At the center of George Orwell’s 1949 classic depiction of a totalitarian, dystopian society in which the masses are controlled through the imposition of an all-seeing system of surveillance and agitprop, 1984, Big Brother is the ubiquitous presence who dominates this society with ruthless efficiency. Big Brother is the leader of the Party, the political collective that presides over Orwell’s fictional society, Oceania, and he is the face of this autocratic system. As 1984 begins, the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is described as ascending the staircase of his apartment building, the elevator not being an option due to yet another electricity shortage courtesy of the inefficiency of the totalitarian regime about which the reader is to learn quite a bit:
“On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, 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. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”
Big Brother is a prominent if not always visible presence throughout Orwell’s story. Modeled after Joseph Stalin, the indescribably brutal dictator of the Soviet Union, even described by the narrator as possessed of a thick black mustache, similar to that worn by Stalin, Big Brother is the face of the regime. The face of the regime’s opposition is that of Emmanuel Goldstein, a former leader of the Party alongside Big Brother who has rebelled against the regime he helped to create. Hate Week, an annual ritual designed to rile the masses against the nonconformity embodied in Goldstein, will provide the spark that ignites Winston’s own decision to rebel against Big Brother and the regime he rules. In a key passage, Orwell describes this transformation as follows:
“In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies.”
This lengthy passage is included to emphasize the centrality of Big Brother to Orwell’s fictional society. The Party that Big Brother leads, and that governs this dysfunctional society, uses propaganda and disinformation to keep the masses loyal and compliant, although the ubiquitous threat of torture always looms in the background in the event the more passive forms of control prove inadequate. The importance of Big Brother to 1984, then, is the centrality of this threatening and all-seeing presence to the autocratic society Orwell depicts. He is what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union once called "First Among Equals" in an Orwellian attempt at explaining the emergence of a single dictator in a system in which class distinction are supposed to have disappeared and the Party exists solely to advance the interests of the masses it, in reality, invariably exploited and enslaved.