Figurative Language in 1984

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Figurative language uses vivid descriptive techniques to enhance characterization, setting and tone in literature. In this lesson, learn how George Orwell used figurative language in his novel ''1984.''

What Is Figurative Language?

Figurative language uses figures of speech to evoke meaning beyond the literal definition of characters, actions and settings in literature. Imagine reading the sentence: 'Bob walked into the room.' It gets the job done, right? But what if the author wants to make that sentence more descriptive and interesting? That's where figurative language comes in. What if the author writes 'Bob frolicked into the room like a puppy chasing a ball.' Now you know more about Bob's mood and character.

In this lesson, you're going to learn about some specific types of figurative language as they're used in George Orwell's novel 1984. Personification, symbolism, similes and metaphors all play important roles in the text and they enhance the novel in myriad ways.


What is personification? Personification is assigning human characteristics to an inanimate object as a descriptive tool. Take this example from 1984:

'Two soft pads, which felt slightly moist, clamped themselves against Winston's temples.'

Can pads clamp themselves to anything of their own accord? Of course not. Why did Orwell write the sentence this way then? In this particular scene, Winston, the protagonist, is being tortured. He's disoriented and weak. By giving the pads their own action, Orwell not only gives you an indication of Winston's confused mental state but emphasizes his helplessness in controlling his environment and the things within it.


Symbolism is using a word or phrase for one thing, usually some type of object, to represent a much larger idea. The bald eagle is frequently used to represent the idea of freedom in the United States. Patriotic literature is commonly illustrated with images of the national bird. Symbols distill complex or abstract ideas into simple imagery which is intuitively understood. Symbols can be poignant representations of the emotional states of characters and deepen the tone of a narrative.

In 1984, Orwell uses the glass paperweight as a symbol for Winston's strong desire to reconnect with a past he can no longer remember. He purchases the glass paperweight at an antique store but he has no idea what it is, as the past has been completely lost to the citizens of Oceania due to the Party's constant rewriting of history. Winston finds the paperweight beautiful and mysterious, and tries desperately to understand it and the past it represents. As Winston is arrested, the glass paperweight is shattered irreparably, demonstrating that Winston will never understand this past world and that real history is truly lost to him.

The glass paperweight acts as a symbol of the unknowable, lost history of Winston and the other citizens of Oceania.
Glass paperweight

Similes and Metaphors

Here you're going to learn about two different, but very similar, types of figurative language. First, what is a simile? A simile is a comparison of two things using either 'like' or 'as.' Here's an example from 1984:

'The fragment of coral, a tiny crinkle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat.

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