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.

  • 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • 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'.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    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?

    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.

    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?)

    This was my interpretation as well. Though I do like the other replies about a figurative killing having already taken place.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • "Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." The story is portrayed exclusively through the eyes of Winston. We don't know if he will be executed, because Winston will not know. And it does not ever matter. He is unconscious. He is part of the collective. Nothing exists outside of the Party. What happens after that point in the story is 100% subjective and mutable. Anything that happened within the story or before it is now also 100% subjective and mutable. All the so-called "events" in the story become quite literally irrelevant. They never happened. There is only the present in its absolute form. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

    He is free and is never going to be executed. He is most certainly destined to be executed. He already has been executed. He never was executed. There never was a Winston Smith. You can't execute someone that has never existed, and your sanity should be evaluated for the safety of everyone if you're creating the lie that the Party is executing imaginary people.

    While this is all well and dandy, can you provide any evidence that this is the case? Maybe you could grab some snippets from the text or other notes?

    @Edlothiad, I wasn't speculating over a single line from the text. It's the entire main theme of the story. "Orthodoxy is unconsciousness" and "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past" sums up the whole book. I don't know what else I can tell you that won't simply bog down my interpretation with redundant references to that same theme.

    Evidence need not be in the form of quotes, any agreeing scholarly articles, etc.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM

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