The novel focuses on Winston Smith, an everyman who lives in Oceania --a future state where the ruling authoritarian political party controls everything. Winston is a lower member of the party, and works in the Ministry of Truth. He changes historical information to portray the government and Big Brother (the head leader) in a better light. Winston worries about the state, and he keeps a diary of his anti-government thoughts.
Winston's dissenting ideas center around O'Brien, a member of the ruling party. Winston suspects that he's a member of the Brotherhood (an opposition group).
At the Ministry of Truth, he meets Julia. She sends him a note telling him that she loves him; they start on a passionate affair. Winston hires a room in one of the ghetto areas, where he and Julia meet, sleep together, and discuss their hopes for freedom--outside of the oppressive state in which they live.
Winston finally goes to meet O'Brien, who confirms that he is a member of the Brotherhood. O'Brien gives Winston a copy of the Brotherhood's manifesto, written by their leader.
A large part of the book is taken up with a recitation of the Brotherhood's manifesto, which includes a number of social democratic ideas along with one of the most powerful renunciations of fascist thought ever written. Of course, O'Brien is really a spy for the government, and he gave the manifesto to Winston as a test of his loyalty.
The secret police arrive at the bookshop and arrest Winston. They take him to the Ministry of Love to re-indoctrinate him (through torture). Winston refuses to say that he was wrong to disobey the government. Finally, they take him to Room 101, a place where one's worst fears are used against him. In the case of Winston, his greatest fear is rats, so O'Brien places a box against his face. Winston pleads to be released and even asks that Julia be put in his place.
The final pages recount how Winston becomes a valid member of society. He no longer resists the government's oppression. He meets Julia, but cares nothing for her. Instead he looks up at a Big Brother poster, and feels love for that figure.
1984 is a horror story and a political treatise. The long socialist at the novel's core is integral to Orwell's meaning. Orwell warns against the dangers of authoritarianism. Orwell's dystopian state offers a devastating view of a society where one is unable to say what one thinks, one must slavishly believe in a single party and a single ideology, and language has been degraded to such a state that it only serves the ends of officialdom. The silent masses are the backdrop to his work. The "proles" play no part in society other than to do the work of the governing class. They are subjugated to the capitalist system.