Big Brother Is Watching You in 1984: Meaning & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Big Brother Is Watching You
  • 2:09 Big Brother and the Panopticon
  • 3:21 Who Is Big Brother?
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson will analyze the figure known as 'Big Brother' in George Orwell's dystopian novel, '1984.' We will consider how Big Brother functions as a symbol of power and surveillance and the effect that he has on the citizens of Oceania.

Big Brother Is Watching You

There's a good chance you've heard someone say, ''Big Brother is watching you.'' Maybe they said it to discourage you from doing something you shouldn't when you were alone and thinking that no one would know. Or maybe they said it to mean that the government is keeping tabs on its citizens with surveillance cameras or other means. The saying originally comes from George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984.

A utopia is an imaginary place where the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect. A dystopia is the exact opposite. It is a society characterized by oppression, misery, and often a totalitarian form of government that attempts to stomp out individual freedoms in favor of the state's absolute power. Sometimes, the leaders of dystopian societies attempt to convince their citizens that they're well off and well cared for by the government. This is the case in Orwell's 1984.

In Oceania, the fictional totalitarian state that Orwell has created, every citizen knows that they could be watched at any time. There are telescreens everywhere, through which higher ranking Party members can watch and record their activities. According to the Party, this surveillance is for the betterment of Oceania as a whole, and citizens who resist or disobey are labeled as traitors and soon disappear. The leader of the Party is known as Big Brother.

The people of Oceania constantly see Big Brother's face plastered on posters that paper the streets, on their telescreens, and stamped onto the coins that they use. His face is described as handsome, with dark eyes, a mustache, and in his mid-forties. He's described here in this quote from the book: ''The black mustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner… BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own.''

This image and slogan are a constant reminder that the people of Oceania are being watched, and all of their actions are potentially subject to disciplinary action.

Big Brother and the Panopticon

Because the citizens of Oceania are never sure whether they are being watched at any time, most tend to behave obediently at all times. The Party is able to effectively control the population through this uncertainty and through the widespread symbols of Big Brother's watchful face.

This concept is similar to the concept of the panopticon. The panopticon is a type of institutional building designed in the late 18th century by an English philosopher and social theorist named Jeremy Bentham. The building was designed in a circular shape with individual cells or rooms lining the outside of the circle. A watchtower would be in the center of the design. This would allow all of the prisoners or patients to be observed by a single watchman without the individuals under observation being able to tell when they are being watched.

Although the panopticon watchman could not physically look at all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are being watched at all times. Likewise, the citizens of Oceania are always aware that Big Brother might be watching them, even though government officials cannot possibly be monitoring all telescreens at all times.

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