Winston lives in the city of London, in Airstrip One. London is contained in the superstate of Oceania, formerly known as Great Britain. The opening section of the book consists largely of Winston's personal reflections on his existence and the world in which he lives. Oceania is a totalitarian state dominated by the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism) and ruled by an ominous organization known simply as the Party, of which Big Brother is the figurehead. Two other superstates inhabit the world along with Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, and the three are constantly involved a series of shifting alliances and battles. Winston is a Party member, and wears the uniform of a Party member: blue overalls.
In the opening pages, we find Winston, having climbed the seven flights to his apartment slowly due to his bothersome varicose ankle ulcer, looking out his apartment window, noting the large and ominous presence of the four Ministry buildings: the Ministry of Truth, which manages news, entertainment, education and fine arts as related to the Party, the Ministry of Peace, which manages war, the Ministry of Love, which manages law and order, and the Ministry of Plenty, which manages economic affairs. In Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, these Ministries are referred to as Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty. Winston sees the Ministry of Truth clearly from his apartment window, and can even make out the three Party slogans carved into the large, pyramid-shaped, glittering white concrete structure: "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength."
Winston's apartment contains a telescreen, an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror that simultaneously receives and transmits information. The machine constantly spews Party propaganda, but also monitors each Party member, listening to his or her words and observing his or her actions in search of evidence of disloyalty. The telescreens are an important tool of the Thought Police, whose sole responsibility is identifying those disloyal - even with a single word, phrase, or facial expression - to the Party. Strangely, the telescreen in Winston's apartment is hung at such an angle that there is a small alcove in which Winston cannot be seen. He sits at a desk in this alcove and begins to write in a diary he purchased discreetly from an antique shop. In 1984 Oceania, people do not keep personal documentation. Such behavior is considered dangerous, as it promotes independence and individual thought. In preparing to write in this diary, Winston knows he is committing thoughtcrime and therefore risking his life. Winston writes, "April 4th, 1984," and then realizes he is not even certain of the year, as it is impossible to tell if the information the Party disseminates is truly accurate anymore.
Winston begins writing about a violent war film with vivid death scenes. He then remembers an event from earlier in the day that inspired him to begin the diary. It occurred at about eleven hundred that morning (time is kept in the twenty-four hour method) during the Two Minutes Hate, a daily propaganda presentation given to groups at their places of work praising Big Brother, Oceania and the Party, and denouncing Emmanuel Goldstein, the figurehead of capitalism and the Party's number one enemy, and Oceania's current enemy of war. While surrounded by fellow Party members caught up in the fervor of denouncing enemies to the Party, literally screaming and throwing things at the screen and praising Big Brother and Oceania, Winston took note of those around him. He observed the dark-haired girl he had often seen in the Ministry who he hated based purely on her apparent worship of the Party, and also a man named O'Brien, an Inner Party member whom he also often saw in the Ministry of Truth. He and O'Brien made eye contact, and immediately Winston felt as though they were both thinking the same things, realizing that O'Brien also found this practice and the Party's propaganda disgusting. O'Brien, he suddenly understood, also yearned for individual freedoms. Bolstered by what he perceived to be nonverbal support of his anti-Party feelings, Winston resolved to begin his diary that day.
While remembering this event, Winston finds he has unknowingly written, DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER over and over in his diary. Winston feels slightly panicked, but then reminds himself that he knows he will be arrested: it is only a matter of time. A knock on the door interrupts his thoughts. Winston assumes that the Thought Police have already found him, but soon discovers that his visitor is Mrs. Parsons from across the hall. Her husband works with Winston at the Ministry of Truth, and Mrs. Parsons has come to ask Winston to help her unclog her sink. Winston obliges, and in doing so meets her son and daughter, who are both members of the Spies and Youth League, and ardent Party supporters, eager to display their loyalty. In fact, they are begging their mother to take them to the hanging of a declared enemy to the Party, an unfortunately common event. Winston predicts that quite soon these children will denounce their innocent parents to the Thought Police and be publicly named "child heroes."
Winston returns to his apartment and begins to reflect on the impossibility of escaping the Party. He begins thinking of O'Brien again, remembering how seven years ago he dreamt he was walking through a dark room, when he suddenly heard O'Brien's voice say, "We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness." Ever since that dream, Winston has increasingly understood O'Brien's shared perception of the Party. Moving on, he ponders the sacred principles of Ingsoc and the mutability of the past, and feels as though he is "wandering in the forests of the sea bottom, lost in a monstrous world where he himself was the monster." Winston feels alone in his internal rebellion and wonders for whom he is writing the diary. The chances of any human other than a member of the Thought Police ever reading his words is quite small. Before returning to work, Winston writes a few final thoughts in his diary: "From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink - greetings!" Finally, with solemn understanding, he notes, "Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death." To be sure he is not discovered, Winston carefully washes the ink off his hands and places the diary in his desk drawer, complete with a noticeable piece of dust on the front cover - a security device that will reveal whether other hands have touched his precious book.
In these first chapters of 1984, we meet the main character, Winston Smith, and learn about the totalitarian regime he lives under as a citizen of Airstrip One in Oceania. Winston lives a harsh and limited life: he is watched at every turn, and forced to submit to the Party in almost every aspect of his existence. In Oceania, those who do not submit to the Party suffer the wrath of the Thought Police. Orwell's parallels to totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth century such as Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, and the degree of control they maintained over their citizens, are clear. In 1984, the Party maintains control over its citizens through the use of telescreens that transmit constant streams of propaganda while observing citizens, mandatory organized propaganda events such as the Two Minutes Hate and Hate Week, and by instilling the fear of the Thought Police and the retributions of thoughtcrime in all. The Party controls its citizens and maintains its power through the use of extensive psychological manipulation.
Winston views the regularities of his world - the face of Big Brother, the telescreen, the dilapidated apartment complex, and the sad existence of his neighbor and her Party-worshipping children - with sadness and disdain. He has deep reservations about the Party and believes there must be hope for a brighter future, in which personal freedoms are permitted. However, his neighbor's children's powerful allegiance to the Party scares Winston. He sees how young minds can be indoctrinated into the Party through organizations such as the Spies and the Youth League, which encourage children to report anyone they believe to be a thought criminal - even their parents - to the Party. This control and influence over the youngest members of Oceanian society speaks to the massive degree of psychological control the Party holds over its citizens, and again provides a parallel to similar totalitarian organizations of the twentieth century such as the Hitler Youth.
When we meet Winston, these rebellious notions have clearly been festering for quite some time. Now, in writing his diary, he is taking the first physical step towards all-out rebellion. In putting his pen to paper, Winston knows he is committing thoughtcrime. He is now a criminal, and knows that his eventual arrest is inevitable. This fatalistic perspective stays with Winston throughout the novel. As he often says to Julia, "We are the dead." He has no true hope for rebellion in his time, but he cannot submit to the Party. This in-between state forces him to constantly be reminded of his eventual arrest, torture, and death.
Winston is a unique citizen of Oceania. Although he was raised from an early age in the bosom of the Party, Winston harbors a strong sense of individual freedom, while those around him seem to soak in Party propaganda and find no fault with the Party's constant and seemingly obvious revisions of history. Through stressing the significance of Winston's risking his life through the physical act of writing, Orwell demonstrates the great rarity of personal freedom and self-expression in totalitarian regimes and clarifies the massive degree of control the Party holds over its citizens. At the same time, Winston's choice to begin the diary (and his subconsciously writing "DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER") shows us the strength of Winston's anti-Party feelings. Winston feels alone in his act of rebellion and his attitude towards the Party, but holds out hope that O'Brien shares his views. In these chapters we meet O'Brien, a man who becomes a symbol of rebellion in Winston's mind, for the first time. Ultimately, however, it is O'Brien who will guide Winston towards his downfall and will torture him into absolute submission.
Winston has vivid dreams that prove to be prophetic. Winston hears O'Brien's voice in a dream, telling him that they will "meet in the place where there is no darkness." They do eventually meet in this dream, but the "place where there is no darkness" is not associated with freedom as Winston had hoped. Rather, it is the interior of the Ministry of Love, where thought criminals such as Winston are tortured, and where the lights are always on. The irony in the naming of each ministry is an obvious notation on the contradictory nature of the Party. Criminals are tortured in the Ministry of Love, war is waged from the Ministry of Peace, misinformation and lies are regularly distributed from the Ministry of Truth, and the Ministry of Plenty oversees and manages the weak economy of Oceania, where most citizens live in poverty. In fact, London is in a serious state of urban decay, which the Party simply ignores, instead stating with a celebratory attitude how wonderful and plentiful the lives of Oceanian citizens are. The Party slogans exhibit similar contradictions: "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength." The Party is built and thrives upon such contradictions. Forcing acceptance of such blatant inaccuracies removes the individual's ability to question the Party or think independently.