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The word prole is a shortening of the word proletarian, a term for the working class. The word was made popular by George Orwell in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he uses the word proles (collective noun) to refer to the working class of Oceania (i.e. the proletariat).
In 1984, Orwell describes Oceania's society as divided into three distinct classes: Inner Party, Outer Party and proles (with their own upper, middle and lower classes). The proles constitute 85% of the population; they receive little education, work at manual labour, live in poverty (although in having privacy and anonymity, qualitatively better off than Outer Party members), and usually die by the age of sixty.
As the Party slogan put it: 'Proles and animals are free.'— Part 1, Chapter 7
Inner and Outer Party members are under constant telescreen surveillance in both private and public; by contrast, proles' quarters are generally free of telescreens as the Party does not care to observe them. Proles who desire telescreens can purchase them, although they are expensive. Their functions are simple: work and breed. They are described as caring little about anything but home and family, neighbour quarrels, films, football, beer, lottery tickets, and other such bread and circuses.
They are not required to express support for the Party beyond occasional patriotic fervour; the Party creates meaningless entertainment, songs, novels and even pornography for the proles—all written by machines. Julia is a mechanic tending the novel-writing machines in Pornosec. Proles do not wear uniforms, may use cosmetics, have a relatively free internal market economy, and would be even permitted religion if they had interest in it. Proles also have liberal sex lives, uninterrupted by the Party, divorce and prostitution are enjoyed by Proles. Despite these personal freedoms, the Thought Police plant agents among the proles to spread false rumours and eliminate any individuals deemed capable of causing trouble. Prole quarters consist of rundown Victorian houses, shops and pubs. Though trade between Outer Party members and proles is nominally prohibited, all Party members participate, as prole shops are often the only source for certain minor necessities (the novel mentions shoelaces and razor blades as examples).
From a certain viewpoint, Proles are regarded as the "true" free individuals of the State, as they are uninterrupted by the Party's propaganda or its surveillance, kept in check by certain pleasures to maintain their docile behavior instead of fear of being eliminated. They also maintain Oldspeak (traditional English) unlike the Party members who use Newspeak; the Party does not bother to craft a new language for them as long as they do not use any words that are considered prohibited by Newspeak.
The hope of revolution
The protagonist Winston Smith's internal conflicts form a recurring theme in the novel: his hope for an eventual uprising by the proles; and his understanding that they would, or could, not. In Winston's words, "proles remained human", i.e., they preserved the essence of life: human emotions, which Party members must avoid; as well as the English language (Oldspeak). Winston writes in his diary "If there is hope, it lies in the proles." This view is challenged by O'Brien, who claims the proles would never revolt because they have no need to do so, so long as they are kept well-fed and distracted. The novel alludes to the unwillingness or inability of the proles to organize politically, noting that any prole suspected of independent thought is simply marked down by the Thought Police to be killed, further decreasing the possibility of revolution. None of the characters suggest the Party could collapse internally, due to the absolute control it exerts over the lives and emotions of its members.
The proles live in poverty and are kept sedated with alcohol, pornography and a national lottery whose winnings are never actually paid out; that is obscured by propaganda and the lack of communication within Oceania.
- The dictionary definition of prole at Wiktionary