Winston Smith was born in May of 1944* into a world filled with nuclear warfare. Not much is known about his parents, but when he was eleven years old, with his father most likely dead, his mother and baby sister hid in the old London tubes to shelter themselves from the revolutionary war above. Selfishly, Winston stole some food that his mother had been saving. He ran away and never saw his family again.
In 1971 Winston marries Katherine, a woman with no drive or aspirations except for whatever the Party tells her. Winston is never happy with her and at one point contemplates shoving her off a cliff during a nature hike. Sex with his wife was a boring, uninspiring affair which Katherine called doing her “duty to the Party”—attempting to create children. They separated after only two years of marriage due to the lack of conceiving. Years later Winston muses that they are always still technically married since they never got officially divorced.
We are shown that Winston has started his job at the Ministry of Truth by this time. His job is altering documents per the Party’s wishes and translating them to Newspeak. Despite the soul crushing reason for his job, Winston enjoys the tediousness of it and finds a small area of creativity in coming up with ways to use Newspeak.
One day a slip of paper comes his way that probably ends up changing his life. A little backstory: during the Revolution three men, Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, are arrested and made to confess to trumped up charges which make them good scapegoats for Big Brother. They are tortured much the same way Winston will be and sent free after they confess. Winston ends up seeing the broken men (one of them shedding a tear during a speech by Big Brother) at the Chestnut Tree Cafe and soon after they are never seen from again. During his fateful day at work Winston comes across a newspaper article that proves that the men’s confessions were a lie. This has a profound effect on him, but he throws it into the “memory hole” anyway (a small grate where information is burned to ashes). Even though the information is gone, it still lives in Winston’s mind and starts to change his feelings towards the Party.
Perhaps someone from the Party noticed Winston staring at this piece of paper for too long because a few years later it (including top Party official O’Brien) starts it’s surveillance on him. Maybe the Thought Police is able to manipulate dreams because Winston starts dreaming of O’Brien and his “Golden Country”.
When our story begins it is April 4, 1984 and Winston skips eating in the canteen for his lunch break in order to come home and start illegally writing in a journal he bought in a junk shop some years before. His interest in O’Brien begins that very day during the Two Minute Hate. He shares a brief look with O’Brien which leads Winston to believe that O’Brien knows that everything the Party stands for is a sham. Winston does not dare act on these suspicions but suspects them all the same.
During this lunch break we are introduced to Winston’s neighbors in Victory Mansions, the apartment building he and other middle-class Party members live. This is the Parson family, of which Mr. Parson is a general acquaintance at work. Mrs. Parson has a problem with her drain and just assumes Winston knows how to fix it, which he does because it is nothing more than nasty clogged hair. During the visit to the Parson’s flat, their two children harass Winston and accuse him of being a traitor to the Party. This rattles Winston, as children are raised by the Party to be spy’s on the adults around them. And Winston has not been having very orthodox thoughts as of late.
Winston takes pleasure in small objects that were made before the revolution. This includes his journal, which has creamy paper, and a paperweight. The paperweight is glass with a piece of coral inside. He buys it at the same second-hand shop he bought his journal at, from a kindly old man named Mr. Charrington.
Shortly after this adventure, another life changing moment happens: he is given a note that says “I love you”. The note is given to him by Julia, a woman Winston knew vaguely by sight around the building. During one Two Minute Hate, Julia is right behind him and Winston feels an intense hatred for her: simply because she is a woman who would never want to have sex with him and, he figures, is a spy. This turns out not to be true and the two develop a love affair.
Sex for pleasure is frowned upon by the Party. In fact, one of it’s main goals is to abolish the orgasm. Sex is only for procreation; to create future generations of Party members. Winston and Julia start meeting out in the country at first but then Winston rents a room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. Little do Winston and Julia know but Mr. Charrington ends up being a member of the Party and relays information to O’Brien about their activities.
Because soon after acquiring the room O’Brien makes his move. O’Brien tells Winston that he is actually a leader amongst the “Brotherhood”, a group of rebels against the Party. He gives Winston “The Book”, a nickname to Emmanuel Goldstein’s, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”. In The Book it details the rise of Big Brother and his revolution, as well as the backstory to the Party. Winston is fascinated by The Book and attempts to read it to Julia who promptly falls asleep. Most likely this was a little nod to the reader, of whom Orwell knew would also find The Book boring and would probably skip through the section.
Of course O’Brien is not part of any Brotherhood (of which we never know for sure if it exists or not) but uses this to finally give pretext to arrest Winston and Julia. While naked in their room, the two lovers are taken by the Thought Police to the dreaded and fearful Ministry of Love—the jail and torture center of the Party.
Winston is kept here for over a month before finally meeting with O’Brien. In an instant Winston realizes he has been fooled and had basically led himself to slaughter by befriending the upper-class Party Member. O’Brien begins to torture Winston, his main goal to slowly change Winston’s mind from a “sick” person to someone the Party can control. During the sessions he reveals tidbits about the Party, like how the Party’s main goal is to become powerful for power’s sake. And to make Winston to not only believe but to KNOW whatever the Party tells him, even if it’s something wrong and contradictory like 2 + 2 = 5.
After a few months of this, Winston is still not broken and this is demonstrated by the fact that Winston will not give up his love for Julia. As long as he loves a person instead of the Party then his torture is not over with. Finally, he is taken to Room 101—the room that has the “worst thing in the world” in it. What’s in it? Whatever the person being taken in is afraid of most in the world. Fire, suffocation or, as in Winston’s case, rats. O’Brien places a caged contraption over Winston’s head that, when a door is opened inside of it, rats will run out and start to eat Winston’s face.
Winston’s mind finally snaps and he pleads with O’Brien to “do it to Julia”—torture her instead.
O’Brien is able to piece back together Winston’s broken mind, much like they did with Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford. He builds Winston’s mind into the persona of the Party’s ideal citizen. Winston finally knows that 2 and 2 make 5.
In the spring of 1985, a year after the story starts, Winston is finally out of the MiniLove. He runs into Julia in the park and the two no longer love each other, or have any feelings towards anyone whatsoever. Winston reflects on this meeting while having a drink in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. Suddenly the telescreen behind him features a small speech by Big Brother. A small gin-soaked tear trickles down Winston’s cheek. He may not love another human being but he loves Big Brother!
* Although the month of Winston’s birth is never said, I always assumed it was because Winston is the same age as George Orwell’s adopted son Richard Horatio Blair. Orwell took many timelines and places and people from his real life and it is not a stretch to believe he did the same for Winston’s birth and age.