Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Throughout London, Winston sees posters showing a man gazing down over the words “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” everywhere he goes. Big Brother is the face of the Party. The citizens are told that he is the leader of the nation and the head of the Party, but Winston can never determine whether or not he actually exists. In any case, the face of Big Brother symbolizes the Party in its public manifestation; he is a reassurance to most people (the warmth of his name suggests his ability to protect), but he is also an open threat (one cannot escape his gaze). Big Brother also symbolizes the vagueness with which the higher ranks of the Party present themselves—it is impossible to know who really rules Oceania, what life is like for the rulers, or why they act as they do. Winston thinks he remembers that Big Brother emerged around 1960, but the Party’s official records date Big Brother’s existence back to 1930, before Winston was even born.
By deliberately weakening people’s memories and flooding their minds with propaganda, the Party is able to replace individuals’ memories with its own version of the truth. It becomes nearly impossible for people to question the Party’s power in the present when they accept what the Party tells them about the past—that the Party arose to protect them from bloated, oppressive capitalists, and that the world was far uglier and harsher before the Party came to power. Winston vaguely understands this principle. He struggles to recover his own memories and formulate a larger picture of what has happened to the world. Winston buys a paperweight in an antique store in the prole district that comes to symbolize his attempt to reconnect with the past. Symbolically, when the Thought Police arrest Winston at last, the paperweight shatters on the floor.
The old picture of St. Clement’s Church in the room that Winston rents above Mr. Charrington’s shop is another representation of the lost past. Winston associates a song with the picture that ends with the words “Here comes the chopper to chop off your head!” This is an important foreshadow, as it is the telescreen hidden behind the picture that ultimately leads the Thought Police to Winston, symbolizing the Party’s corrupt control of the past.
Throughout the novel Winston imagines meeting O’Brien in “the place where there is no darkness.” The words first come to him in a dream, and he ponders them for the rest of the novel. Eventually, Winston does meet O’Brien in the place where there is no darkness; instead of being the paradise Winston imagined, it is merely a prison cell in which the light is never turned off. The idea of “the place where there is no darkness” symbolizes Winston’s approach to the future: possibly because of his intense fatalism (he believes that he is doomed no matter what he does), he unwisely allows himself to trust O’Brien, even though inwardly he senses that O’Brien might be a Party operative.
The omnipresent telescreens are the book’s most visible symbol of the Party’s constant monitoring of its subjects. In their dual capability to blare constant propaganda and observe citizens, the telescreens also symbolize how totalitarian government abuses technology for its own ends instead of exploiting its knowledge to improve civilization.
The red-armed prole woman whom Winston hears singing through the window represents Winston’s one legitimate hope for the long-term future: the possibility that the proles will eventually come to recognize their plight and rebel against the Party. Winston sees the prole woman as a prime example of reproductive virility; he often imagines her giving birth to the future generations that will finally challenge the Party’s authority.
More main ideas from 1984