In Chapter 2 of Part 2 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell writes this:

Sometimes it stopped for a few seconds, spread out and resettled its wings, then swelled its speckled breast and again burst into song. Winston watched it with a sort of vague reverence. For whom, for what, was that bird singing? No mate, no rival was watching it.

I found his usage of "vague reverence" intriguing. What does this phrase mean? Might he be hinting to Winston's vague memories of the dream?


3 Answers 3


Reverence is a deep respect shown to someone or something.

Usually, when you revere something, you know why you do so, and it is colored by that knowledge. One reveres a mountain for its majesty, or a perfect rose for its beauty.

In this case, Smith does not really understand why it is singing, but he knows it's not for a specific audience. This is particularly sharp because his own life is, and he knows it is, under constant surveillance, making just about everything he does being for the watcher. He does not articulate this difference (perhaps he can't bring himself to?), but the result is that his reverence is therefore vague -- he does not know exactly why he reveres it.


That is an interesting phrase "sort of vague reverence". Were I to write that passage, I would have not added that phrase. A careful writer picks his words carefully & a careless editor, thinking they were superfluous, would be tempted to delete them. Yet he did, which suggests his words here are intentional, & worth looking more closely at.

"Reverence" is related to the verb "revere", an act one performs to things considered sacred. We can understand Smith considering a wild creature sacred, so that part is understandable. However, when one reveres someone or something, one is attentive to it, one gives it close attention. Which seems to contradict the adverb "vague", which implies that Smith's action was done in an off-handed or inattentive fashion.

In other words, Orwell could be understood to say here that Smith watched the thrush carefully, yet did not really see it.

If you haven't read the Q&A Spagirl linked to yet, this is the point where you may want to now. Some interesting ideas are presented there.

  • 3
    I feel like "vague" fits well with the image built up of Smith, or in general of members of the society portrayed in 1984. Any kind of emotion or feeling is blunted, only able to be expressed "vaguely", except for those that are directed by those in power, like the Two Minutes Hate (maybe also except for sexual urges?). People have lost their personalities. Reverence for nature is not a thing encouraged by Big Brother; it's even difficult for Smith to feel or remember how to feel it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 10, 2020 at 22:07

I think the 'reverence' in particular here is a contrast to the blind fervour with which the population follow Big Brother. Under the Party, everything is dictated: who to love, who to hate, to the point where even thought itself is limited. Winston himself says that 'nothing is your own except for the few cubic centimetres inside your skull', but even this is contradicted, both in the clinical classification of size as a potential nod to the erosion of imagination, and the gradual colonisation of minds under the thoughtcrime and doublethink legislation. Yet Winston's 'vague reverence' of the bird is, if nothing else, a glimmer of hope amongst the dystopia: he does not understand why, but he is drawn to the bird on the windowsill, the innocent, natural beauty that permeates event this most barren of worlds. Birdsong as well, particularly in the aftermath of WW1, is a symbol of hope and freedom. Winston is unable to understand why it sings, because he has never known a world where beauty is can exist for beauty's sake alone, and hope is a notion to be entertained, but he is still moved by it. This is both tragic and hopeful, a fitting oxymoron in a book characterised by contradiction in its most impossible sense: the fact that he cannot understand is demonstrative of the horror of the world he lives in, but the fact that he is still moved by it, and feels a 'reverence' that should be reserved for the Party and Big Brother, is more illustrative of hope. William Empson says of Paradise Lost that it is 'the triumph of human courage and emotion over restrictive obedience', and I think this is true here as well. Though Winston's mind is crushed and destroyed in Room 101 and betrays all the things that enabled him to actually feel alive, and begin to understand why he found the birdsong beautiful, there is still the implication that human minds have, and always will be, predisposed to the acknowledgement of beauty and poetry, even if they can be destroyed. And we are back to that idea of hope again, if not for Winston, but for the world as it was, and the world that can be. I suppose in a way, he is right that 'who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.' But that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. It can apply to hope as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.