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In 1984, Orwell devotes a few lines to a singing thrush that lands several feet away from Julia and Winston during their first secret meeting.

A thrush had alighted on a bough not five metres away, almost at the level of their faces. Perhaps it had not seen them. It was in the sun, they in the shade. It spread out its wings, fitted them carefully into place again, ducked its head for a moment, as though making a sort of obeisance to the sun, and then began to pour forth a torrent of song. In the afternoon hush the volume of sound was startling. Winston and Julia clung together, fascinated. The music went on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself, almost as though the bird were deliberately showing off its virtuosity. 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. What made it sit at the edge of the lonely wood and pour its music into nothingness?

...

But by degrees the flood of music drove all speculations out of his mind. It was as though it were a kind of liquid stuff that poured all over him and got mixed up with the sunlight that filtered through the leaves. He stopped thinking and merely felt.

What's the purpose of such a detailed description? Personally, I've always thought that the thrush has had a greater symbolic meaning in the novel because its beautiful singing serves as a sharp contrast to the harshness of Oceanian society. Is there greater meaning in this passage that I'm missing?

  • 2
    "never once repeating itself" - it's worth noting that in real life, the most distinctive feature of the song thrush's song is that it does constantly repeat itself, making each combination of notes 2-4 times in a row. Whether this is a simple mistake on Orwell's part, or a subtle indication that the thrush is not exactly what it seems, could probably be debated at length. – Rand al'Thor Mar 5 '17 at 14:57
  • @Randal'Thor That's a really interesting point that I hadn't realized before. – fi12 Mar 5 '17 at 14:58
  • Smith says he hates purity, Julia says she's been sleeping around... cmon, thrush. Thrush. – Ne Mo Mar 5 '17 at 22:12
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On an immediate level, the thrush symbolises freedom and emotion.

  • It was in the sun, they in the shade.

    This symbolises how the thrush is free to live its life as it chooses - literally 'free as a bird' - while Winston and Julia are subjugated by the oppressive society they live in.

  • For whom, for what, was that bird singing? No mate, no rival was watching it. What made it sit at the edge of the lonely wood and pour its music into nothingness?

    This suggests that the bird is singing not just because of some social obligation, but out of pure emotion. It also awakens feelings in Winston:

    It was as though it were a kind of liquid stuff that poured all over him and got mixed up with the sunlight that filtered through the leaves. He stopped thinking and merely felt.

    After this, Winston finally begins to feel sexual desire for Julia: his inhibition or lack of feeling which prevented them from making love earlier is gone.

The whole description of the thrush and its singing is in sharp contrast to the description of human society which makes up most of the book. It seems carefree, happy, artistic, beautiful, emotional - none of these are adjectives one might have used to describe anything else in the book so far. This contrast appears even more starkly when Winston's thoughts wander briefly away from the thrush and back to human surveillance:

He wondered whether after all there was a microphone hidden somewhere near. He and Julia had spoken only in low whispers, and it would not pick up what they had said, but it would pick up the thrush. Perhaps at the other end of the instrument some small, beetle-like man was listening intently — listening to that.

And much later on, shortly before their arrest, Winston and Julia's thoughts go back to the thrush again, and once again we see the contrast between it and the Party society.

‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘the thrush that sang to us, that first day, at the edge of the wood?’

‘He wasn’t singing to us,’ said Julia. ‘He was singing to please himself. Not even that. He was just singing.’

The birds sang, the proles sang. The Party did not sing.


One strange aspect of this passage is that the description of the thrush's song is actually incorrect. The song thrush (Turdus philomelos), the main species of thrush found in Britain, has a song which is distinctive because of its constant repetition: every set of notes it makes is repeated over and over again, at least 2 or 3 times and often more. Every British birdwatcher knows this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G53oH-MI9qU

So when I first read 1984, the following description of the thrush's song (emphasis mine) was horribly jarring to my suspension of disbelief:

The music went on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself, almost as though the bird were deliberately showing off its virtuosity.

What's the explanation for this apparent mistake? Well, Occam's razor would say it actually is a simple mistake, and that Orwell wasn't aware of the defining characteristic of the song of one of the commonest British songbirds, despite choosing that song to describe at length in his novel. But what if there's a darker and more subtle explanation?

Perhaps the thrush isn't a real thrush at all. Perhaps the Party has created believable fake birds to do some of their spying for them. Perhaps the unrealistic song of the thrush was an early indication that, even then, the Party was watching Winston and Julia's every move (as we discover much later on, they had certainly been watched since long before this scene).
Or perhaps I'm thinking of the wrong dystopian novel and have jabberjays on the brain.

I'm fairly sure I've read this theory elsewhere, and that perhaps it was even made explicit in one of the film adaptations of 1984. But I can't find any reference to it now, so my justification above, based only on the text and a knowledge of ornithology, will have to do.

  • Personally I'd go with Occam's Razor on this one. Eric like and approves of "nature" in a suitably "domesticated" form, He writes about birds and frogs/toads and small English animals in places like his essays, but he never gives the impression of actually much about them. Is it possible he had just never noticed the songs repeated? He was also not very musical. I suppose it's possible he's subtly implying that the thrush is artificial even though it would have made no sense, imo (much of 1984 isn't much more improbable than that). But I'd just vote for a simple oversight. – Faheem Mitha Aug 12 '17 at 16:25

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