One particularly glaring absurdity in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Charrington, the owner of the shop that Winston accidentally stumbles upon, purchases a glass snow globe from, and later rents a room from,

turns out to be a senior member of the Thought Police.

Are we supposed to find it remotely likely that such a person would be running in shop in disguise as a sort of perpetual honey trap? Clearly this setup is not specifically targeted at Winston, since it is made clear in the novel that he happens on the shop purely by accident, and is never coerced into going there or engaging in any transactions with the shopkeeper.

Is this addressed anywhere, or is just supposed to be part of the "nightmare" aspect of the novel?


2 Answers 2


Firstly, although Charrington seems to be more senior than the Thought Police thugs that are beating Winston, it's not clear what rank he holds in relation to the overall organisation structure. He may simply be one step up from them.

His shop is, as you've indicated, a honey-trap designed to entice party members who're swaying toward subversion. Note that we see illegal items openly displayed:

He could guess, however, that the book was much older than that. He had seen it lying in the window of a frowsy little junk-shop in a slummy quarter of the town (just what quarter he did not now remember) and had been stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it. Party members were supposed not to go into ordinary shops ('dealing on the free market', it was called), but the rule was not strictly kept,

Later, Charrington attempts to subvert Winston further by offering him additional forbidden items and (horror of horrors) a private room with no viewscreen. Had Winston not returned, it's likely that his other indiscretion, purchasing the blank book, would have simply been overlooked.

As to why a member of the Thought Police would spend their time running a shop, the answer is that it's probably part of normal Thought Police procedure for members to take turns undercover running different establishments, each with the aim of identifying party members who've gone off the straight and narrow path. How better to find out about subversives than to be among them?

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    Well, my point was that it seems an extraordinary waste of (presumably) limited resources, if that is not already clear from my question. Feb 4, 2015 at 11:43
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    "He had carried it guiltily home in his briefcase. Even with nothing written in it, it was a compromising possession.". It seems clear that owning a blank book is, if not illegal, then highly frowned upon. The book (and other black-market items) were in the window and on display in the shop.
    – Valorum
    Feb 4, 2015 at 14:28
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    Diaries are illegal - "The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death or at least by twenty-five years in a forced labour camp"
    – Valorum
    Feb 4, 2015 at 14:40
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    @FaheemMitha - It's might not be illegal, but if you're caught, you'll probably be killed, tortured and/or imprisoned. Doublethink.
    – Valorum
    Feb 4, 2015 at 15:06
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    @FaheemMitha Let's agree that the resources are not limited first. If the goverment works exceptionnally to make history altered and news created, I don't think they'd flinch on keeping an agent on the payroll as an undercover shop-keeper. Feb 4, 2015 at 15:07

I wouldn't call this a "glaring absurdity". It's actually a fairly common form of operation used by law enforcement agents to catch wrongdoers: it's called a sting operation.

In law enforcement, a sting operation is a deceptive operation designed to catch a person committing a crime. A typical sting will have a law-enforcement officer or cooperative member of the public play a role as criminal partner or potential victim and go along with a suspect's actions to gather evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing.

Examples (taken from the same Wikipedia page) include:

  • Deploying a bait car (also called a honey trap) to catch a car thief
  • Setting up a seemingly vulnerable honeypot computer to lure and gain information about hackers
  • Arranging someone under the legal drinking age to ask an adult to buy an alcoholic beverage or tobacco products for them
  • Posing as someone who is seeking illegal drugs, contraband or child pornography to catch a supplier; or as a supplier to catch a customer
  • Passing off explosives, fake or real, to a would-be terror bomber
  • Posing as a child in a chat room to identify a potential child molester
  • Posing as a potential customer of illegal prostitution; or as a prostitute to catch a customer
  • Posing as a hitman to catch customers and solicitors of murder-for-hire
  • Posing as a spectator of an illegal dog fighting ring

It makes perfect sense for the Thought Police to have agents - perhaps many of them scattered across the city - whose main purpose is to ensnare Party members who wish to perform illegal activities such as going into ordinary shops, buying forbidden items, and even hiding away in a room with no telescreen. What better way to find those willing to do such things than to offer them publicly and watch who comes to take the bait?

This could even be one of the Thought Police's main ways of catching subversives; it's probably more effective than sending drones to peek in through people's windows or watching them through their telescreens, which the more intelligent subversives will be aware of and careful to avoid.

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