Winston Smith is an insignificant member of the ruling Party in London, in the nation of Oceania. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, he is watched through telescreens, and everywhere he looks he sees the face of the Party’s omniscient leader, the figure known only as Big Brother. The Party controls everything, even the people’s history and language: The Party is currently forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which prevents the possibility for political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal– thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all.
As the novel opens, Winston feels frustrated by the oppression and rigid control of the Party, which prohibits free thought, sex, and any expression of individuality. He has illegally purchased a diary in which to write his criminal thoughts, and has become fixated on a powerful Party member named O’Brien, whom Winston believes is a secret member of the Brotherhood, the legendary group that works to overthrow the Party.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, where he alters historical records to fit the needs of the Party. He has noticed a co-worker, a beautiful dark-haired girl, staring at him; he worries that she is an informant who will turn him in for his thoughtcrime. He worries about the Party’s control of history: it claims Oceania has always been allied with Eastasia in a war against Eurasia, but Winston seems to recall a time when this wasn’t true; the Party also claims that Emmanuel Goldstein, the leader of the Brotherhood, is the most dangerous man alive, but Winston doubts the claim. He spends his evenings wandering through the poorest neighborhoods in London, where the proletarians, or proles, live relatively unimpeded by Party monitoring.
One day, Winston receives a note from the dark-haired girl that reads, “I love you.” Her name is Julia, and they begin a covert affair, always on the lookout for signs of Party monitoring; they rent a room above the second-hand store in the prole district where Winston bought the diary. Finally, he receives the message he seeks: O’Brien wants to see him.
O’Brien indoctrinates Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood, and gives Winston a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s book. Winston reads the book to Julia in the room above the store, but suddenly soldiers crash in and seize them; the proprietor of the store has been a member of the Thought Police all along. Torn away from Julia and taken to a place called the Ministry of Love, Winston finds that O’Brien was a Party spy as well; O’Brien spends months torturing and brainwashing Winston, finally sending him to the dreaded Room 101. Here, O’Brien straps a cage full of rats onto Winston’s head and prepares to allow the rats to eat his face. Winston snaps, pleading with O’Brien to do it to Julia, not to him. His spirit broken, Winston has been fully brainwashed and is released to the outside world. He meets Julia, but no longer feels anything for her. Winston has accepted the Party entirely. He has learned to love Big Brother.