As the clocks strike thirteen on a day in April, Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of the Outer Party, climbs the stairs to his flat in Victory Mansions. He has left his work at the Records Department early in order to write in a diary he has bought in a junk shop in a proletarian slum in London, the capital of Airstrip One in the superstate of Oceania.
The opening paragraphs, which set the scene in a fictional future world, present numerous details about life under Party rule that will be more fully explained later. Ominously, the clocks strike thirteen, a traditionally unlucky number.
Because the electricity that powers the elevator has been turned off in preparation for Hate Week, Winston, who is 39 years old, frail, fair-haired and wearing a blue Party uniform, slowly climbs seven dingy flights of stairs to his flat. He limps because of a varicose ulcer on his right ankle. On each landing of the stairs hangs a poster depicting the enormous face of a man with a black mustache, with a caption that reads, BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.
Orwell uses the word "Party" to suggest that the fictional regime in 1984 is based on the actual Communist regime then in place in the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The details emphasize the grayness and scarcity characteristic of life under totalitarian rule.
As he enters the flat, Winston hears a voice reading a list of figures about the production of pig iron. It is coming from a telescreen, which is embedded in the wall and can't be shut off, though the sound can be turned down. As Winston looks out the window at the cold, colorless city, he sees posters of Big Brother plastered on every corner and the word "INGSOC" written on a wall. A police helicopter hovers near the windows of a distant building, spying on people, which reminds Winston that the Thought Police can see and hear him through the telescreen, so he keeps his back turned to it.
The monotonousness of the broadcast on the telescreen emphasizes its irritating and oppressive presence. The details that follow continue the theme of surveillance, which Winston is particularly conscious of because he is about to engage in an act of thoughtcrime. The posters of Big Brother symbolize the constant vigilance of the State over its subjects. "INGSOC" stands for English Socialism.
Gazing through his window at the rows of rotting and bombed-out buildings, Winston can't remember whether London has always looked this way. He is distracted by the sight of four gigantic glittering white pyramids: his workplace, the Ministry of Truth (in Newspeak, Minitrue), which controls the media and education; the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), which conducts war; the terrifying Ministry of Love (Miniluv), which maintains law and order; and the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty) which manages economic affairs.
This landscape bears a strong resemblance to London in the 1940s, which was repeatedly bombed by Germany during World War II. Orwell intends the reader to see a parallel between the decaying world of 1984 and the devastation wreaked by the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler. The symmetry of the Ministries emphasizes the conformity idealized and enforced by the Party.
Controlling his facial expression, Winston faces the telescreen. By leaving work early he has missed his opportunity to eat in the canteen, and though he is hungry he must save the only food in the house, a piece of dark-colored bread, for breakfast the next day. He drinks a teacup of oily-smelling Victory Gin and takes out a Victory cigarette.
More details indicating that living conditions under Party rule are defined by scarcity and a lower standard of production. The citizens of Oceania have no power to demand better quality and must be satisfied with generic, State-issued commodities.
Sitting in an alcove out of sight of the telescreen, Winston takes out a penholder and nib, a bottle of ink, and a blank book. Since there are no laws in Oceania, it's not illegal to keep a diary, but Winston knows that if he's discovered the punishment will be death or 25 years in a forced-labor camp. He writes what he believes to be the date—April 4th, 1984—in the diary, but this is only a guess, as dates can no longer be known with certainty.
The diary fascinates Winston because it is an artifact from the past, an obsolete and forbidden object. The solitude that Winston seeks is regarded as subversive by the Party, which refers to it as ownlife. Winston's inability to pinpoint the date suggests the degree of control the Party exerts over reality and the historical record.
Feeling nervous, Winston begins writing in the diary about a film he had seen the previous evening in which a ship full of refugees was bombed by a helicopter. He describes a scene in which a middle-aged Jewish woman ineffectually covers a child with her body in order to protect him from bullets and notes the audience's delighted reaction to their deaths and a lone prole woman's outraged protest. He then remembers the incident that caused him to leave work and begin the diary.
The run-on quality of Winston's description of this propagandistic film conveys both his fear of discovery and also his primitive early understanding of the Party's motives—at this point in the novel, his revulsion is emotional, not intellectual. The objections of the prole woman are a sign that any hope of a revolution lies with the proles.
That morning, at a routine political rally called the Two Minutes Hate, O'Brien, a charismatic Inner Party member whose body language suggests to Winston that he secretly hates the Party, had entered the Records Department with an attractive dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department whom Winston suspects is an agent of the Thought Police.
Winston's instincts are notoriously unreliable: he is strangely drawn to O'Brien, who becomes his tormentor and enemy, and initially suspicious of Julia, who becomes his ally.
During the Two Minutes Hate, the telescreen broadcasted a story about Emmanuel Goldstein, a former Party leader and now its scapegoat. Winston experienced conflicting feelings of hate toward Goldstein on one hand and the Party on the other. He also felt hatred toward the dark-haired girl, and imagined beating, raping, and slitting her throat. He realized that he hated her because she was young and desirable, and was wearing a scarlet sash that identified her as a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, an organization that promotes chastity.
Winston's flashback illustrates his confused emotional state and the contagious nature of propaganda-fueled hatred. Winston needs to write in the diary in order to sort out his feelings, and he imagines he is addressing his thoughts to O'Brien, an authority figure whom he believes will rescue him from the isolation of his subversive thoughts.
As the crowd reached a frenzied hatred of Goldstein, Big Brother appeared on the telescreen along with the Party slogans: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Winston's eyes met O'Brien's, and it seemed to Winston that O'Brien was sending him a silent message of understanding. Wondering if O'Brien was a member of the fabled Brotherhood, a counterrevolutionary group, Winston decided to go home to write in his diary.
Winston is impressed by O'Brien's air of courteous urbanity, which reminds him of the civilized manner of an eighteenth-century nobleman. He is also drawn to his intelligence, and feels that O'Brien is the person who will confirm that he is not insane because he prefers the evidence of his senses over ideological propaganda.
In the apartment, Winston finds he has been writing "DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER" repeatedly in the diary. He realizes that whether he writes them down or not, his disloyal thoughts constitute thoughtcrime, and that he will eventually be discovered, arrested by the Thought Police, and vaporized. Just then, he hears a knock on the door.
Winston has had not been able to discuss his objections to the Party with anyone and has not read Goldstein's book. His diary writing is an ineffectual, but nonetheless meaningful private gesture of individual dissent.