At the end of 1984, does Winston Smith die in the traditional sense of death, or just figuratively?
He does not literally die at the end of the novel.
The concluding paragraphs make it clear that his death is metaphorical. Winston is in the Chestnut Tree Café, listening to the news of the victory over Eurasia:
Ah, it was more than a Eurasian army that had perished! Much had changed in him since that first day in the Ministry of Love, but the final, indispensable, healing change had never happened, until this moment.
The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
As the text says, Winston is sitting in a blissful dream. A few minutes earlier, he had been considering the possibility that Oceania might be defeated in the war, but when he hears the news of Eurasia's defeat, he realizes that just as Oceania's control over Africa is complete, so also is Big Brother's control over him. The idea that he could ever go against Big Brother or imagine any alternative life is no longer viable. Just as he has confessed his prior mistakes to the Ministry, he is now confessing to himself that the idea that Oceania might be defeated was a thoughtcrime. Once he sees that as a thoughtcrime, the punishment is the death of his capacity for independent thinking: The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.
The last paragraph tells us that this is not a literal death, as he is still sitting in the café, gazing up at Big Brother on the telescreen. Whereas Winston had longed for literal death during his interrogation and torture at the Ministry of Love, when the death does come, it is actually the death of his capacity for any struggle against Big Brother. His rebelliousness now seems to him only a self-willed exile from the loving breast of Big Brother, and it is now over.
I was torn about this myself. I think there are two possibilities:
First is that Winston was in fact released from the Ministry of Love, turned to alcoholism and lost his mind to Big Brother following the news of Oceania's victory. This is essentially what the final chapter implies, with Winston spending most of his free time at a bar, working a small committee job at the Ministry of Truth, having an awkward encounter with Julia, and waiting anxiously for news from the tele screen. The bullet in the end is more of a metaphor for Winston finally shedding his final negative thoughts towards the party and Big Brother.
The second is that Winston never left the Ministry of Love, was simply dreaming under the influence of drugs, and was eventually tried and shot after finally letting go of his thoughts against Big Brother. It's supported by the fact that Winston's actual release from the Ministry of Love was never actually described following his transfer to room 101, and the strong implication that doctors were shooting him up with mind altering drugs. The final chapter supports this theory based on Winston's dreamy state and transitions. So in this scenario, the final chapter of the book is just a hallucination in Winston's head, which ends with the promised bullet entering his head. The final paragraphs following the head shot could simply be Winston watching his life fly away and finally achieving a state of peace.
In my view, both are equally likely. Both are compatible with O'Brien's statements ("if we choose to release you", "you will die no matter what after we cure you", etc.) and ultimately it doesn't matter which of the possibilities turns out to be true. Winston's soul is definitely dead; he is no longer himself. The only ambiguity remaining is around the actual physical state of his body.
He doesn't die physically and he doesn't die figuratively.
He succeeds in the plan he laid out while in the Ministry of Love. I delve into this more here.
However, for the sake of this answer I will lay out Winston's plan.
First some information:
- Winston perceives the only way to keep a secret is if it is a secret to everyone, including yourself. You must have knowledge of this secret, but it should never enter your consciousness.
- Winston concludes that the only way to have freedom was to die hating them (them being the Party and Big Brother).
- Winston believes that at some point in the future he will be shot and a bullet will enter the back of his head.
- He will keep his hatred of the Party and Big Brother a secret, even to himself.
- He will be shot with a bullet in the back of the head.
- The instant he is shot, he will let loose his secret hatred of the Party and of Big Brother. In this way he will be free, because "To die hating them, that was freedom."
Winston knows of this secret, however, and we know to. He betrays his knowledge of this secret in the slightest by describing that bullet, which was to enter the back of his brain, as "long-hoped-for". After all, why would one hope for a bullet?
He hopes for the bullet, because the bullet is his escape, the bullet is the penultimate step in his plan. The bullet represents his freedom. It is then that he will die with dignity, his rebellion complete, finally unveiling the secret he is keeping from them, and from himself. He hates them and he hates Big Brother.
I disagree. I believe Winston Smith physically killed at the end of 1984, shot in the head. In the Ministry of Love, O'Brien tells him "we make the brain perfect before we blow it out" and "in the end we shall shoot you." The last sentence of the penultimate paragraph says "The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain." That's not a metaphor. The moment that Winston is finally cured he is shot, just as O'Brien promised. It is a grim ending, was which many avert their eyes from because it is so horrific, but there is an optimistic note in the appendix. O'Brien said that posterity would not remember Winston because all traces of him would be erased, but the appendix - which is written from a future perspective - mentions his name. It means that the Party failed and he was remembered.
Yes, Winston dies. Physically. "1984" is an allegory of George Orwell's struggle with TB, "Big Brother" represents the disease. Winston's eventual fate isn't made clear because although when Orwell handed over the manuscript he was close to dying, there still might have been some hope of a last minute reprieve. I'm not sure whether Orwell himself was aware of the allegory, nothing I'm aware of in his records indicates that he was, but this is not significant. If you are in some doubt about the allegory, please read some Orwell biographies.