Discuss the role of Big Brother in Oceania and in Winston's life. Does the phrase "Big Brother is Watching You" have an application in today's society?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

1984 by George Orwell is about a dystopian society, Oceania. Big Brother is the leader of the Party that governs Oceania in a totalitarian manner where privacy is severely constrained, as Big Brother is always watching. In fact, throughout the nation of Oceania, posters tell citizens that “Big Brother is...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

1984 by George Orwell is about a dystopian society, Oceania. Big Brother is the leader of the Party that governs Oceania in a totalitarian manner where privacy is severely constrained, as Big Brother is always watching. In fact, throughout the nation of Oceania, posters tell citizens that “Big Brother is Watching You.” Moreover, the Thought Police monitor people, as well. Orwell writes:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”

Winston lives in Oceania and works at the Ministry of Truth. Winston longs to rebel, but he is fearful because he knows that his every action is scrutinized. Early in the novel, Winston buys a diary, which is a subversive action punishable by death. Because Winston knows that Big Brother might be watching, he is furtive:

“He had given a quick glance up and down the street and then had slipped inside and bought the book for two dollars fifty. At the time he was not conscious of wanting it for any particular purpose. He had carried it guiltily home in his briefcase. Even with nothing written in it, it was a compromising possession.”

This need to be secretive overhangs Winston’s every move and thought. He fears that regardless of how he tries to hide his thoughts or cover his tracks, the Thought Police and Big Brother will eventually catch up with him. Initially, Winston just writes a “stream of rubbish” in his diary, but ultimately writes repeatedly, “Down with Big Brother.”

Winston both hates and fears Big Brother and these feelings guide his actions. Moreover, people's neighbors, relatives and children also are willing to report any "unorthodox" behavior. Winston encounters a mother of two children and fears for her. He thinks that in “another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy.” Ultimately Winston is imprisoned, just as he feared. After some indoctrination, Winston “loved Big Brother.”

Ironically, the world that Orwell envisioned where Big Brother is always watching is something that we contend with today. We are dependent on our smart devices, which are always ‘listening’ to us and aggregating data about us.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Big Brother is the stoic, omnipotent figurehead of the Party in Oceania and his image is posted everywhere throughout society, reminding citizens that they are being watched by the government at all times. The ubiquitously displayed maxim "Big Brother is Watching You" emphasizes the government's constant surveillance and serves as a warning to political dissidents throughout society. Oceania's government is an authoritative regime, where citizens do not have personal rights and individuality is virtually nonexistent. Big Brother controls nearly every aspect of society and the oppressive regime manipulates the population through fear and propaganda.

Government surveillance is prevalent throughout Oceania, where each citizen is monitored while the Thought Police inconspicuously patrol society. Telescreens are everywhere and children are even encouraged and taught to spy on their own parents. This constant surveillance strikes fear into the hearts of citizens, who are afraid that they will be observed behaving unorthodox in any capacity, which is a punishable offense. In Winston's society, Big Brother truly is watching every move each citizen makes, which is stressful, threatening, and oppressive.

Big Brother's maxim corresponds to the actions of the American government's National Security Agency (NSA), which is an organization that oversees an extensive surveillance program that monitors Americans' international calls, text messages, web-browsing activities, and emails. In modern society, personal privacy issues have been a focal point of much discussion as government surveillance via the internet has become an increasingly relevant issue. Since Orwell wrote the novel before the advent of the internet, Big Brother spied on citizens using more traditional methods like surveillance cameras, hidden microphones, and secret agents. Overall, Big Brother's oppressive regime restricts individual rights and makes Winston Smith's life completely miserable. It is also notable that the surveillance element throughout the story is still relevant in today's society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Big Brother is many things in their world.  The most important thing he is is the provider of all good things to the citizens of Oceania.  Of course, he might not even exist, but that is not important.  In a world where war is a fact of every day life, the citizens need protection.  Big Brothers is the opposite of Goldstein.  The people are taught that he is the enemy, that he is the threat that they are most to fear.  After the two minutes hate, the appearance of BB sooths the people.  Ironically, he is also the symbol of the surveillance and total control of their lives throught the workings of the Thought Police and the Inner Party which we know are real.

Does Big Brother exist today?  I guess that's a matter of opinion, but I think so; in fact I think "he" becomes more and more a part of our life every day.  Think back to the days prior to our having a social security number.  The government didn't have a means of "tracking" us as it does today.  Today it's possible for anyone to gather/steal a great deal of information about us.  There is also the issue of cameras everywhere.  How about tracking and keeping a record of all our phone calls?  What about the possibility of computerized health records?  Do we really want that information out there for whomever?  The more technology that's available, the more information can be gathered about us, the more our freedom is/may be in jeopardy.

Right now, because we trust our leadership, none of this may seem a problem.  But what if that leadership/system should change?  The information would remain ... what then might be done with it ... ?  Is it really a good idea to put out all the information we do on social networks?

Things to consider.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team