What happened to Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s “1984?”

  • If you haven’t read George Orwell's 1984 this question contains potential spoilers regarding the ending of the book so you might want to stop reading now.

    At one point, Winston is told that the Party doesn’t “just” execute people; 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 mean that…

    Winston Smith

    …will soon be executed?

    Note: I’m not asking about the specific 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 execution stated in the book.

    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: What? There was nothing about cloning or anything in the story.

    @TangoOversway I'm guessing Xantec was referring to a figurative transformation (e.g. "the old me is dead... long live the new me!").

    @Beofett is correct in his interpretation of my statement.

    @Xantec: Thanks -- then why not put it as an answer?

    @TangoOversway I felt ambivalent about it.

    In the movie adaptation by Terry Gillian, Winson believes in his mind he has escaped, but is still confined physically. Did he escape or not is the quantum question in both book and that filmed version.

    IIRC, O'Brien made it very clear (in room 101) that they would kill him only after he was 100% broken and converted to the Party.

    @djm: So you're taking everything O'Brien says as true and literal and not symbolic?

    @Tango: O'Brien was essentially torturing Winston to get him to believe whatever the Party currently wanted him to believe. The ultimate goal was one of total domination. The Party was jailing and executing most everyone on a daily basis so at least that much of what O'Brien said was true. I'm not quite sure what symbolism you're referring to. IMO, 1984 is really more of a documentary for life in a totalitarian state under the guise of fiction. Orwell was satirizing life under Stalin. And no, a satire can be funny but it's not a requirement.

    @Tango: So to answer your question, yes I fully believed Winston was marked for execution at the end of the book. Maybe not right at that exact moment in the cafe but at some point...

    @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.

    @MartinMcCallion I believe it was Gilliam making a movie of Basically-1984 without actually having read it.

    The question seems to miss quite definitively the point of the final ambiguity, and possibly the idea of fiction generally. It's not an accident that the novel ends where it does. To understand this, imagine that Orwell had resolved the ambiguity in one way or another - do any of the possible endings produce a more effective novel than the one you read?

    @JonKiparsky: I have often wondered if Orwell intended this ending to be ambiguous, or if he didn't intend for O'Brien's statement to be taken literally.

  • John Sawyer

    John Sawyer Correct answer

    8 years ago

    While there are references throughout "1984" suggesting that many people who had confessed to supposed crimes and 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.

    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.

    I never even considered that Winston's death wasn't literal until I read your answer, but now it makes perfect sense. I think I need to reread the novel again.

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