Study Guide

1984 Memory and the Past

By George Orwell

Memory and the Past quotes in 1984

Book 1, Chapter 1

He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible. (1.1.6)

Winston's memory of the past is fuzzy.

Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite which was of course impossible for his present purpose. (1.1.14)

Winston's memory of the past is fuzzy because of the Party's control and elimination of records in the past and present.

Book 1, Chapter 3

For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory? He tried to remember in what year he had first heard mention of Big Brother. He thought it must have been at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, of course, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London in great gleaming motor-cars or horse carriages with glass sides. There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence. (1.3.22)

Without physical records outside of his own memory, Winston experiences great trouble in trying to remember the commencement of the Party's rule.

Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war, but it was evident that there had been a fairly long interval of peace during his childhood, because one of his early memories was of an air raid which appeared to take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester. He did not remember the raid itself [...]. (1.3.12)

No matter how hard he scrutinizes his memory, Winston is uncertain whether a time existed when Oceania was not at war with someone.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed - if all records told the same tale - then the lie passed into history and became truth. "Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. "Reality control," they called it: in Newspeak, "doublethink." (1.3.18)

Winston believes that as long as one's perception (or memory) of the truth can be externally verified, then even a lie can become truth. Such is the Party's method of control.

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. (1.3.18)

Even though Winston has evidence of the Party's lies in his memory, he also accepts that the unreliability of his mind will soon expunge that evidence as well.

Book 1, Chapter 4

This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building. (1.4.2)

The Party seeks to control the present by mandating the destruction of all records of the past through "memory holes."

And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain. (1.4.9)

Due to the Party's control and rectification of all media in Oceania, there is no certainty in historical records.

Book 1, Chapter 5
Winston Smith

Why should one feel it to be intolerable unless one had some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different? (1.5.55)

Winston believes a tie exists between one's intuition and one's "ancestral memory."

Book 1, Chapter 8
Winston Smith

"You are very much older than I am," said Winston. "You must have been a grown man before I was born. You can remember what it was like in the old days, before the Revolution. People of my age don't really know anything about those times. We can only read about them in books, and what it says in the books may not be true. I should like your opinion on that." (1.8.39, Winston)

Winston seeks out history because of his fascination with the memory aspect of existence.

What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one [...]. The thing was doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness [...]. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect. (1.8.70)

Winston is strangely drawn to objects from the past because of his fascination with the memory aspect of existence.

Book 2, Chapter 5
Winston Smith

"Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it's in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. I know, of course, that the past is falsified, but it would never be possible for me to prove it, even when I did the falsification myself. After the thing is done, no evidence ever remains. The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don't know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories. Just in that one instance, in my whole life, I did possess actual concrete evidence after the event - years after it." (2.5.14, Winston to Julia)

Winston feels confident that, despite the Party's control of information, and thus, the past, he alone had possession of evidence to prove the Party's wrong - at least in his memory.

Book 3, Chapter 6
Winston Smith

Uncalled, a memory floated into his mind. He saw a candle-lit room with a vast white counterpaned bed, and himself, a boy of nine or ten, sitting on the floor, shaking a dice-box, and laughing excitedly. His mother was sitting opposite him and also laughing.

[...]

He pushed the picture out of his mind. It was a false memory. He was troubled by false memories occasionally. They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were. Some things had happened, others had not happened [...]. (3.6.34-36)

After being brainwashed, Winston experiences overactive crimestop and doublethink, as evidenced by the occasional "false memories" he never used to doubt.

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