The popular London nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons is quoted and partially recited several times throughout 1984. Winston learns about it from Mr Charrington in Part 1, Chapter 8, then talks about it with Julia in Part 2, Chapter 4 and with O'Brien in Part 2, Chapter 8. Most hauntingly, in Part 2, Chapter 10, when Winston and Julia are being arrested:

And then another quite different voice, a thin, cultivated voice which Winston had the impression of having heard before, struck in; 'And by the way, while we are on the subject, "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head"!'

What was the symbolism or significance behind the frequent mentions of this song? It comes up so often that it must have been intended to have some special meaning, but I'm not sure what.


5 Answers 5


This is really more of an extended comment, than an answer. But my feeling about that rhyme is that part of the reason why Orwell used it in the story, was as another example of Winston being "betrayed" by something he trusted. Basically one of the themes of the book is inescapable doom, and even the things that seemed good and seemed "on his side", O'Brien and Charrington for example, turn on him in the end.

The book clearly shows that Winston was fascinated by the vanished (or vanishing) past, symbolised, for example, by the paperweight. For him, the past represented a better place, or at least a different place (since he didn't actually know what it was like - see his attempt to find out from the drunk prole). At any rate, the past was a place that was free of the influence of the Party. It was a time before the Party came to be, and therefore (at least in Winston's mind), it was a purer, more innocent time.

And hence his fascination with trying to find out more words to the rhyme.

But in the section where the Party finally "arrests" Winston and Julia (for lack of a better word), Charrington quotes the end of the rhyme, namely, the "chop off your head" part to them. To quote the novel:

And then another quite different voice, a thin, cultivated voice which Winston had the impression of having heard before, struck in; 'And by the way, while we are on the subject, "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head"!'

And of course, Charrington, in disguise as the harmless/kindly shop owner, had originally mentioned the rhyme to Winston.

How it goes on I don't remember, but I do know it ended up, "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head." It was a kind of a dance. They held out their arms for you to pass under, and when they came to "Here comes a chopper to chop off your head" they brought their arms down and caught you.

So, it was as if the Past of which he was so fond, and which he valued precisely because of its absence of the Party, has betrayed him as well.

No doubt Orwell had multiple reasons for using that rhyme - it's very old - but he made it fit well into the plot of the story.

Incidentally, this usage of this 18th century rhyme, in a mid-20th century novel, is probably its best known use in literature.

  • 4
    This is definitely an answer and not just an extended comment! +1, and nice first post :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 23:31
  • 1
    Thanks, @Randal'Thor. I first read 1984 when I was about 15, many years ago. So I've had time to think about it. :-) Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 23:36

Oranges and Lemons is not just a nursery rhyme, it is also a children's dance or game.

Two children place their hands together to form an arch - an arch of sanctuary.
The other children pass under the arch in pairs as the song is sung.
At the end Here comes a chopper to chop off your head, a pair of children is caught.
That caught pair makes another arch.

The song and dance is now repeated, and it becomes harder for the remaining (surviving) children to reach the sanctuary of the church metaphorically created by the arches.

The process repeats until all participating children have been "beheaded".

The excitement and the mild threat is that, as the song is repeated and repeated, it becomes harder and harder to survive - to escape the system. I well remember the increasing tension from playing the game in childhood.

In 1984, the repetition is a way of driving home that Winston's chances of surviving the attentions of Big Brother are becoming smaller. The symbolism is of ever increasing threat. Each mention in the book indicates that one step has been taken closer to "beheading" Winston Smith.

  • Heavy Words Lightly Thrown concurs with the "children's game," so the symbolism of "beheading" Smith works well, I think. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 17:21
  • +1 tl,dr it becomes harder and harder to survive. best summing up of the answer to the main question!!
    – nilon
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 0:02
  • 1
    Interesting. Just like the 1984 government, those caught become complicit in the catching of others. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 23:35

The song represents the successful eradication of shared English culture by The Party. It's a nursery rhyme the majority of British people would be familiar with, but in 1984 characters can only remember fragments of it. Winston tries to gather more information about the song as he does other aspects of pre-party culture, but fails.

Why, then, that particular nursery rhyme? This is a harder question to answer. On a practical level, it is one of the few nursery rhymes which can be directly connected to a real world place: the church of St Clement's Dane. Winston sees a picture of this when visiting Mr Charrington, which triggers his interest. So it's an effective rhyme to use simply as a plot device.

On a more symbolic level, it may be that it was chosen because of its increasingly threatening nature, culminating in the quote given by the OP. As Winston uncovers more and more of the rhyme he is coming closer and closer to his own downfall. The party is coming to "chop off his head".

  • While this is all correct, I still feel there's a deeper significance to it. Perhaps it ties in to the original, much darker, meaning of what's now thought of as a harmless children's rhyme? Why does Mr Charrington tell it to Winston in the first place? Is there any significance to the fact that Winston didn't know it originally but Julia and O'Brien did?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:50
  • 1
    @Randal'Thor well, that's why the site encourages multiple answers :) I feel compelled to point out, though, that no-one knows the meaning of the rhyme. The names of the churches have changed in various recorded versions, and the sinister ending has a different meter and does not appear until 1744.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 12:55

The significance of the rhyme is revealed when O'Brien completes the stanza while Winston is visiting him at his flat. It shows that he has been electronically shadowing Winston for a long period before ordering his arrest.

  • But what's the symbolic connection between this particular rhyme and O'Brien shadowing Winston or other events of the novel? I know how it plays a part in the narrative, but I'm asking about the significance/symbolism of this rhyme.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 6:15

The rhyme is introduced as a part of O’Brien’s interview of Winston in the context of The Book and The Brotherhood. It seems to a have been given as sign/countersign as an initiation into the Brotherhood, so that one can tell who is a member of the secret society.

Sign: Oranges and lemons

Countersign: Say the bells of St. Clement’s

My read is that O’Brien’s very long observational interest in Winston (seven years), combined with how O’Brien relates to Winston (“I admire your mind. It is so much like my own”), indicates that O’Brien sees Winston as a potential member of the Inner Party – if Winston can master double-think, the sine qua non of an Inner party member. Everyone around Winston is destroyed (Julia, Parsons, Sykes, Ampleforth) but Winston is “spared.” His potential for doublethink is apparent at the end of the novel, and with the cryptic “He loved Big Brother” his reprogramming conversion is complete.

  • Isn't The Book and The Brotherhood a novel by Iris Murdoch?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 21:14
  • Is he now inner party? I'd have read it that he is in the final stage of an outer party member. He knows all there is to know, so there is no point in this quest, he knows that he has no chance in his revolution, that not even his feelings are his own any more, he could have known that for hate and anger already given how that is instrumentalized by the party, but now even love is corrupted after room 101. There is no one he can trust (all either are the enemy or will turn on him) and he himself knows that he is not to be trusted. So loving big brother is the final act of submission.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jan 14 at 17:23

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