Symbols in 1984
Symbolism means the representation of an idea, person, or thing by something else which recalls it by some similarity or association. Symbols are used in order to produce certain effects by means of suggestion instead of by a direct statement. The use of symbols produces intensity, concentrated richness, evocativeness, etc. Objects, situations, episodes, and even characters may serve as symbols to suit an author’s purpose. Even words, phrases, and lines may be used for a symbolic purpose
The symbols in Orwell’s novel
In 1984, Orwell has used a number of symbols which include the album which Winston buys from the junkshop in order to maintain a dairy, the paperweight which also is bought by Winston from the same shop, the nursery-rhyme beginning with the line :
“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s,”
Room 101 and the rats, and the image of a boot. Among the situations which serve a symbolic purpose, we have Winston’s memory of an experience with a prostitute, the saving of Winston’s life from a rocket-bomb by a prole, and a gesture of love which Winston’s mother makes a dream seen by Winston. Then there are a number of characters who serve as symbols. Finally, there is the symbolist technique which Orwell employs in his narrative.
The paperweight as a symbol
The major symbol of the novel is the paperweight which Winston buys from Mr. Charrington. This paperweight is a large lump of glass, shaped like a hemisphere with a piece of pink coral at its centre. There is a peculiar softness in both the colour and the texture of this glass. When Winston first sees this object. it is not only its beauty that interests and attracts him but also the air it seems to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. Thus the paperweight becomes in Winston’s eyes a symbol of the past which Winston values greatly but which the Party wishes to obliterate. Winston’s purchase of this paperweight constitutes a further act of rebellion against the State. This paperweight is a dangerous thing for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, is always suspect in Oceania. But the paperweight does not symbolize the past only. It acquires a whole complex of meaning for Winston.
As he is returning to his flat after purchasing the paperweight, he encounters Julia whom at this time he still regards as a member of the Thought Police The paperweight momentarily loses its original significance for him and becomes just a piece of glass heavy enough to be used to kill Julia with. This desire to kill Julia is but one expression of Winston’s psychological sickness. After Winston and Julia have fallen in love with each other, the paperweight in its delicate colour and texture becomes a counterpart of the peculiar feeling which the relationship with Julia now signifies for Winston.
The paperweight has yet another kind of significance. It suggests those valuable feelings which in his dream he remembers to have been experienced by his mother. For that dream had all occurred inside the glass paperweight, though the surface of the glass was the dome of the sky, and inside the dome everything was flooded with a clear, soft light. Finally, when Winston and Julia are seized by the Thought Police, we have the climax of horror in the paperweight being smashed to pieces by a police official. Given the many associations of the paperweight, this crash is the most terrible sound in a scene that conveys the transition from a sense of quiet joy to one of stark horror.
The Symbol of the junk-shop
The junk-shop itself has a symbolic significance. The junkshop may be regarded as a source of beautiful and inexpensive objects suggesting the past. Both beauty and memories of the past are forbidden by the Party code. Therefore, Winston’s very visits to this shop would make him a suspect in the eyes of the Thought Police. The owner of this junk-shop is himself an agent of the Thought Police. The junk-shop is, therefore, a trap for the unwary. But Winston cannot resist coming to this shop and buying objects which attract him. Before buying the paperweight, he had bought an album which he decided to use as a diary. Mr. Charrington had explained that this album was made of beautiful paper called “cream-laid” and that such paper had not been made for the past fifty years or so. Thus, not only the paperweight but the album also is a symbol of the past. Orwell firmly believed in a link between the past and the individual human personality Winston shares Orwell’s longing for the past. The coral in the paperweight may also be regarded as a piece of objective truth testifying to the existence of a better world in the past and to the fact that even the lowest forms of life may bequeath something to later generations. The destruction of the paperweight signifies that the past cannot be allowed to exist in the harsh present of 1984.
The nursery-rhyme as a symbol
The nursery-rhyme which attracts Winston so much is yet another symbol of the past. When Mr. Charrington quotes the opening line of the song: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s”, Winston’s curiosity is excited, but Mr. Charring. ton says that he does not remember the full poem. He can add only one more line:
“You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s.”
This nursery-rhyme takes hold of Winston’s mind. Subsequently, he asks Julia if she knows the whole of this poem, and Julia quotes a couple of more lines. Later, at Winston’s request, O’Brien too adds one or two more lines. In short, this nursery-rhyme fills Winston with a nostalgic feeling. As has been said above, Winston attaches a great importance to the past, and that is why he begins to cherish the nursery rhyme which reminds him of the past. But the nursery rhyme has a sinister significance also. Its last line is: “And there comes the chopper to chop off your head.” This line suggests horror, and adds to the horrific atmosphere of the novel.
The symbolic significance of Room 101, and the rats
Room 101 symbolizes the kind of torture which nobody can endure or withstand. Only those persons, who cannot be converted by the ordinary kinds of torture, are sent to Room 101. What a prisoner has to face in Room 101 is so terrifying and awful that he feels compelled to make an abject surrender of himself to his tormentors. One of the prisoners, when ordered to be taken to Room 101, feels so terrified that he makes the following appeal to the prison officials:
“Do anything to me. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years prisoner. But not Room 101!”
This prison would not mind if his wife and three children are murderer in his very presence if he can be saved from the kind of torture to which he will be subjected in Room 101. O’Brien tells Winston that in Room 101, there is the worst thing in the world, he says, varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire or by drowning, or fifty other deaths. In Winston’s case, the worst thing in the world happens to be rats. Winston is confronted with the ferocious rats in Room 101, his resistance finally breaks down, and he shouts:
“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not to me!”
Thus Winston here makes a complete surrender of himself and betrays Julia whom he had loved so well. Room 101, then, symbolizes the worst kind of punishment and torture which any dictator can inflict upon his opponents. Room 101, as a symbol, contributes to the horror of this novel to no small extent.
There is a good deal of symbolic significance in a prole’s saying Winston’s life from a rocket-bomb. Winston already believes that the proles are still human while the Party members have been dehumanized, and this experience further confirms Winston’s belief. Then there is Winston’s experience with a prostitute. The memory of this experience fills Winston with disgust. This experience symbolizes Winston’s deep frustration with his young wife who could never provide him with the sexual satisfaction which one normally expects from one’s wife.
Characters as symbols
Some of the characters in the novel also serve certain symbolic purposes. Big Brother, for instance, symbolizes tyranny, brutality, dictatorship, and, totalitarianism. Big Brother has probably no real existence. He is perhaps a mythical individual representing the kind of government which rules Oceania. He is a combination of Hitler and Stalin, nay, a combination of all the dictators and tyrants the world has known. Goldstein is another symbolic character. He is leader of the underground resistance movement called the Brotherhood. But most probably Goldstein and the Brothehood also do not have a real existence. In any case they symbolize the hidden opposition to which tyranny always gives rises.
Winston and Julia are themselves symbolic characters. Winston is an intellectual who rebels against the Party on ideological grounds because he is not prepared to drive out the past from his mind; he is not prepared to become an automaton: and he is not prepared to believe that two and two make five. And, of course, Winston cannot accept the Party’s sexual code also. Julia too symbolizes opposition to the party, though her opposition is based wholly on her sexuality. She is, as Winston puts it, “a rebel from the waist downwards”. Winston’s wife, Katharine, is a wholly symbolic character. She represents the Party’s sexual code. She performs the sexual act with her husband purely as a matter of duty to beget children and not for the sake of pleasure. She is, indeed, a model wife if judged by Party standards. Mr. Parsons is another symbolic person. He too represents the ideal Party members because he fully approves of his own little daughter having denounced him to the Thought Police.
An old working woman as a symbol
Below the room rented by Winston from Mr. Charrington, Winston has heard an old but sturdy woman singing while hanging garments on the line to dry. She is a monstrous woman, solid as a “Norman pillar”, with strong fore-arms. As Winston looks at this woman in her characteristic attitude, with “her powerful mare-like buttocks protruded”, he feels that she is beautiful. She is a woman of fifty, and her body has become excessively fat as a result of having given birth to at least fifteen children. But Winston thinks that she is beautiful in her own way. What is more, she is thoroughly human Winston feels a mystical reverence” for this woman. The sight of this woman again makes him think that, if there is hope, it lies in the proles : ”The future belonged to the proles. The birds sang, the proles sang, the party did not sing.” The symbolic meaning of the old working woman is thus obvious. She represents the proles, and the proles represent the hope which the future holds for mankind. The party has crushed all human feeling, but the proles still retain it:
“Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come.”
Some minor symbols
There are a number of minor symbols also in the novel. The very ulcer and the fits of coughing from which Winston suffers have a symbolic purpose. They represent Winston’s physical sickness. Winston is sick both in mind and in body. He is mentally sick because he is miserable in Oceania, and his physical sickness reflects his mental sickness. When he develops a love affair with Julia, he improves both mentally and physically. Then there is the “Golden Country” of which Winston sometimes thinks. He used to have glimpses of the Golden Country when he was a child. The Golden Country, then, is a symbol of the dreamland into which Winston would like to escape from the sordid and slavish life he is leading in Oceania. Next, there is the image of the boot which too serves a symbolic purpose. Speaking to Winston, O’Brien says: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.
The boot here symbolizes extreme tyranny or perfect totalitarianism. It is the iron heel under which must be crushed all those who show any signs of dissent.
Symbolist techinque of the novel
We must also note the symbolist technique which Orwell has followed in writing this novel. Although Orwell was consciously opposed to the symbolist creed, he has here written in effect as a symbolist. 1984 is a novel which assumes and analyses consciousness as reality, and a work of art which offers us not a readily decipherable message but the very sensations of a man struggling to resist the dehumanzing effect of the world around him and aspiring to that fuller state of being which he senses only within himself. The whole story is here conveyed to us through the consciousness of Winston whose dreams, meditations, fears, and fancies play a vital role in the book.