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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

21 Answers 21

up vote 33 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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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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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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By Winston rejecting his past and accepting BIG BROTHER Winston that was is no 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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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

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. – Valorum 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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I think Orwell left that part open ended for a reason. And that reason is... it doesn't matter.

Once they have broken you - and stolen your heart, your mind and your affections, does it really matter if they let you physically live or die? Not really. They've already taken everything of value from you. You are quite literally a "dead-man walking".

So whether they physically take Winston's life or not in the end is meaningless - they have already taken everything than makes life worth living.

The bullet in his brain is probably a metaphor at the end of the book - but it is a very apt one. If the real bullet is seconds or years away... it doesn't really matter. For all intents and purposes... it's already there.

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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

Winston Smith appreciated that he was alive but the quote," He had won the victory over himself,"(245) implies that he, all along, was trying to eliminate the rebellion and ignorance within himself and find the truth about BB. Winston wanted all along to understand BB and there reasons for everything that they did. Winston's struggle against BB was finally vanquished when he embraced BB. Although he does die, he dies loving BB and appreciating the fact that even through torture, they were only trying to show him the truth. There would be no rebellion, there would be no change, and there would be no one that could overthrow BB. Orwell wants us to realize that this novel was Winston's journey to becoming a member of the controlled body that were the people in Oceania and through his journey, he found that his rebellion stemmed from the fear that was his selfish need to know the truth.

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I have a different theory that I'd like to put out there:

Winston, as the only (self-identified) human left, died in room 101. Rats were scarier to him than death itself, so he chose to "die" then. What did he have left to lose? From this point on he could not resemble what he considered to be human, His choice was rats plus more torture and inevitable death, or death. He played the game, and was tested when he was reunited with Julia. I believe that after his release he frequented the chestnut tree to await his physical death (having witnessed executions there previously).

So, not wanting to risk returning to Room 101 (because of the power of the party to see everything) I think he knew that there was some truth in what O'Brien had said to him, of existence and the mind. He had never been in control of his thoughts and his feelings, not until he left room 101. I believe this is where he "appeared" to sacrifice his freedom of thought, even to the reader. Every thought prior to room 101 was reactive, stubborn, naive etc. and not thought out to its end, in some ways his mind was never really in his total control. Until now. Now, he knew to mind his thoughts, or face rats.

Before his death he was able to push threatening thoughts from his head. He dismisses his "daydream" of his mother, because while it feels happy and comforting in theory, it does not exist now in reality. What good is it to ponder the validity of it, the warm experience of the thought is enough, it's truth is of no importance to his present reality. O'Brien had taught him that. "They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were. Some things had happened, others had not happened." If you can understand this, then the end can be seen very differently.

I don't think there was victory for Oceania, O'Brien had earlier told him that there would always be war. I think by this stage he was hallucinating while dying, he was creating his last experience of existence/thought, like it was his final act of freedom, his rebellion.

I also think that he chose to love big brother, not in an act of submission, but for himself to die in peace with love. To die feeling human. See, he did not change, or feel forgiveness for himself (hence his return to the Ministry of Love in his dying moments), he didn't even love big brother, not until after the shot was fired. - I thought this was what prompted the line in the book, "He had started as though a pin had run into him."

So in my interpretation Winston won, not for us as readers, not for the humans of Oceania, he won for himself, he'd conquered his own mind, and so was able to fool the powerful Party. Freedom granted by his oppressors, on his own terms. He protected the one thing he most treasured, until his death. The white knight fell with forgiveness, love, pride, victorious, a noble death during the battle, even if he was the only one who thought so. This is Winston's story. This is the power of one mind. It also just happens to be a warning to us, the readers. Check your mental health :p because the world will always be problematic.

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Winston is operating in "doublethink", learnt as 2nd nature from O'Brien. If he truly loved Big Brother why would he be so morose drinking himself senseless every evening, playing a game that provided no support to Big Brother's activities. He would surely be thoroughly involved in one of the Ministries. He resents Big Brother for his loss of love between him and Julia, is deeply emotionally depressed and psychologically impaired, but very able to think completely that he loves Big Brother through doublethink and indeed he really feels he has no option.

The clue is he really did hope to meet Julia again when they briefly met after room 101 - a glimmer of hope / love.

But he has given up.

The whole point of the ministry of love was to destroy love not directed towards Big Brother. Once Winston and Julia had truly betrayed each other their job was done and Winston was free to roam in unquenchable depression, forced to delude himself that he loved Big Brother as he had nothing else to love anymore.

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So was he executed or not? – Tango Apr 7 at 17:49

It is important to note, as was mentioned in the introduction/essay written by 'Thomas Pynchon', the role that the appendix plays in informing us on the fate of Airstrip One:

"We turn the page to find appended what seems to be some kind of critical essay, 'The Principles of Newspeak'"... "the question remains, Why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholary appendix?

"The answer may lie in simple grammar. From its first sentence, 'The Principles of Newspeak' is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past"..."Newspeak was supposed to have become general by 2050, and yet it appears that it did not last that long, let alone triumph" "perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored."

It would appear that the appendix is intended to display that some other author wrote 1984, from a post-1984-world, where the memory of Winston still survives. How would this be possible if he had been made an 'unperson'? Presumably, he would not have been troublesome enough to warrant a public execution- thus made to be a public figure of hatred similar to Goldberg- so if he was executed in private, disappeared, then presumably he would be made to "not exist".

We can at least gather from this that Winston was not executed, most likely due to his successful re-education, but most likely lived out his life following the orders of the Party.

My personal opinion has always been that Orwell intended for the real Winston to have died during interrogation, long before he accepted that 2+2=5 and decided with absolute certainty that he loved Big Brother- as he was no longer consistent with his ideas, his spirit and mind has been destroyed, to all intents and purposes he was dead.

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That's a very interesting theory, but even the quotes from the introduction seem rather speculative. Do you have more to back that up? – Tango Jun 26 '15 at 7:25

To be executed may be much less complicated than what has been discussed. The execution of winston may simply refer to the publicly transmitted confession in which winston admits to an excessively foul list of crimes that would cause him to be utterly and completely shunned by society. He would undoubtedly lose his purpose within the ministry and therefore lose the single human value within a proletarian society, his labor. One could imagine him being treated as an able bodied young man might have been during WW2 that stayed behind with the women due to privilege. A nan no woman would want to be seen with and no man would trust. Therefore, dead in sense of purpose and identity.

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