Part I sets up the misery of Winston’s world before he outwardly expresses any sort of rebellion.
Winston Smith is living in London, chief city of Airstrip One (formerly known as England), in the superstate of Oceania. It is‹he thinks‹1984.
Oceania is a totalitarian state dominated by the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism) and ruled by an ominous organization known simply as the Party. Oceania and the two other world superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia, are involved in a continuous war over the remaining world, and constantly shift alliances. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the war is largely an illusion, and that the three superstates maintain this illusion for their mutual benefit. It serves their shared purpose of holding onto absolute power over their respective peoples. Much of the warfare, in fact, is inflicted by these governments upon their own citizens.
Oceanic society is hierarchical and oligarchic. At the bottom‹where the vast majority of the population lies‹are the "proles" or proletariat, the working classes who are uneducated and largely left alone by the government except when it is necessary to tap into mass patriotism or political participation. Above the proles is the Outer Party, less privileged members of the Party who spend their time keeping the wheels of the Party machine well-oiled and running smoothly. These people are systematically brainwashed from a young age and are kept under constant surveillance by ubiquitous "telescreens" (which can receive and transmit visual and aural impulses simultaneously) and the ominous Thought Police. Above the Outer Party are the Inner Party members, who enjoy the fruits of power and production, and whose sole aim is to perpetuate power for the Party, forever. At the very top of the pyramid is Big Brother, the embodiment of the Party, a "face" and glorified persona which it is easier to love than an abstract collective organization.
On this April day, Winston has left the Ministry of Truth, where he works in the Records Department, to take his lunch break at home, because he wishes to write in his diary‹a compromising activity and a compromising possession to begin with. Yet, despite his fears, he is overwhelmed with the need to impose some sanity upon his world. Winston is a rebel at heart, a heretic who does not subscribe to Party doctrines or beliefs.
After reflecting on the day’s events, notably the event which inspired him to begin the diary on this day, Winston is startled by a knock on the door. Could it be the Thought Police already?
Fortunately, it is only his neighbor Mrs. Parsons, asking him to help her unclog her kitchen sink drain. He does, and after being briefly tormented by her children‹dangerous little demons already brainwashed by the Party and certain to turn on their parents one day‹he returns to his flat.
Winston’s diary and his dreams and memories of the past are all testament to his need to anchor himself in the past, believing it to be more sane than the world he lives in now. The description of his dreams and memories gradually unfolds the developments which have led to the current world order.
Winston’s job at the fraudulently-named Ministry of Truth involves the daily rewriting of history: he corrects "errors" and "misprints" in past articles in order to make the Party appear infallible and constant‹always correct in its predictions, always at war with one enemy. Currently the enemy is Eurasia, and it follows (according to the Party) that it has always been Eurasia, though Winston knows this to be untrue.
Despite his horror at the Party’s destruction of the past, Winston enjoys his part in it, taking pleasure in using his imagination in rewriting Big Brother’s speeches and such.
It becomes apparent, through a painstaking unfolding of detail, that the standards of living in Oceania are barely tolerable. For the majority of the population, goods are scarce, and everything is ugly and tastes horrible. Depressed, Winston wonders if the past were better. Once upon a time, did people enjoy marriage, was sex pleasurable, were there enough goods to go around? He recalls his own dismal marriage to Katharine, a frigid woman so inculcated with Party doctrine that she hates sex but insists upon it once a week as "our duty to the Party."
Winston feels that the only hope lies in the proles, if they wake up one day and realize that they are not living the kind of life they could be. But will they wake up?
Tormented by memories and searching for answers, Winston walks aimlessly through a prole area. He tries to talk to an old man about the past, but can’t seem to get anywhere. Eventually, he finds himself in front of the antique shop where he had bought the diary. He enters, starts to chat with Mr. Charrington (the proprietor), and wanders through the quaint antiques. He buys a beautiful glass paperweight. Mr. Charrington talks to him some more and shows him an upstairs room furnished with old furniture. There is no telescreen in this room, amazing Winston, and inspiring him to consider renting this room as a hiding place‹though he immediately dismisses the idea as lunacy. Still, enchanted, he resolves to come back sometime.
Upon leaving the shop, he is startled to see a girl with dark hair who works in his Ministry. There is no reason for her to be in this area, and he deduces she must have been following him. Terrified, he hurries home and tries to write in his diary, but cannot.
The second part of the book traces hopeful events.
It opens with a startling encounter with the girl with dark hair. They pass one another in a corridor. She trips and falls on her injured arm; Winston helps her up. As he does, she slips him a note. He is surprised but tries not to show it. When he finally reads it, he is astonished to see that it says, "I love you."
Knocked for a loop, but forgetting all his previous fear and hatred of her, Winston tries to figure out how they can meet. After a few days, they finally manage to exchange some words in the canteen, and meet later that evening in Victory Square (once, apparently, Trafalgar Square). There, the girl discreetly gives him directions to a meeting place where they will rendezvous on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday afternoon rolls around, and Winston and the girl, Julia, meet out in the countryside. He is surprised and delighted to find that she detests the Party and goes out of her way to be as "corrupt" as possible. They spend a pleasant time together, and make love.
Winston and Julia start to meet clandestinely in the streets to "talk by instalments," as Julia calls it; private meetings are rare and difficult to coordinate. But they do manage once more that month. They talk as much as they can and get to know one another’s personalities and histories.
Finally, the pressures and troubles of arranging meetings induce them to take the risky step of renting Mr. Charrington’s upstairs room. In this room, they start to act like a married couple‹Julia puts on makeup and plans to get a dress, so she can feel like a woman, while Winston enjoys the sensation of privacy and the novelty of being able to lie in bed with your loved one and talk as much (or as little) as you want about whatever you wish. As time passes, they grow closer and talk about escaping together, though they know it is impossible.
At about this time, O’Brien‹an Inner Party member for whom Winston feels an inexplicable reverence, and some sort of bond‹suddenly makes an overture, presenting Winston with his address. This seems to be a sign. Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s flat together. There they are inducted into the Brotherhood, a legendary underground anti-Party organization founded by Emmanuel Goldstein, a former Party member. O’Brien gives them instructions and details on what to expect and what not to expect.
Here Hate Week intervenes. Months and weeks of preparation are nothing to the flurry the Ministry of Truth is cast into when suddenly, at the climax of Hate Week, it is made known that Oceania is at war with Eastasia rather than Eurasia. Winston and Julia and all their co-workers are thrown into a 90-hour-stretch of correcting old newspapers, since it must be made to appear that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
Winston has received the book, the bible of the Brotherhood written by Emmanuel Goldstein, but has not had time to read it until his work at the Ministry finally finishes. All workers are given the rest of the day off, and he and Julia head separately for their upstairs room.
There Winston reads a good deal about what he already knows. Julia comes in, and after they make love he settles down to read the book to her. She falls asleep, and shortly after he realizes this, he closes the book and goes to sleep too.
When they awaken, the old-fashioned clock says 8:30, but various hints indicate that it is 8:30 a.m., not p.m. as Winston and Julia suppose. They stand together, looking out at the world, feeling how beautiful it is, feeling hopeful that the future will be all right even though they will not live to see it.
Suddenly they hear a voice and jump apart. There has been a telescreen in the room, behind a picture hanging over the bed. Winston and Julia have been caught. Helpless, they are taken away by the Thought Police, their momentary glimpse of happiness shattered.
Part III recounts the downfall of Winston and Julia.
After being held in a common prison for a while, Winston is transferred to the Ministry of Love. He sits in his cell, starving, thirsty, tortured by fear, waiting for he does not know what. As he waits, people come in and out, including Ampleforth, the poet from his department, and Parsons, who has been denounced by his seven-year-old daughter. Other people he does not know come in, and through them he hears about "Room 101," which seems to terrify everyone. He thinks longingly of being smuggled a razor blade by the Brotherhood, though he knows he probably wouldn’t use it.
At last the door opens and, to his utter shock, Winston sees O’Brien come in. His assumption is that O’Brien has been captured; but it turns out that O’Brien was never a member of the Brotherhood, and that the whole thing had been a trap.
Winston is tortured and interrogated for a seemingly endless time. Somehow he feels that O’Brien is behind it all, directing the entire process with a twisted kind of love. Finally he finds himself alone with O’Brien, who tells him he is insane and that they are to work together to cure him. Winston’s discussions with O’Brien dwell on the nature of the past and reality, and reveal much about the Party’s approach to those concepts. They also uncover a good deal in O’Brien’s personality, which is a puzzling and intricate one. Perhaps most importantly, the discussions finally answer Winston’s former question, "WHY?" The Party, O’Brien explains with a lunatic intensity, seeks absolute power, for power’s own sake. This is why it does what it does; and its quest will shape the world into an even more nightmarish one than it already is.
Winston cannot argue; every time he does, he is faced with obstinate logical fallacy, a completely different system of reasoning which runs counter to all reason. His final attempt to argue with O’Brien ends in O’Brien showing Winston himself in the mirror. Winston is beyond horrified to see that he has turned into a sickly, disgusting sack of bones, beaten into a new face.
After this, Winston submits to his re-education. He is no longer beaten; he is fed at regular intervals; he is allowed to sleep (though the lights, of course, never go out). He seems to be making "progress," but underneath he is still holding onto the last remaining kernel of himself and his humanity: his love for Julia.
This comes out when, in the midst of a dream, Winston cries aloud, "Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia!"
This thoughtcrime is his undoing. He is taken to Room 101, where he is threatened with the possibility of being eaten alive by rats. Insane with panic and terror, he screams that they should do it to Julia, not him. Physically he is saved by this betrayal; but it has wiped away the last trace of his humanity and his ability to hold himself up with any sort of pride.
The end of the book finds Winston a shell of a man, completely succumbed to the Party. He and Julia no longer love each other; after Room 101, this is impossible for both of them. He is essentially waiting for his death. As he sits in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, musing distractedly (but never rebelliously) on the wreck of his life, word comes over the telescreen that Oceania has won a major victory against Eurasia (with which it is back at war) and that she now has complete control over Africa. Winston is just as triumphantly excited as everyone else, and he gazes up at the portrait of Big Brother with new understanding. At last, he loves Big Brother.