George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother: Your Burning Questions Answered

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What is the meaning of ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ in George Orwell’s Book 1984?

George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother is a formidable figure. George Orwell wrote the sentence “Big Brother is watching you” in his novel 1984 (Nineteen Eighty Four). It comes up on the first page and third paragraph of the book. However what most people think of Big Brother today is different from the meaning George Orwell intended in his book.

“Big Brother Is Watching You” – this is the caption that runs underneath a giant poster in George Orwell’s novel. As Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, enters an apartment building he is faced with a giant poster with an enormous face. This face belongs to ‘Big Brother’.

“Even from the coin the eyes pursued you” (p.21)

The giant poster of ‘Big Brother’ was designed so that no matter where you go the eyes follow you about as you move. This is the literal meaning of ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’.

1984 Big Brother is Watching You Poster
Big Brother is Watching You Poster. By CBS Television – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Link

Throughout the book ‘Big Brother’ does not just appear on posters. He also appears as a vast figure on TV screens (pg.12), on coins being used as money (pg. 21), on stamps, on the covers of books, on banners, on the wrappings of cigarette packets (pg. 21), on children’s history books (pg.62), as a giant papier-mâché model two metres wide (pg.83), and as portraits lining the streets (pg.117).

Who is George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother?

Was Big Brother a real person in 1984? The protagonist, Winston Smith, also asks the same question. However the answers he hears back does not curb his want to learn the truth. The answers he receives to his questions are:

“Nobody has ever seen Big Brother” (p.162)

“Does Big Brother exist?”
“Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.” (p.204)

This shows that there was no real identity for Big Brother as revealed in the novel 1984. However if we are to take some examples from history, there probably was at least one main leader who controlled the party.

George Orwell published his novel Nineteen Eighty Four in 1949, so we could see what kind of historical examples he may have looked at when writing his book.

The main example would have been Joseph Stalin who ruled the Soviet Union from the 1920s to his death in 1953. Joseph Stalin initially ruled the USSR as a one-party state governed by plurality but by the 1930s became the dictator of the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin portrait - Cult of Personality
Joseph Stalin portrait. By Resetnyikov –, Public Domain, Link

In a bid to shore up his control of the party and of the USSR, throughout these years Stalin grew a Cult of Personality. This is where he was deliberately portrayed to the people of USSR as a great person who should be admired and loved.

How did he do this? By bringing all artistic and cultural production under state control. In effect, all artists were employed by the state to create products that consistently praised Stalin with all competing points of view eliminated.

So, Was Big Brother a Real Person?

Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 might not be real person. Well, at least Big Brother’s identity is not given. But we can also see similar processes of personality cults with other leaders of totalitarian communist or totalitarian fascist states as well.

These include Joseph Stalin (the Soviet Union – see above), Chairman Mao Zedong (Republic of China), Adolf Hitler (Nazi Germany), Benito Mussolini (fascist Italy), as well as Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un (all three from North Korea).

“Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape.” (p.21)

So here we can see very similar ideas and mechanisms between Cult of Personalities historically around the world and George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother. Even if we are not given any answers to the identity of Big Brother in the novel, it seems according to historical precedent that there must have been at one leader who controlled the one-party state.

Mao Zedong Political Poster
Mao Zedong Political Poster. By Francisco AnzolaPolitical poster Mao, CC BY 2.0, Link

What does Big Brother represent in George Orwell’s 1984?

Big Brother represents the ‘dictatorship of the party’. Essentially this means that the party is represented by Big Brother, both being entities that are always watching and knowing every action and thought of the population.

This is shown by the omnipresent images of Big Brother throughout the novel. The vast face appears everywhere from giant banners within and outside apartment blocks to stamps, coins and the covers of children’s history books.

“Big Brother is the guise in which the Party choose to exhibit itself to the world” (p.162).

Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, continuously describes the eyes of Big Brother in portraits and banners designed so that they seemingly follow you as you move. In effect, it is not just Big Brother who is watching you but the Party itself.

Joseph Stalin portrait march
Joseph Stalin Portrait. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-18684-0002 / Höhne, Erich; Pohl, Erich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

This kind of ever-present surveillance by the party is further emphasized by the telescreens which receive and transmit simultaneously. These telescreens in the novel seem as ubiquitous as televisions or mobiles are in our own world, but with one difference: they can be dimmed but can’t be turned off.

What does Big Brother mean in 2018?

Nowadays, Big Brother is not just a term that has a negative connotation but is also the title of a worldwide popular TV series.

The TV series Big Brother first started in 1999 and was originally a Dutch reality competition TV series that was created by John de Mol. Now Big Brother is a franchise which has different TV series across the world including US, Australia, Canada, China, Africa, the Balkans, Albania, Angola, Belgium, Brazil and lots more.

In each of the different franchises, there is a common premise. That is, housemates (people living in the house) live together in a specifically constructed house that is isolated from the outside world. Housemates are voted out and the last housemate remaining wins a cash prize.

Big Brother TV franchise
Big Brother TV franchise. By Jiaren Lau –, CC BY 2.0, Link

While living in the house, contestants are constantly monitored with a vast array of live television cameras and personal audio devices. Big Brother is used as not only the title of the series but also an omnipresent authority figure who represents the producers of the TV series. The produces give the contestants tasks to do by communicating with them through the Big Brother authority figure.

Is the idea of the TV show Big Brother taken from George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother?

Although the name of the TV series is Big Brother, there is little else in common with George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother.

George Orwell in his novel was attempting to depict a dystopian future in the UK where a totalitarian one party state controls and monitors the thoughts and behaviors of its populace. In the TV series Big Brother, contestants in the house are continuously monitored with TV cameras and audio equipment.

The commonalities are that a group of people are being continuously monitored by cameras and audio. However, in George Orwell’s 1984 the populace has no control over the monitoring. In contrast, in the TV series Big Brother contestants apply for and can withdraw themselves from the house at any time they like.

Big Brother TV Nowegian House 2001
Big Brother TV Norwegian House in 2001. By EzzexOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Also, other reality TV series such as Survivor! have cameras pointed at the contestants for most of the time. If there were some other TV series which attempted to bring other concepts of George Orwell’s series into reality there would most likely some kind of legal ramification.

In particular, one major part of George Orwell’s novel 1984 was about censorship. This is where photographs are edited and public archives modified in order to control the information given to the populace. People who have been eliminated from the party are removed from photographs, and past figures are changed in order to cover up falsehoods in the present.

This kind of censorship comes to the front in maintaining the admiration and love for Big Brother and the Party. However, these kind of themes are absent from the TV series Big Brother.

What is the book 1984 by George Orwell about?

George Orwell’s 1984 is essentially a criticism of totalitarian regimes. He does this by portraying what the future would look like if England itself had become a totalitarian regime controlled by an all-seeing one-party state.

Looking at the historical context, the novel would be a major criticism towards Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship rule over the Soviet Union throughout the 1930s. In particular, George Orwell’s other famous book Animal Farm is based on the criticism of Stalinism. Animal Farm itself deals with the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in 1945, and Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949. Thus we can see that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is a continuation of Orwell’s criticism of totalitarian regimes. In particular, the fearful future where a totalitarian government has complete control over the past, present and future of their populace.

“Does he exist in the same way as I exist?”
“You do not exist,” said Brian. (p.204)

Nowhere is this more evident then in the censorship and monitoring powers of Big Brother and the Party. When one can police the thoughts of citizens and modify the archival records to fabricate new facts, there is little ordinary citizens can do to gain back their rights of privacy and freedom of thought. Or at least that is what Orwell wants to propose in his novel.

Summary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four:

We follow the footsteps and thoughts of the main protagonist, Winston Smith, as he deals with a Britain controlled by a Stalinist totalitarian regime.  Big Brother and his cult of personality totally overwhelm the environment and setting of the novel, while Smith is merely a rank-and-file party member.

Smith secretly hates the Party and Big Brother but must hide his thoughts and intentions from other party members as well as the Thought Police. He attempts to get help from the Brotherhood – a secret underground resistance force. However, things begin to get complicated when Julia (a worker at the ministry) hands Smith a note that simply reads ‘I love you’.

George Orwell's 1984 Nineteen Eighteen Four
George Orwell’s 1984 Nineteen Eighteen Four. By OrwellinoOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Along the way Smith attempts to get help from his boss O’Brien (an inner Party member). However, this does not go along the lines that Smith wanted. In the end there is a bittersweet ending when Smith realizes that he loved Big Brother after all. Essentially, this is not a fairy tale ending but in fact an emphasis of the total power of Big Brother and the Party.

What did you think of George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother? Do you like the ending of the book? Are you only reading this because you have to do a book report that’s due tomorrow? Let me know what other burning questions about George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother you want answered below. 

And always remember:
Big Brother Is Watching You.

George Orwell's 1984 Big Brother
By Frederic Guimont ; Original uploader was ChemicalBit at (former Art Libre licence stated here) ; Transferred from it.wikipedia, FAL, Link

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  1. Great article about Orwell! I’ve been in a very Orwellian mood lately and I appreciate your analysis. The section on pop culture connections was particularly fun. I had forgotten all about thrbTV show!


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