Back To Course1984 Study Guide
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Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.
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.
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.
At various points, Winston, the novel's protagonist, wonders whether Big Brother is, or has ever been, a real person or if he is just a symbolic representation of the power of the Party. He is never seen in person, only in photographs on the widespread posters and on the telescreens. Despite this, he is the literal face of the government and is presented as both a real and an omnipotent, or all-powerful, leader.
Winston tries ''to remember in what year he had first heard mention of Big Brother. He thought it must have been at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, of course, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties...''
Big Brother functions mostly as a symbol of the Party's power. He becomes a familiar, even an almost reassuring, presence because he is everywhere. Big Brother represents authority and power, but the Party tries to shape the public's perception of him so that he takes on the role of an older brother or fatherly figure who knows what is best for them. Winston even describes crowds of people displaying their loyalty to Big Brother. ''At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmic chant of 'B-B! .... B-B! .... B-B!'--over and over again....It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more, it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.''
Through their messages and images, the Party creates Big Brother as a leader that makes individual thought unnecessary and undesirable. ''There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.''
George Orwell's 1984 creates a society where the government controls the lives of the public and convinces them to sacrifice their freedom to a party that seems to be everywhere and see everything. The Party's leader is known only as Big Brother. No one is sure whether he is a real person or just a creation of the Party, but his face is everywhere, along with the ominous slogan: ''BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.'' Big Brother becomes the primary symbol of the Party's power.
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Back To Course1984 Study Guide
9 chapters | 78 lessons