The power of “Big Brother” is emphasized almost immediately in George Orwell’s novel 1984. As Winston Smith returns to his small apartment, he is confronted, at the end of a hallway, by an enormous color poster:
It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. (p. 1)
This is our first glimpse of Big Brother, although we do not yet know exactly whom the poster depicts. Only a few sentences later does the narrator tell us that at the bottom of each poster (since these posters are visible on every floor of Smith’s apartment building), large letters declare, in boldface type, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”
The visual details of this first encounter with Big Brother are worth discussing. His face is described as being “enormous” – a trait that suggests his enormous power as well as the main purpose of these posters: to overwhelm and intimidate anyone who looks at them. Big Brother is literally, in these posters, “Big Brother”: he is larger than life, both literally and symbolically. He is not depicted according to normal human scale; he seems, instead, almost superhuman, or at least more than merely human. Even for a poster, this is a large poster: the face is roughly three feet wide. Big Brother’s face, as it is depicted on the poster, could easily encompass a number of normal-sized human heads. The mere size of the poster suggests that this is a very important person, especially since the poster appears inside an apartment building, where one would not expect to find advertising of any kind.
As depicted in the poster, Big Brother is young enough to seem full of energy but also old enough to seem authoritative, confident, and wise. He seems to be about forty-five: neither too young nor too old to be dismissed either as immature or as lacking vitality. His “heavy black mustache” makes him seem manlier, more masculine, more authoritative and more powerful than he might have seemed without it. The fact that the mustache is black implies that Big Brother is still in the prime of life; he has not yet begun to go gray. His “ruggedly handsome features” suggest both physical strength and erotic attractiveness: he is the kind of man whom others might find sexually appealing. In short, the image of Big Brother is designed to convey many different attributes of power: strength, attractiveness, youth, size, and authority. The fact that his eyes (as we later learn) seem to follow the movements of anyone who views the poster only makes him seem even more powerful. It is as if the poster itself is in some ways alive. Meanwhile, the slogan printed beneath Big Brother’s picture is more intimidating than any other aspect of the work. It is possible to imagine how the mere picture itself might seem appealing and reassuring (especially if Big Brother were shown smiling, with a friendly twinkle in his eye). Instead, the slogan seems distinctly threatening and unnerving.