Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania, one of three inter-continental superstates that divided the world after a global war.
Smith's memories and his reading of the proscribed book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, reveal that after the Second World War, the United Kingdom became involved in a war during the early 1950s in which nuclear weapons destroyed hundreds of cities in Europe, western Russia and North America. Colchester was destroyed and London also suffered widespread aerial raids, leading Winston's family to take refuge in a London Underground station. Britain fell into civil war, with street fighting in London, before the English Socialist Party, abbreviated as Ingsoc, emerged victorious and formed a totalitarian government in Britain. The British Commonwealth and Latin America were absorbed by the United States, resulting in the superstate of Oceania. Ingsoc became the sole government party in this new nation.
Simultaneously, the Soviet Union conquered continental Europe and established the second superstate of Eurasia, under a Neo-Bolshevik regime. The third superstate of Eastasia emerged in the Far East after another decade of fighting, with a ruling ideology translated from Chinese as 'Death-Worship' or 'Obliteration of the Self'. The three superstates wage perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world in "a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin, and Hong Kong" through constantly shifting alliances. Although each of the three states are said to have sufficient natural resources, the war continues in order to maintain ideological control over the people.
While citizens in each state are trained to despise the ideologies of the other two as uncivilized and barbarous, Goldstein's book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, explains that in fact the superstates' ideologies are practically identical and that the public's ignorance of this fact is imperative so that they might continue believing otherwise. The only references to the exterior world for the Oceanian citizenry (the Outer Party and the Proles) are Ministry of Truth maps and propaganda to ensure their belief in "the war".
However, due to the fact that Winston barely remembers these events and due to the Party's manipulation of history, the continuity and accuracy of these events are unclear. Winston himself notes that the Party has claimed credit for inventing helicopters, airplanes and trains, while Julia theorizes that the perpetual bombing of London is merely a false-flag operation designed to convince the populace that a war is occurring. If the official account was accurate, Smith's strengthening memories and the story of his family's dissolution suggest that the atomic bombings occurred first, followed by civil war featuring "confused street fighting in London itself" and the societal postwar reorganisation, which the Party retrospectively calls "the Revolution".
Most of the plot takes place in London, the "chief city of Airstrip One", the Oceanic province that "had once been called England or Britain". Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU", dominate the city (Winston states it can be found on nearly every house), while the ubiquitous telescreen (transceiving television set) monitors the private and public lives of the party members. Military parades, propaganda films, and public executions are said to be commonplace.
The class hierarchy of Oceania has three levels:
- (I) the upper-class Inner Party, the elite ruling minority, who make up 2% of the population.
- (II) the middle-class Outer Party, who make up 13% of the population.
- (III) the lower-class Proletariat, who make up 85% of the population and represent the uneducated working class.
As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries:
- the Ministry of Peace deals with war and defence.
- the Ministry of Plenty deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation).
- the Ministry of Love deals with law and order (torture and brainwashing).
- the Ministry of Truth deals with news, entertainment, education and art (propaganda).
The protagonist Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth as an editor, revising historical records, to make the past conform to the ever-changing party line and deleting references to unpersons, people who have been "vaporised", i.e., not only killed by the state but denied existence even in history or memory.
The story of Winston Smith begins on 4 April 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Yet he is uncertain of the true date, given the regime's continual rewriting and manipulation of history.