53

According to O'Brien, Winston was followed and closely watched for about 7 years, before their meeting took place. In a society like the one depicted in the book, where people from all walks of life are being "evaporated" on a daily basis — in most instances "just-in-case" and not for actual crimes — I can't understand why a man like Winston, who clearly committed severe thought-crimes (his diary, as the most extreme example), shouldn't be just "evaporated"?

What was the point in the secret meeting, the indoctrination, in passing him a copy of "The Book", in giving him time to read it, and only then arresting him? The only thing I can think of is that the Thought-Police wanted to try and take as many people as possible when they arrest Winston, as his "followers" or something of this sort; but after 7 years of close surveillance, they knew he was no leader of some resistance group. It was just himself, and then himself and Julia, and that's it.

Why give him time and risk him telling someone else about O'Brien, and by that potentially "blowing" his cover? (Such an act might cause a "snowball" effect, where some people might spread rumors about O'Brien, while others might actually talk to the Thought-Police.)

Moreover, what was O'Brien's point in writing "The Book", which actually had much truth in it? What was the motivation for doing such extreme amounts of work, which involve enormous "amount" of Double-Think, instead of just arresting and shooting Winston? Nothing would've changed if the book didn't actually exist at all.

And finally, what was the point in holding him for so long in the Ministry Of Love? What was the value in spending so much time and effort in breaking one individual, which has no social footprint whatsoever? He's no leader of an underground resistance group; Winston is actually, as far as the Party's concerned, no one.

The only reasonable option here, is that the Ministry Of Love employees, just like Winston in his new job, need to show for their supervisors that they actually do the job intended by the Ministry of Love, and they're actually successful in that. That Winston, as quite an extreme case, was also finally broken.

14
  • 28
    This is part of the point. The Party will spend this effort on everybody, even someone as insignificant as Winston. Jul 9, 2021 at 10:03
  • 29
    O' Brien talks about this point explicitly in Room 101, "It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be". No matter how powerless Winston was, they simply have to take the trouble to purify him. Jul 9, 2021 at 11:07
  • 6
    I think the book was not specifically written for Winston. It was a general trick to lure heretics. Also the book wasn't anything special. As Winston noted somewhere, it didn't tell him anything that he didn't already know.
    – RedBaron
    Jul 9, 2021 at 11:12
  • 7
    @RedBaron In addition, the Goldstein book is a demonstration of the Party's power. By allowing it to circulate, they are demonstrating that even when you know the truth, you are still powerless.
    – tbrookside
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:32
  • 9
    As an out-of-universe note: 1984 is to a large extent allegorical, verging sometimes on surrealism (in the original sense of “more than real”). Expecting to find fully realist in-universe explanations for all details is, to some extent, a wild goose chase.
    – PLL
    Jul 9, 2021 at 23:20

5 Answers 5

65

There are a lot of sub-questions in this question. I will focus on the title-question, "What was the motivation of O'Brien, and other members of the Thought Police, in spending so much time and effort on Winston?"

This was explained in detail by O'Brien to Winston, during his interrogation. Winston asks what the purpose of the torture was, offering explanations such as to extort confessions or as punishment, which O'Brien contemptuously dismisses, pointing out that Winston could be destroyed utterly, so that no one would ever hear of him again, or even remember that he had ever existed. O'Brien continues:

since we intend to destroy you utterly, so that nothing that you say or do can make the smallest difference — in that case, why do we go to the trouble of interrogating you first?

The reason is:

You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out... We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will.

The power of the Party is so complete that "It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be". As a consequence the Party is prepared to spend any amount of effort in correcting flaws like Winston, even though he himself was completely innocuous.

7
  • 2
    Thank you for a great answer. Maybe it's for a different thread, but nevertheless allow me to ask - was Winston actually really such an "extreme" and uncommon individual in the depicted society? I mean, O'Brien must've known that although, officially speaking, Winston is indeed a criminal, practically he wasn't extreme at all, he was quite an ordinary person, which only differed in the fact that he'd reached a certain breaking point, which makes him hard to keep on "playing the game". There must be hundreds of thousands of individuals just like him, which just didn't reach that point yet.
    – golosovsky
    Jul 10, 2021 at 8:41
  • 2
    @golosovsky That would make another good question! But in my view Winston Smith is not extreme or uncommon at all, he's more of an "everyman". BTW if you like my answer, would you consider accepting it, by clicking on the tick next to it? Jul 10, 2021 at 9:26
  • 2
    That doesn’t explain why the best way to get rid that “erroneous thought” wasn’t used as it clearly was for so many others. The nay way that makes sense is to suppose that the others were all actually “innocent” and the “guilty” must live to change their minds.
    – jmoreno
    Jul 10, 2021 at 13:19
  • "It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world," The Internet must be keeping them pretty busy... Jul 10, 2021 at 20:43
  • @user_1818839 That's why China has The Great Firewall...
    – auburg
    Jul 12, 2021 at 10:16
28

In addition to Clara Diaz Sanchez's excellent answer, there are several other elements of note:

  1. The society the Party strives for has an excess of productive capacity, along with a specific desire to never allow people's standard of living to improve. To this end they can't really waste effort, especially not in pursuit of Party goals. Efficiency is far less of a concern than efficacy, and for most purposes waste is better than efficiency.

  2. The idea that Winston could in some way cause trouble for the Party is... optimistic. Considering the intense degree of observation he has long been subjected to (as are all Party members), the idea that he could "blow O'Brien's cover" in some meaningful way significantly underestimates what the Party can know and do. Even if he tried to spread the information, what would he say, and to whom, and how long would he be permitted to do it? What, if anything, could the people he told do with the information?

    One of the major themes of 1984 is that Ingsoc has been successful. Their methods work, and their power is far beyond what individuals can realistically combat.

  3. O'Brien's capacity for and practice in doublethink is enormous. Very few people are members of the Inner Party, and they are groomed to be fanatical proponents of Ingsoc. No amount of doublethink is an exertion or in any way troublesome for him. He can turn his viewscreen off because he doesn't need its intervention, after all.

  4. Power is its own end to the Party, and the sensation of victory is the only real pleasure its ideology permits. As O'Brien describes:

There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. (Part III, Chapter III)

The entire charade around Winston's experiences is certainly a subtle expression of power, and Ingsoc's victory over him is complete and always was. Even Winston knowing a lot of true information about the state of the world doesn't help him him in any way, and ultimately serves only to clearly illustrate to him how helpless he has always been, just in time for him to be utterly broken. Even though he physically survives the Ministry of Love, his rebelliousness is completely destroyed.

6
  • 8
    In fact, his survival itself is an expression of the party's power. If he had died he would have in some sense escaped. Instead he has been fully absorbed. I wonder if maybe O'Brien had gone through a similar ordeal as Winston some time long ago. Maybe Winston will be the O'Brien to some future dissident.
    – Ryan_L
    Jul 9, 2021 at 22:13
  • @ryan_l, that will not be possible
    – Orejano
    Jul 9, 2021 at 23:14
  • 2
    How do we know that The Book was written by a machine?
    – J. Mini
    Jul 10, 2021 at 11:38
  • @J.Mini I bought another copy for review, and have clearly conflated an entry from Goldstein's book along with Julia's job to conclude that Goldstein's book was written by machine (which the book, itself, suggests all books are), but this was a mistake. O'Brien explicitly states that he collaborated in writing it, with no other entry I can find giving any more information. I've edited that section out of my answer. Thanks!
    – Upper_Case
    Jul 10, 2021 at 19:44
  • "We are the priests of power"
    – Buzz
    Jul 12, 2021 at 0:58
3

Rather than based on any thorough analysis of the context, the following is an attempt at extrapolating it towards the most natural conclusion.

It is crucial to ensure that all motivations of every acting member of the society are exclusively those known and approved. While it is very easy to get rid of any given individual, one has to ensure that desires of all those that remain alive are completely known and controllable. Hence each outstandingly difficult case is an excellent material of research to test reliability of existing methods of control. It is very difficult to detect remnants of individual independent will that might still exist buried deep in the soul of such a specimen. Even when any attempts at acting as a separate entity are eradicated, there is no guarantee that, for example, memories from the time when some tiny amount of freedom was still available would remain pleasant or, for another example, feeling of regret for loss of individuality would be still present. To ascertain that all such remnants are totally absent requires much attentive, patient careful work and observation.

3

One way to try and understand the sociopathic reasoning of the Party is to look at many other areas where people go to great lengths to change something instead of destroy it. (Proselytizing would be an example, but we'll skip it.)

Scientists try to change the DNA or modify a virus or split a particle in an accelerator. In all those cases, the main goal is the process and its outcome. Just destroying something is not [as] satisfying.

The Party wants to have and use absolute power over people. Not use it for some other goal, but just use power for the sake of using power. The harder something is, the more interesting it is for people. In the case of the Party, their area of experimentation is the society.

Instead of working to overcome the gravity to make a human fly, they work to overcome human conscience to make people believe that the Party members can fly. Instead of "amputating" a faulty human, they work hard to experiment with "curing" such people.

And the Party is surely not alone in wanting great power over the society while not caring that much about material resources.

For this very reason, some people perform seemingly irrational actions (that hurt their financial of business success) to make other people suffer. But this becomes easy to understand if we consider that the power to affect other people is their ultimate goal, not financial success that can later be used to buy some power.

-1

Keep in mind that Orwell is not one of the world's great writers. Much of 1984 and Animal Farm is to make pointed commentary on actual dictatorships then flourishing around the world.

In the real-world secret police thinking, his association with Julia and O'Brien makes him a plotter rather than a passive dissenter. All this time before, he is on note and watched because of his passive disobedience, and that is how it works in a real totalitarian state as well. In the real world, passing forbidden lit is a serious matter. In the real world, spies and insurrectionists can be arrested and executed even if they never interacted with any "real" others but only with undercover police personnel.

And then you come across the part that doesn't make sense in the real world, where they want to purify his thoughts before disposing of him: I say just relax and take it in because 1) it is just at the end of the book and 2) this was written in 1944-49 when a "happy" Hollywood-style ending where the hero is walking to his execution still defiant and proud was unthinkable.

1
  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. I've edited your answer to separate it out into paragraphs, but in future, please use paragraphs yourself, as a solid wall of text doesn't make for the best reading experience. Jul 18, 2021 at 7:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.