The boots were approaching again. The door opened. O'Brien came in.

Winston started to his feet. The shock of the sight had driven all caution out of him. For the first time in many years he forgot the presence of the telescreen.

'They've got you too!' he cried.

'They got me a long time ago,' said O'Brien with a mild, almost regretful irony.

The above is a quote from the end of 1984, with added emphasis. O'Brien posed as a member of the resistance to entrap Winston, who was trying to end the domination of the Party.

What does the part in bold mean? He said it regretfully; is it possible that at one time he was a dissident and got caught, just as Winston has?


7 Answers 7


There are a few possible explanations of this line, which I've arranged below in what I think is increasing order of likelihood.

  • O'Brien really was a former dissident who'd been completely turned to the Party.

    This is the most literal interpretation, and the one espoused by Emrakul's answer. In the first moment of seeing him, Winston clearly still believes that O'Brien is a subversive element like himself. O'Brien's response could be interpreted to mean that Winston is almost correct, but just out by many years on the timeline: he was a rebel once, but has long since changed his loyalties to the Party. Who better to ensnare new dissidents like Winston than someone who once was one himself? If he really was a subversive element at one point, it would explain how he can do such a good impersonation of one in order to fool people like Winston.

    But I find this interpretation hard to believe. Would any former dissident really be trusted by the Party to the extent that O'Brien was? He's a member of the Inner Party, and entrusted not only with the deepest secrets of the Party (such as the explanations of the system contained in Goldstein's book) but also with the practical jobs of catching and turning new subversives like Winston. Surely they could have found someone better than a former rebel for these tasks? Consider Winston himself: after his release from the Ministry of Love, he has money, a good job, and the knowledge of impending death, but he never seems to be trusted to any particular extent.

  • O'Brien simply meant that the Party had recruited him a long time ago.

    There's more than one possible interpretation of the word "got" here. Perhaps O'Brien is responding to Winston's assumption that the Party "got" him (arrested him for his anti-Party sentiments) with the statement that yes, they "got" him (made him one of them) a long time ago. One doesn't need to have been a dissident in order to be "got" and made into a loyal Party man.

    This is consistent with the "irony" in O'Brien's words. Under the first interpretation listed above, there would be nothing particularly ironic about his response to Winston: yes, he was caught as a subversive, but it was much longer ago than Winston thinks. But under this interpretation, the irony lies in the difference in the meaning of "got" between the way Winston says it and the way O'Brien says it.

  • O'Brien is just trying to mess with Winston's mind.

    This would be consistent with the way O'Brien plays all sorts of mind games with Winston in the next chapter. A few of the clearest examples follow, but these are by no means the only ones. Much of the torture O'Brien inflicts on Winston is psychological; it is his mind, more than his body, that they are trying to break in the Ministry of Love.

    ‘It exists!’ he cried.

    ‘No,’ said O’Brien.

    He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

    ‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.’

    ‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’

    ‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

    ‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’

    ‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’

    He is not pretending, thought Winston, he is not a hypocrite, he believes every word he says. What most oppressed him was the consciousness of his own intellectual inferiority. He watched the heavy yet graceful form strolling to and fro, in and out of the range of his vision. O’Brien was a being in all ways larger than himself. There was no idea that he had ever had, or could have, that O’Brien had not long ago known, examined, and rejected. His mind CONTAINED Winston’s mind. But in that case how could it be true that O’Brien was mad? It must be he, Winston, who was mad.

    ‘You do not exist,’ said O’Brien.

    Perhaps his words "They got me a long time ago" are simply intended to confuse Winston and make him wonder about the same question that you're asking here. Perhaps he wants Winston to hold out hope, for a while, that as a former subversive it might be possible to turn O'Brien back against the Party. The slow loss of this hope might be more effective in breaking Winston's rebelliousness than a sudden revelation that O'Brien was a total Party man.

Finally, let's look at the very next words O'Brien says after what's quoted in the question:

‘They got me a long time ago,’ said O’Brien with a mild, almost regretful irony. He stepped aside. From behind him there emerged a broad-chested guard with a long black truncheon in his hand.

‘You know this, Winston,’ said O’Brien. ‘Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it — you have always known it.’

Yes, he saw now, he had always known it. But there was no time to think of that.

What, exactly, had Winston always known? Does this line enable us to decide between the three possible interpretations listed above? Well ... not really. It seems what O'Brien means is that on some level Winston has always known O'Brien was a true Party man, but whether he was always loyal to the Party or was at some point a subversive doesn't really seem relevant to this line. In a way, the ambiguity here, and especially the "Don't deceive yourself", could be seen as consistent with the third interpretation, that O'Brien is simply playing mind games with Winston. But it's not conclusive, and I still think any of the three interpretations could be valid.

  • I honestly think the third interpretation here is the least likely of all. Often, bitterness in tone is used to convey a betrayal of something genuinely true. It also seems frivolous on the part of the author to include so much information about O'Brien in this passage for no reason other than to mess with Winston. We're supposed to learn from and question O'Brien, not dismiss everything they say as manipulation. This would be a huge Chekhov's Gun violation, which, while by no means a law, makes the last option not the simplest explanation for the phrase.
    – user80
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 19:41
  • 1
    I don't think (in this particular instance) that O'Brien is trying to mess with Winston's mind. And I think the second option mentioned is by far the most likely. Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 19:11
  • Now I’m curious... when did the Party take control in the first place? Any chance that O’Brien remembers a time before the party took control, and that that’s what he was referring to? I may be totally off base here, but just a thought. Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 15:04
  • 1
    @EJoshuaS "when did the Party take control in the first place" would make an excellent question :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 15:38

That's definitely the implication, yes. It's a sentence that should be taken fairly literally, if obscurely.

Story-wise, this serves a functional purpose. It shows someone who used to perform actions counter to what the government wanted, and was, in essence, reformed into participation.

O'Brien is extremely knowledgeable about the past - likely far more than he lets on to Winston. On top of that, it seems that people of the Inner Party are all generally more well-read than those of the Outer Party (go figure). How else would they know about the contents of books?

'It is called wine,' said O'Brien with a faint smile. 'You will have read about it in books, no doubt. Not much of it gets to the Outer Party, I am afraid.'

He's also knowledgeable about the sort of philosophy that - guess what - comprises mostly terms you'd find in books, and the sorts of things you'd really only learn from books:

O'Brien smiled faintly. 'You are no metaphysician, Winston,' he said. 'Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?'

This smacks of someone well-read. And these two examples were easy to find - if you search for "O'Brien," the book is littered with references to how knowledgeable he seems to be about the past.

But that aside, this is also an important jab at Winston's only real hope at escape:

He thought oftener of O'Brien, with a flickering hope. O'Brien might know that he had been arrested.

While it's possible to hypothesize about how O'Brien ended up in government work following being had, perhaps suggesting that practices have changed over time, or aren't as absolute as they seem, the fact remains: he was probably caught, and was probably stopped.

  • 1
    Hmm. This could be a valid interpretation, but I don't think I agree with it. If O'Brien had been a dissident who was caught in the same way as Winston, would he have been trusted to the extent that he was? Possibly yes, but that implies a particular model for the Party which I'm not sure we have enough evidence for. [cont]
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 22:38
  • 6
    I prefer one of two other possible explanations: either O'Brien is only saying it to mess with Winston's mind and give him false hope (if O'Brien was a dissident once, perhaps Winston has a chance of turning him back?), or he means they "got" him simply in the sense of recruiting him, making him one of the Inner Party, rather than arresting him.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 22:38
  • @Randal'Thor Those are reasonable interpretations. I wasn't quite willing to go so far as to imply they recruited him in knowledge of how well-read he was, but that's a logical extension of this answer. I'd be curious to see if there's evidence for it just messing with Winston's mind.
    – user80
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 22:41
  • 1
    What a shame Orwell died so young! I'd love nothing more than to hear his answers to these questions.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 23:37
  • 1
    I've posted my answer with all three possible interpretations; let me know what you think. One question about this answer: how is O'Brien's education and well-read-ness relevant to the issue at hand? Surely he could be knowledgeable about books and philosophy regardless of whether or not he's a former subversive?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 14:36

I think that it is unclear. (SparkNotes concurs.)

My feeling is that O'Brien's statement is honest (and not a calculated lie) because of the followup:

‘They got me a long time ago,’ said O’Brien with a mild, almost regretful irony.

O'Brien is clearly a talented actor, but that "mild, almost regretful irony" feels genuine to me. (I'm not sure how to describe it any better than that; I do realize that this is a pretty flimsy proof.)

Now, "how come O'Brien hasn't been shot already?"

Because. We don't know all that much about how the Party makes decisions; maybe they thought that O'Brien was more useful to them alive than dead. We do see that they kill Winston, even after he breaks -- perhaps they had no use for Winston, but O'Brien was more useful to them.

As far as I know, no one knows. (This may be the point of O'Brien.)

  • What do you think the word irony means?
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 13:08
  • It's not entirely clear that they did kill Winston. Some people interpret the final scene as referring to a metaphorical death -- the death of who Winston used to be, the death of his desire to rebel. And that seems fairly plausible, given that the supposed shot occurs right after Winston decides that he "loves" "big brother". Even if they had multiple people specifically spying in him at all times, it seems unlikely they they'd know the exact moment he's having this internal experience, let alone have someone lined up to shoot him within seconds of it. Commented Jun 28 at 21:41
  • Much as they might like to pretend otherwise, the party isn't omniscient or omnipotent. Commented Jun 28 at 21:42

I think these interpretations of O'Brien's reply are driven primarily by the obvious implication in Winston's outcry. In detail, it implies that O'Brien was and still is considered (by Winston) as a co-conspirator, and that he was expected to be caught by the Thought Police like Winston just was.

I think that O'Brien's reply may be literally interpreted, as he wants to say, that he once was a conspirator against the Party, who was caught a long time ago.

But that interpretation would contradict Winston's expressed assumption, that O'Brien was just caught, which must be considered valid from the viewpoint of Winston, as he saw O'Brien a short time ago living and working, apparently, for and with consent from the Party.

I once (about 30 years ago) stumbled over the same scene and sayings and thought a while about it, and came to the conclusion, that O'Brien, kind of sardonically, wanted to tell that he always was a believing member and supporter of the Party and the order of society, and that he had outwitted Winston. The key point is, in my opinion, the twofold meaning of "got", which Winston uses in the meaning of "caught" but O'Brien in the sense of "being in true consent with".


Related: Why wasn't O'Brien considered a thought criminal?

It's possible, but we don't have to assume that that's what he meant. By his own admission, O'Brien helped create the Goldstein myth in the first place and to have helped write "Goldstein's" book. He calls the ideas in the book largely true, but calls the program set forth in it to overthrow the Party "nonsense." This seems to make it highly unlikely that he was a dissident in the same way that Winston was.

Other people have pointed out how well-read O'Brien seems to be. This is perfectly true, but this is probably a product of being an Inner Party member. As an Inner Party member, he'd have to be aware of and "in tune with" the Party's true aims and philosophy. That being the case, what it means to be a loyal Inner Party member was very different than what it meant to be a loyal Outer Party member. For example, he shows a good deal of awareness of the Party's malice, but, far from making him disloyal to the Party, he wholeheartedly embraces it. For example:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing.

The fact that he fully accepted and embraced that was actually evidence that he was loyal to the party (not that he was disloyal).

He also shows a good deal of confidence in the Party's ability to literally alter history. He claims that the past exists only in people's memory and in written records, and that the Party controls both, so when they rewrite history it literally becomes true.

  • This is largely the right reading. Thinking that O'Brien was a rebel completely glosses over the word "irony", which is so crucial in understanding what he means. It cannot be read straight by definition.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 16:20

The author intended it to get you to 'fill out' O'Brien's character on your own.

No one can say exactly what it means, even after very thoughtful dissection, but, reading the conjecture - heck, even the existence of this thread - shows that its ambiguity was effective in getting the phrase stuck in each reader's mind, contributing to the character that is O'Brien.

Another reason why this author makes it on every 'Top' list.

  • I get what you're saying, and I realise that it's considered very gauche among English lit academics to admit that authorial intent might actually be worth talking about. I personally think that Orwell is a very strong argument against discarding authorial intent in all circumstances. His public statements and private letters make it very clear indeed that 1984 is an attack on totalitarianism, just in case you didn't get the message from reading it. But he obviously didn't comment on every single sentence, and this particular one is indeed open to interpretation.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 10:02

I believe Orwell is implying that O'Brien was a dissident at one point. I think he part of him still is a dissident. In the appedix of the novel Orwell states that an exercise in Doublethink is "to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them."

That is why he such an effective member of the thought police.

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