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If you haven't read George Orwell's 1984, this contains spoilers, so you may want to stop reading now.

I'm serious — no more jokes. This is your last chance. Next paragraph is a spoiler.

While Winston Smith is being interrogated and brainwashed in 1984, at one point Winston asks about whether he'll be executed. O'Brien explains to him that they don't just execute someone, they break them down and teach them to love Big Brother. Then, when they're broken and soulless and content to be a member of the party, that's when they're executed.

At the end of the story,

after he's been forced to betray Julia, and sees her later and realizes his love for her has been destroyed, he realizes he loves Big Brother.

Does this imply that, as O'Brien mentioned, now that

Smith loves Big Brother, he will soon be executed when he's not expecting it? And, at that point, if he loves Big Brother, wouldn't he be glad to die for his past "sins" and give his life for Big Brother?

Note: I'm not asking about the text of the book. I've read it, I know how it ends, I know what the last sentence in the book is. I phrased the question as I did to avoid providing spoilers. I'm asking if the ending, coupled with what we've read earlier, implies an execution, even though there isn't an explicit one in the book.

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Or does it mean that the old Winston was executed when he was broken. He was then replaced with the new Winston that loves Big Brother. –  Xantec Feb 28 '12 at 16:57
@TangoOversway I'm guessing Xantec was referring to a figurative transformation (e.g. "the old me is dead... long live the new me!"). –  Beofett Feb 28 '12 at 17:14
@Beofett is correct in his interpretation of my statement. –  Xantec Feb 28 '12 at 17:20
@TangoOversway I felt ambivalent about it. –  Xantec Feb 28 '12 at 18:06
@user13575 I think you might be thinking of Brazil, which was directed by Terry Gilliam. I'm sure it was inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it wasn't it. –  Martin McCallion Nov 7 '14 at 14:38

15 Answers 15

up vote 22 down vote accepted

While there's reference throughout "1984" that many people who confessed to supposed crimes and had become thorough believers in Big Brother were then literally executed, it's deliberately not made clear whether this was the fate of every one of them. Similarly, the ending of "1984" is far from making clear whether that's Winston's literal fate, at least during the last scene in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. If anything, it makes clear that the "bullet" that enters Winston's brain at that moment is allegorical, since he experiences it while imagining himself once again in the Ministry of Love, while he's actually still seated at the table in the cafe, and a moment later he's still alive in the cafe, with tears running down his cheeks, and inwardly expresses his love for Big Brother. It's possible, as others suggest here, that this is merely the precursor to his actual execution later--first a metaphorical bullet, followed some unknown time later by a literal bullet. It seems likely that Orwell left the ending somewhat ambiguous, because Winston's particular fate was meant to be seen either way, or both ways at once. The earlier descriptions of literal executions was sufficient to show that the state would carry out such real executions on some people, while Winston's experience in the cafe may have been meant to show they also might have carried out purely psychological executions on other people; and for still other people, they might have first performed the psychological execution, and then some time later, the literal execution. All options were either at the whim of the state, or (more likely) based on detailed examination of what would work best against the subject, and/or for the state.

During Winston's brainwashing/torture, O'Brien makes contradictory statements about the state's plans for Winston, which to me implies neither Winston nor we are meant to know for certain what Winston's fate will be. After O'Brien tells Winston that party originators-turned-traitors Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were definitely executed after being successfully brainwashed, there are these exchanges

Winston asks:

'Does the Brotherhood exist?'

'That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind.'


'Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is for ever.'

In other words, we're supposed to be left as unsure as Winston about the exact nature of his execution--kind of a quantum uncertainty.

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second does however indicate that indeed people may be released back into society after being "treated" from their incorrect ideas. Of course this could be itself a part of the brainwashing, making people think there's still hope. –  jwenting Dec 5 '13 at 6:43

I'd say, that in the allegory the story uses.. He IS dead; the only thing that defined him was his rebellion, and, at this point, it has been killed.

Killing the body would be redundant; it may be of further use to them in the future. And, they can kill him physically later, but he wouldn't care; he's a loyal servant of Big Brother... again, if you don't care if you live or die in that situation, you are 'dead inside' already.

Also, consider that Orwell is using Winston as an 'Everyman', that the reader can, at least on some level, related to. By killing his spirit, he's showing the (hypothesized) inevitability of the state destroying the spirit of mankind. The body still exists, but is no longer a living thing, just an extension of the state.

Also, as Schroedingers Cat points out, this could be DoubleSpeak. Remember; they only said they would kill him, if they currently SAY that they said that. If they say that they never did, then they didn't. A malleable history is a dangerous and confusing thing.

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Killing the body would be redundant, but it would also be a power play -- showing others that the party was all-powerful and didn't need him, even after he was converted. It would be part of the deterrent to other possible dissidents. –  Tango Feb 28 '12 at 17:22
Very good answer. When I first read the book, I thought that Winston was nothing but a shell of his former self. "Executing" a person in that way requires a lot more power than merely shooting him. And I think that it's even worse, especially since he was told that he could literally be executed whenever the party wants to. –  mort Jan 17 '13 at 13:19
Another way to look at it is that killing Winston's body isn't just redundant, it's a waste. When there comes a time in the future where they need someone to blame for the State's failure, they can trot him out, he'll say whatever they want him to say, and he'll be glad to be executed to help Big Brother. –  Mark Bessey Aug 21 '13 at 19:49

This is one of the scariest part of Nineteen Eighty Four, the fact that The Party is so powerful that it will not even let dissent to be felt in the mind of someone they are about to execute. They are not interested in merely obtaining a confession and punishing dissent, they are not simply interested in scaring others from rebellion, they need the dissenter to repent absolutely and to happily go to their death as fitting punishment for their earlier thoughtcrime. This is a world where The Party believes there is no objective truth outside of Party dogma - if you are told that a man can fly, you will make yourself see it and believe it. A rebellious thought even in a man about to be executed is intolerable.

The Party is even willing to let Winston Smith to live following his torture in Room 101 without needing to work, with more money and living in relative comfort compared to his earlier life until he reaches a state where he truly believes in the Party and loves Big Brother.

The party needs everyone to live their life and eventually die loving Big Brother, and will not execute Winston until this happens. If this seems wasteful or unnecessary, Oceania is a state that is in perpetual war to soak up the excess economic activity that would normally grow the economy and move people to a more luxurious life. The vast amount of wasted economic activity required to monitor and oppress their own population to this degree does not matter, as the people in power are only interested in power for power's sake, not luxury. They are interested only in perpetual oppressive power for the Party.

I have always imagined that as soon after Winston realizes that he loves Big Brother that he would somehow reveal this to the people from the Ministry of Truth watching him (maybe the waiter in the Chestnut Tree), and that he would be tried and executed like the people he remembers on the telescreen, or he would just receive a bullet at an unexpected moment - both fates seem to happen to people in his situation. He would willingly go to this fate both because of his love for Big Brother and The Party but also for the shame of his 'crimes'.

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Very well said! I came here to say that. –  djm Jun 11 '14 at 13:40

I always thought that they would actually never execute him, because they had broken him. They kept the belief of execution as a deterrent, but anyone who would actually be afraid of dying for the party would need to be broken first anyway. And when they are broken, there is no need to execute them.

It is, IMO, one more example of Big Brothers DoubleSpeak. Or maybe it is not. We are not told, and so that, too, is part of the mystery.

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It's been awhile since I've read the book but he does not die at the end. He is in the cafe drinking Gin where he had watched so many before him who later went to the Ministry and proclaimed their crimes and their love of Big Brother now before being publicly executed. It's left to imply that he will one day, if not that very day, be one of the old men that goes to do that.

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It's not stated that he dies. But is the fact that he loves Big Brother (the last line in the book) and O'Brien's statement, earlier, that they didn't execute someone until they loved Big Brother intended to imply that now that he loves BB, is the execution to follow? –  Tango Feb 28 '12 at 17:16
Yes. There is an earlier part of the book where he starts to visit the cafe where he is drinking. He goes because it's known as a dissenters cafe and then he'll see some of the old men who disappear and then show up and drink gin and then he'll see them on tv proclaiming their love of Big Brother before being executed. –  Kevin Howell Feb 28 '12 at 17:20
So is that the implication in the book? That now that he loves BB, that his execution will be coming up? (And I think O'Brien said they shoot them when they don't expect it, didn't he?) –  Tango Feb 28 '12 at 17:22
This was my interpretation as well. Though I do like the other replies about a figurative killing having already taken place. –  Andres F. Feb 28 '12 at 22:48

Killing the body while he isn't a supporter of the Party risks turning him into a martyr. That was why he had to be converted before he was executed (if he was executed at all).

In that light, the primary reason there was no execution so shortly after his conversion was to ensure that anyone who knew him would re-know him as staunch defender of the Party. Only after that could a physical execution be worth it.

The execution of the mental self, however, could instead be in the eyes of the other members of society. Only after he has broken down and become a supporter of the Party can that "self" be executed - by his own actions.

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If Winston is not dead at the end of 1984, how do you explain that Winston's final thought, "He loved Big Brother" (Orwell 298) happens just as "the long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain" (297). The moment of Winston's death happens exactly as O'Brien tells him it will. "We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him...We make him one of us before we kill him"(256).

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The allegory used at the end of the novel serves as definitive evidence that the individual that was Winston Smith is now entirely dead. They had broken his body and mind, but there was still a fraction of his heart and inner being that hated and resisted Big Brother. With this portion of himself missing, it's natural for Winston to instead take up a love for Big Brother.

As far his execution, it is almost irrelevant at this point I think. Winston is now a part of the collective, his mind, soul and body are owned by the party. He is effectively dead as an individual; there is no trace of previous, rebellious, intellectual Winston Smith. He is but a shell of who he once was, which has been filled to the brim with everything the party stands for.

He is another piece of which as a whole is what keeps the party immortal.

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The true Winston died the day he was brainwashed by the thought police and that is the only way I see it. The Winston we see in the cafe is a different person changed because of the helplessness of the situation he found himself in i.e. no matter what he did, he could not overthrow the party. I believe the torture he endured all that time was enough or rather more than enough to make any person believe anything that was told to him (to become insane). Winston was just a human being after all. A tragic hero. Like I said before, he died the day he was brainwashed, he died hating the party. And that is true victory.

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Orwell insisted that the first person Appendix be included as part of 1984. He gives the reader the choice to read the Appendix on the first page, or save it as thenovel's ending. Big Brother and Newspeak are of historical interest in the Appendix, things only of an academic interest. The Appendix is a mind-blower, but not in the literal sense some take Winston's last line.

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Also consider Newspeak in the context of Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language", 1946. Speaking of English as he saw it used: "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. ... The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient". "Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this". –  Steve Jessop Mar 11 '14 at 10:05

By Winston rejecting his past and accepting BIG BROTHER Winston that was is no longer..it is the hideous reality of Big Brother that ALL in the end shall conform...FREEDOM no longer exists when the MIND is no longer free.

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Please read the question paragraph starting with 'Does this imply that ... '. How does your answer address those questions ? –  Stan Nov 30 '13 at 16:31

Winston "was" killed. You don't have to end someone's life to kill them. After he was tortured, he was a broken man, a dead man. It is at the point where they make him "one of them" (by brainwashing) that they have killed him.

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One of the key points of 1984 is the concept of malleable history where the Powers that be control what is fact and what is fiction. Examples can be found throughout the book, in fact Winston's job is to edit said facts. At one point he writes 2+2=5 which is a big clue bat to the concept that fact is based on the current needs of the Party.

So at the end the Party has tortured Winston to the point where he does not even believe is own mind, he does not believe in his own past. He believes what the Party tells him making him harmless in the process he has told the Party of his rebellion which IMHO I think they knew of his rebellion and let it go on to see who else was drawn to it. I offer the fact that in the light of overwhelming surveillance he was able to find a place to write his own thoughts (diary), meet up for random sexual encounters and find a rebellion (Julia IMHO was a plant like most of the other members of the rebellion).

Of course the flaw in my theory lies with the lack of detail on if the proles where subject to the same surveillance that Party Members and workers where.

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Julia wasn't a plant, nor was she a member of any rebellion. I think you're confusing her with O'Brien. However, it is implied the Party knew about Winston all along. –  Andres F. May 24 '12 at 3:29
Maybe its been a while since I read the book. –  OrionDarkwood May 24 '12 at 12:46
No problem :) The rebellion is indeed fake, but Julia isn't implied to be part of the conspiracy (like, for example, O'Brien always was). Winston even complains that she isn't really interested in politics at all! Of course, in the end Julia is broken by the Party and betrays Winston -- just as he does Julia. –  Andres F. May 24 '12 at 13:02

No, he turns into a Prole. His death is metaphorical. The 'bullet entering your head' rumor he hears is not a real execution his own thoughts and self hate are the bullet (I don't exactly remember what the metaphorical bullet is but it is something like that)

And I also thought, same as Orion, that Julia was a plant

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This seems very speculative. –  Richard Sep 26 '14 at 6:05
I have to agree with @Richard. Do you have anything to back this up? –  Tango Sep 26 '14 at 18:22

I always believed that after O'Brian said "even if we let you live out the rest of your natural life span..." I always took this to believe that Orwell wanted is to have the option to believe that he would or might not get executed .

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