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In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston goes to a pub and asks an old prole about life in the olden days. But it's all in vain, because the man can't remember anything Winston thinks is important, so Winston gives up and leaves.

Later that evening, he finds an old antique shop run by another prole named Mr Charrington. He has a higher opinion of Charrington than the other proles:

His spectacles, his gentle, fussy movements, and the fact that he was wearing an aged jacket of black velvet, gave him a vague air of intellectuality, as though he had been some kind of literary man, or perhaps a musician. His voice was soft, as though faded, and his accent less debased than that of the majority of proles.

They chat about antiques, and then a child's nursery rhyme and its relation to the old churches of London. Later on Winston comes to (wrongly) trust Charrington enough to rent his upstairs room with Julia.

My question is: why doesn't Winston ask Charrington the same things he tried to get the first prole to answer? It seems like Charrington is smarter and has a better memory, he's interested in history, likes conversation, and as far as Winston knows he's friendly. Heck, there isn't even a telescreen spying on them (or so he thinks). This has bugged me since the first time I read the book -- the answers are all right there in front of you for the taking, Winston!

(Obviously it suits the purposes of the story that Winston not have an easy reliable source of historical info, but it seems like such an oversight / plot hole that perhaps there's a reason for it I've overlooked.)

  • I think because he does not fully trust Charrington, and he is also not comfortable being seen there so it is quite possible he wants to get out of there very quickly. He gets stressed just by being around the shop anyway so he is not comfortable and not able to think about past when he is wondering what would happen if he were seen. Just a guess though.. – Koray Tugay Oct 4 '18 at 1:00
  • He keeps coming back for weeks thereafter though, and trusts him enough to rent his spare room for the illicit romance with Julia. He could have asked at a later time, but doesn't. – dain Oct 5 '18 at 11:58
  • When he is more concerned with what life was like before Revolution, he is not yet trusting him. When he starts trusting him, he is not really alone anymore and his mind is occupied with other ideas. (Again, I might be completely wrong, these are just my ideas..) – Koray Tugay Oct 5 '18 at 12:49
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Winston's thoughts immediately after talking to the old man show us fairly clearly that he is less than optimistic about the odds of anyone being able to tell him anything substantial about the days before the Revolution. From just after, still in Chapter VIII (Part 1), his inner monologue says

But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister's face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago; but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.

His experience with the old man appears to have made Winston judge the proles as a whole - or, rather, the ones hailing from that "ancient world". He (perhaps melodramatically) makes a sweeping judgment based essentially on one data point, and the fact that his mind continues on this line of thought for a fairly hefty paragraph indicates to me that he is truly doubtful that a prole's memory will be sufficient.

I emphasize the word "memory" here, because memory may be independent of intellect. From Winston's point of view, Mr. Charrington could be a quick thinker, but that says nothing about his powers of recollection. Now, we do actually see Winston test the water a bit, as it were, in his initial interaction with Charrington. Perhaps it isn't intentional, but he does carry on a conversation about the past - centered on the churches of the rhyme (St. Clement's Dane, St. Martin's, etc.).

Now, that conversation doesn't necessarily inspire faith in Charrington's memory, as we do hear him say things like "There was a rhyme we had when I was a little boy. How I goes on I don't remember" (although he does soon remember a bit more). Does Winston agree with my interpretation? In Part 2, Chapter IV, he thinks (emphasis mine)

It was like the two halves of a countersign. But there must be another line after "the bells of Old Bailey". Perhaps it could be dug out of Mr. Charrington's memory, if he was suitably prompted.

That doesn't sound to me like a positive assessment of someone's capacity for memories! If he was more optimistic, that last sentence might have been

Mr. Charrington might be able to remember it, given that he had been able to remember some of the others.

In short, Winston's encounter with the old man put him in a fairly pessimistic mindset about the chances of him coaxing out knowledge of the old world from anyone, let alone a strange proprietor of an antiques shop who is also old (recall that we find out he is 63). Charrington's inability to remember the poem well serves to reinforce this notion, no matter what his intellect may be.

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Maybe because the prole in the bar was a drunk, so he could be bribed with alcohol and intoxicated enough to talk about stuff he should not talk about. Drunkenness frees your tongue.

The guy in the store seemed to not be a drunk and not despondent enough to talk about stuff he should not. I think it would be like talking to a Chinese man about the massacre on Tiananmen square, if you'd ask a shopkeeper in daylight hours it would not be very wise for that shopkeeper to talk about stuff like that. If you were to find an old hobo, especially an addicted hobo, you'd be more likely to get an answer from them about what happened, especially if you had a substance to bribe them with. Just conjecture but maybe.

  • Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange and thank you for your contribution. I think you could make your answer more convincing by using quotes or arguments from the novel. – Christophe Strobbe Oct 11 '18 at 17:01

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