Surveillance Quotes from 1984

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  • 0:00 The All-Seeing Eye
  • 0:30 Technology & the Government
  • 4:04 Paranoia & Privacy
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we'll take a look at the theme of surveillance, and its relationship to paranoia and fear, in the novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by going over some important quotes.

The All-Seeing Eye

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. Like the omnipresent eyes of Big Brother, several concepts from George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-four have become famous in popular culture. The character of Big Brother is perhaps the most well-known concept from the book.

In this lesson, we will look at several passages that evoke the power of big brother, explain the function of the telescreen, and establish the theme of surveillance in the novel.

Technology and the Government

The opening pages of the novel establish two characters: the protagonist, Winston, and the antagonist, Big Brother. Feeble for thirty-nine years of age, Winston pathetically ascends to his walk-up flat. In the stairwell of each landing in his apartment building hangs 'an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and rugged handsome features.' This is Big Brother. He's the nation's mascot, like Uncle Sam. He watches people out of telescreens. His giant face gazes at you silently out of posters and billboards. His imposing presence establishes the sense of an all-seeing eye. The idea that he is always watching from the shadows imposes a kind of social order. You know not to speak out against The Party -- because big brother is watching. 'The poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move.' The face always appears with the phrase Big Brother is watching you. As if you could forget.

The novel opens with a thorough description of what life is like in this dystopian society though the eyes of Winston. Imagine for yourself this terrible future. You have no privacy or freedom, and your every move is carefully scrutinized -- or at least you think so. There's no way of knowing if and when somebody is actually watching. At the same time as the TV monitors spread disinformation, their cameras also watch: 'The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely' (Part 1, Chapter 1). The telescreen is both an announcement system as well as a surveillance network. The following passage explains from Winston's point of view what it's like to try to keep a secret when living under the regime of such technology:

'It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in a public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself -- anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face was itself a punishable offense.'

Winston describes in this passage how difficult it is for him to restrain his private, inward thoughts from appearing on his face. If you harbor ill thoughts toward the powerful, omnipotent government, you'll always have to keep your guard up when you're in public. It's even more difficult to blend in when you know your every action is being scrutinized. By emphasizing the correlation between Winston's inner thoughts and the expression on his face, this passage sets up the conflict that plays throughout the novel:

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