to define. I think of motifs as concrete objects that support a larger theme. For example, in 1984, Winston buys a small glass paperweight with a piece of coral embedded in it. This paperweight reappears several times in the text and allows Winston to meditate on the past. The paperweight is clearly important, but it’s certainly not a theme. Rather, it facilitates the text’s exploration of certain themes. (OSU gives a good explanation of motifs here.) Given this, I won’t dwell too much on motifs, as most are easily aligned with larger themes.

A Quick Note on “Symbols”

I’ve written in other posts about how I feel about “symbols,” so I’m not going to spend too much time explaining why I don’t like them. (TL;DR: 1) They’re too often used as a way to render literature “assessable” and, 2) they’re a holdover from an earlier engagement with religious literature). I still feel the same – the idea of a “symbolic” reading of literature seems to me a waste of time. I’ll never stop quoting Rob Goodman’s article “The Abuse of Symbols,” in which he writes that literature is meant to “thwart right answers.” With this in mind, I want to encourage you to read Orwell’s 1984 not as a puzzle to be “figured out.” Rather, like all literature, 1984 is a text to be read, absorbed, and engaged with.

Without further ado, let’s get into some of the major themes in 1984.

Themes in 1984

1) Surveillance

In 1984, surveillance is what facilitates and allows state violence. This surveillance is omnipresent – children are encouraged to denounce their parents as traitors, the Thought Police have agents everywhere, and telescreens are in every residence. There are countless examples of surveillance in the book, but it’s most important to understand how surveillance affects individuals in 1984. Let’s look at the first mention of a telescreen in the book. Winston has just arrived in his apartment. We read that “so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.” That a totalitarian government would surveil its citizens isn’t particularly surprising. What’s particularly significant is the way constant surveillance changes an individual. We read,

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

1984 Themes, Symbols, and Motifs (Continued)

(All my quotes are from the edition on Project Gutenberg Australia.)

We see two different sources of surveillance in this quote. On the one hand, the Thought Police have the ability to observe their citizens at any time. This fact is scary enough. What’s even scarier is that Winston (and, by extension, every other Party member) has to act as if they are being watched. In effect, the mere possibility of being watched turns the individual into his own jailer. (If you want to sound extra smart, you might reference this article about Bentham’s “panopticon,” Foucault, and the increase in digital surveillance.)

2) The Individual vs. Society

It goes without saying that the dystopian society in 1984 does not recognize the value of the individual. Make the smallest slip – mumble “Down with Big Brother” in your sleep (Parsons), show too much academic enthusiasm for Newspeak (Syme), or allow “God” to persist in a poem (Ampleforth) – and you’re likely to be arrested, tortured, and/or disappeared. All this is expected of a totalitarian dystopia. What is particularly striking in 1984 is that the government prohibits the merest gesture of individual subjectivity.

To see how this plays out, let’s look at the moment Winston begins his diary. For Winston, this is a momentous occasion. We read, “if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp.” On first glance, it’s not immediately clear why this act is so serious. Why would starting a diary be so dangerous? The answer comes as soon as Winston begins to write. We read,

1984 Themes, Symbols, and Motifs (Continued)

“A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act. In small clumsy letters he wrote:

April 4th, 1984.

He sat back. A sense of complete helplessness had descended upon him. To begin with, he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984.”

No sooner has Winston put pen to paper than he realizes that he has no idea whether it is, in fact, 1984. In other words, the act of writing juxtaposes his individual experience of time with lack of any official date. (Perhaps, as the Party is eternal, it has no need for dates.) What we can see here is an incommensurable gap between the finite subject (who measures his or her life in days, months, and years) and the eternal ideology of the Party.

Now we can see why starting a diary constitutes a Thoughtcrime. To write is to assert the validity of subjective experience against the absolute authority of the Party. Any gesture that implies the existence of an alternative (subjective) perspective is intolerable to the Party.

3) Body vs. Mind

I don’t know about you, but the first time I read 1984, I was struck by how much sex was in the book. Considering that the Party is obsessed with tamping down any sexual pleasure, it’s natural that sex becomes a possible mode of individual resistance. We see this mix of sex and politics the first time Winston and Julia meet in the country. After they have sex, Winston wakes and frames their new relationship in political terms. We read,

“But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

Whether the sex act is actually a “blow struck against the Party” is debatable, but it’s clear that Winston sees this bodily activity as aligned against the ideology of Big Brother. For Winston, sex is a private revolt against a totalitarian dystopia.

1984 Themes, Symbols, and Motifs (Continued)

At the heart of Winston’s (and Julia’s) belief in the power of sex is a belief that the body is something separate from thought. We can see this division in the way they talk about what they see as the certainty of their eventual torture. Right before Julia and Winston are arrested, we read,

“She thought it over. ‘They can’t do that,’ she said finally. ‘It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything–ANYTHING–but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.’”

In other words, both Julia and Winston think that belief (thoughts) are safe (and separate) from whatever bodily torture awaits them.

This belief is sadly misplaced. Winston is threatened with rats eating his face and, in terror, tells his torturers to do it to Julia instead. After the Thought Police releases him, he meets up with Julia. Apparently, her torture was similar. She remarks,

‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘they threaten you with something something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, “Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.” And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens, you do mean it…You WANT it to happen to the other person.

Whereas Winston and Julia believed that their feelings were safe, they learned that no feeling is safe in the shell of their bodies. Given enough time and suffering, even love withers and gives way to hate.

1984 Themes, Symbols, and Motifs – Wrapping Up

I’ve read 1984 a few times now, and I’m still not sure if it suggests that individual resistance is impossible or if it valorizes subjective agency in spite of eventual defeat. I suppose that the job of literature is to thwart easy answers. If you find yourself wanting to more in-depth study of literature, society, and politics, I’d check out this list – there’s nothing like studying literature to show you what kind of futures we should try to avoid.