The tone of 1984 is dark, pessimistic, and gloomy, suggesting the book is meant as a warning of how miserable life will be if forces of totalitarianism are allowed to prevail. Even seemingly minor details and images in the novel uphold its gloomy, pessimistic tone. Orwell loads the apartments and workplaces of the novel with foul smells, noise, and a lack of privacy. Food is gray and unappetizing, indulgences like alcohol and cigarettes are unsatisfying and of poor quality. When Winston tries to smoke, “half the tobacco promptly fell out onto his tongue, a bitter dust which was difficult to spit out again.” This tone echoes the dystopian mood and themes of the novel. Oceania is tightly controlled by a repressive government with a cult of personality in its leadership. People’s more positive qualities have been channeled into conformism and mob mentality. Against this backdrop, Winston has developed a pessimistic, fatalistic attitude, believing himself to be as good as dead from the moment he begins writing in his diary: “To be killed was what you expected.”
A few variations in tone exist, almost all connected to situations that offer the possibility of rebellion. When Winston and Julia meet in the secret rented room, the novel’s pace softens, time slows down, and the tone becomes warmer and more sympathetic to human nature. Julia and Winston enjoy a forbidden picnic with real coffee, real sugar, soft bread, and a pot of jam, recollecting the small pleasures of pre-Party life. These details make the scene in which the police invade the rented room and arrest Winston and Julia feel like a deeper betrayal. The tone here is also cautionary – readers reading the book at the time of publication in 1949 would have remembered similar rationing and deprivation from World War II, when real sugar, butter, and coffee were luxuries. Orwell warns readers that if they aren’t careful, life may go back to the hardships and misery of wartime. For contemporary readers, the tone of caution reminds us that the coffee and bread we take for granted may someday because precious and contraband luxuries.