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Winston Smith is pretty much your average guy. He's 39 years old and works as a records editor in Records Department at the Ministry of Truth. He drinks and smokes (this was written in the 1940's, mind you), and has terrible coughing fits in the morning. Maybe he should lay off the cigs. Other "fun" facts about Winston: He hates group exercise, he has an itchy swollen ulcer on his leg (gross), and he likes to write.
If it sounds like we just described that one weird and kind-of-boring uncle of yours—hurray! That's exactly the point. Winston is supposed to be relatable—someone we can identify and sympathize with. Orwell made Winston such an average Joe to help us see ourselves—or someone we know—in his shoes, experiencing the future in all its mundane, oppressive brutality. This makes his journey all the more powerful, and his downfall all the more tragic.
(Click the character infographic to download.)
Winston is a man of the future. Unfortunately, the future isn't all that great. Rather than possessing bionic arms and super-senses, Winston is frail and thin. He wears blue overalls and eats gross-sounding synthetic foods like black bread, bitter chocolate, and fake saccharine. We're not sure if we should be impressed or concerned that all three of these foods exist today.
Winston is an Outer Party member, which is basically this story's version of a middle class. As a records editor at the Ministry of Truth, his job is to literally rewrite history, revising old newspaper articles so they're in line with the Party's current vision of the truth. The original articles are tossed in an incinerator, never to be seen again. We wonder what the Party would be so worried about people learning that they'd go to this length to cover their tracks, but then again, freedom of the press isn't exactly the norm in a dystopian society.
A lonely and observant intellect, Winston is resentful of the Party’s oppression of, um, everything under the sun:
He felt as though he were wandering in the forests of the sea bottom, lost in a monstrous world where he himself was the monster. He was alone. The past was dead, the future was unimaginable. What certainty had he that a single human creature now living was on his side? And what way of knowing that the dominion of the Party would not endure forever? (1.2.34)
He spends much of his time jotting down what he learns about the real past and musing on his rebellious tendencies in a secret journal he keeps in an alcove in his room that escapes the watchful surveillance of the telescreen. He also enjoys strolling in the prole district, looking for connections to the past, Piña Coladas, and getting caught in the rain.
More than anything, Winston seeks the unadulterated truth—and the only way to attain that is by rebelling against the totalitarian rule of the Party:
Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew, perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self denial simply a sham concealing iniquity. If he could have infected the whole lot of them with leprosy or syphilis, how gladly he would have done so! Anything to rot, to weaken, to undermine! (2.2.54-55, Winston)
From the moment he starts the journal to his first encounter with O’Brien, Winston holds on to his dream of freedom and independence. Some of the more steamy acts of rebellion occur when Winston gets jiggy with Julia:
She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated. (2.2.47)
Well. We'll have what they're having.
Winston's strengths lie in his unwavering individuality and the accompanying fervent rebelliousness. Seriously, even just keeping his journal is enough to warrant a death sentence—the dude's brave. Being with Julia brings out even more of the rebel within him, which is why they're a match made in rebel heaven.
Unfortunately, combined with his penchant for pessimism, these traits are also his downfall.
Winston is extremely (and deservingly) paranoid, and his overriding belief that the Party will ultimately catch and punish him becomes gospel. We're gonna go out on a limb and guess it has something to do with all those BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU posters. Believing that he is helpless in evading his fate, Winston takes unnecessary risks, and is eventually (surprise, surprise) apprehended by the Thought Police.
And what’s up with O’Brien, the so-called Brotherhood big shot and Inner Party member? O’Brien seems like the guy who can do all the things Winston can’t. He’s the cool kid. So you can imagine how much it stings for O’Brien to be the one that screws Winston over at the end. What can we say—these bros ain't loyal. Talk about the ultimate betrayal. It’s a tragic element that douses the rebellious sparkle in Winston's eyes for good.
Throughout the story, we follow Winston's blossoming from a meek everyman to a determined and impassioned rebel. He's our protagonist, and we're rooting for him all the way. Maybe he really can escape the Party's grip; maybe he and Julia really do have a future together.
Wait—who are we kidding? This is the future. Everything sucks in the future. So, like a bag of chips stuck in a vending machine, Orwell comes back around to ruin our day (Week? Month?) when Winston is captured, tortured, and brainwashed.
What's worse? The brainwashing is a success. He betrays Julia while being tortured and comes out feeling nothing but benevolent love for Big Brother. The Winston we grew to love is dead and gone. It's shocking, but effective. With this ending, Orwell sends a powerful message about the extent to which totalitarian rule can kill the human spirit—a warning to us all.