The O’Brien Question, Or Room 101, 101

In my humble opinion, 1984 by George Orwell is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) novels written in the English language.

Commenced at the very end of WW2, in arguably the most widely dystopian milieu since the dawn of civilisation, and completed just shortly before Orwell’s untimely death from tuberculosis, 1984 continues to astonish modern readers with its profound insights into the human condition and terrifying vision of the future which (for some) seems to get more real and threatening every day.

Indeed, 1984 might well have been used as a handbook for the leaders of North Korea – a sort of Totalitarianism for Dummies which continues to plot that country’s amazing strides into the 7th Century. It is equally terrifying for those of us living in a “post-truth” milieu dominated by the presidency of Donald Trump.

But, I have a question.

There is an aspect of the novel which continues to puzzle me – the true alignment of O’Brien.

From quite early in the book, Winston suspects (on the flimsiest of evidence) that there is a secret organisation called The Brotherhood which is opposed to the party. Winston also is opposed to the party, for a range of (mostly visceral) reasons, and wishes The Brotherhood to be real so that he might have the opportunity of joining them.

On even flimsier evidence, he decides that O’Brien – a member of the Inner Party he occasionally encounters – is a member of The Brotherhood, and resolves to approach him. To risk all on one throw of the dice – and give his life (and Julia’s) meaning by becoming a part of the organised resistance. No matter what that might entail.

The risk, of course, is that O’Brien is not really a member of The Brotherhood, but instead is a member of the Thought Police whose role is to seduce and entrap potential Outer Party dissidents. (There really are such people in totalitarian societies – and societies on their way to becoming totalitarian.)

The question is complicated by several factors. Winston is invited to O’Brien’s apartment in a context (O’Brien’s veiled reference to an unperson) that is clearly suggestive of O’Brien’s potential Brotherhood alignment, but this invitation only comes (we eventually learn) after Mr Charrington has been listening to Winston and Julia’s subversive conversations in the room they thought free of telescreens.

Another complication is the fact that O’Brien, when they speak frankly in his apartment about what membership of The Brotherhood might mean, clearly maps out Winston and Julia’s likely future and his own possible part in it. ‘We are the dead,’ says O’Brien. All they can do is hope for an eventual free future in which they will play no part except through risking their lives in the present to help keep The Brotherhood alive. They accept the risk, and acknowledge the certainty that, if they are discovered, O’Brien may be required to be their torturer and destroyer in order to preserve his own secret alignment. In short, they accept hopelessness just for the chance to make a defiant, yet futile, gesture against the Party and Big Brother.

And, predictably, they are ensnared.

Mr Charrington’s room for rent was a honey-trap for potentially disaffected party members to reveal their true colours and, as Winston and Julia acknowledge O’Brien’s harsh truth: ‘We are the Dead’…the telescreen, which has been listening all along, reveals itself, and their torment begins.

The final complication is the conversation that Winston has with O’Brien in Room 101 in which O’Brien quotes to Winston many of the things he (Winston) had said at O’Brien’s apartment – the depths of depravity and violence to which Winston was prepared to go in order, unquestioningly, to fight the state on behalf of The Brotherhood.

Ultimately, O’Brien tells Winston that the whole thing was a set-up. He says they have been watching him closely for seven years – waiting for him to incubate and reveal his thoughtcrime. Every tiny detail was anticipated, observed, recorded and ultimately played back to an incredulous Winston.

The entire episode in Room 101 can be interpreted either:

• That O’Brien is really a member of the Thought Police, using Charrington’s shop to seduce and entrap potential dissidents; OR
• That O’Brien is really a member of The Brotherhood, but because of Winston’s capture he is required to destroy him to prevent his own unmasking and destruction.

In all likelihood, the first interpretation is correct. That would be the obvious solution, but maybe what this reveals is that, for the Inner Party, even thoughtcrime can be a form of doublethink which is dependent on context. If that is correct then what it reveals is that only power matters. The Inner Party are those who prize power for its own sake beyond any political philosophy. Philosophies are only useful as a means to power.

The thing is, when O’Brien spoke in his apartment, as though a member of The Brotherhood, it was with the telescreen (apparently) turned off. This leaves Winston, and the reader, with the tantalising prospect that The Brotherhood really does exist and that O’Brien really is an important member. He says otherwise, in Room 101, but he has to say otherwise in Room 101, whatever his private feelings, because everything is being recorded and watched by others.

So what are O’Brien’s private feelings?

In Room 101, he and Winston communicate on a profound, almost quasi-libidinous level – a sado-masochistic relationship, passing through the several phases of Winston’s reclamation from thoughtcrime. Winston wants to cling to the idea that his destruction is a nobly defiant gesture which will somehow be vindicated by the eventual rise of the proles to sweep away the tyranny of the Party, but even that is crushed by O’Brien’s vision of the future: ‘…a boot stamping on a human face, for ever.’

Winston accepts even that but remains defiant in one thing: he has not betrayed his love for Julia. O’Brien understands this, which is why Winston has been brought to Room 101 – to face the worst thing in the world, or betray Julia in his heart.

O’Brien goes to extraordinary lengths to destroy Winston’s hope, but nothing he says or does at the Ministry of Love entirely snuffs out the possibility that O’Brien, in his heart of hearts, is a member of The Brotherhood. He is only destroying Winston because he has to – to preserve his own secret alignment – as he warned Winston was likely to happen in his apartment (even as he recorded the conversation, which can be interpreted both as entrapment and O’Brien’s personal insurance should Winston be caught). At that time, Winston’s hatred of the Party was so great that he was prepared to go to any length to bring about its downfall, regardless of the personal cost.

Perhaps what this ultimately reveals is the willingness of the individual to claim his/her individuality in the face of an implacable and omnipotent state, even if the expression of that individuality can only be a gesture of self-destruction. (This gesture is reminiscent of Gordon Comstock’s war on money in Orwell’s brilliant, but rarely mentioned, 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, and can even be interpreted as analogous with numerous aspects of Orwell’s own life.)

The individual making the gesture might even take solace in the fact that their self-destruction is a legacy which might help inspire the rest of humankind in order to eventually rise up and seize back its freedom from the dystopian state.

Which poses an interesting question: if you could make the world perfect for others by destroying yourself…would you?

*     *     *

The other question that has always intrigued me about 1984 is: how did Winston’s world get to be that way? The story starts in the middle of a dystopian nightmare, but we know it evolved that way from (more or less) the world that existed prior to WW2. There is occasional reference to a catastrophic war in the past (around Winston’s childhood) but we are never privy to how society reorganised itself from the ashes.

These are key questions for those of us living in a post-truth world where information is doled out by a plutocracy focused solely on the protection of its own interests. It is troubling that so many commentators are starting to talk about the failure of democracy – as though we ought to be looking for an alternative. These are insidious ideas that must not be allowed to proliferate. A robust democracy under the rule of law is the only society for the optimisation of happiness so it is critical to maintain loud alternative voices to those who might seek to tear democracy down for their own reasons.

It was too late for Winston but not too late for Orwell, who continues to astonish with the accuracy of his prophecies. Thirty-three years after 1984 (the date), and nearly 70 years after the novel was published, 1984 remains one of the most important books ever written and needs to be read and re-read by all who cherish the freedoms we still have.



  1. Interesting concept. I never thought of it any other way than what we discussed in class. Certainly food for thought!

    • Thanks Bridget, the question’s been nagging at me for years, so I’m glad I finally managed to get it off my chest. I am a bit of an Orwell junkie though… Have you read Keep the Aspidistra Flying? Utterly brilliant, but rarely ever mentioned.

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