I’M CURRENTLY re-reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first time I read it I was curled up in the conservatory of a holiday cottage while Andy was suffering from a migraine – I consumed it in one day and the end left me gasping.
It strikes me now as I read it again how the dark terror of the phrase ‘Big Brother’ has been neutralised. Now we think of the ‘Big Brother house’ and rate its inhabitants, and occasionally talk of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ in terms of a surveillance society, but the terror is no longer there in the same way. For those who never read Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘Big Brother’ seems mainly a curtailment of civil liberties and an excess of CCTV.
But the never seen Big Brother of Nineteen Eighty-Four is far more than a mere watcher.
Big Brother is infallible and all powerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration…His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear and reverence… – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Big Brother in the book is essentially a pseudo-divine figure, a creation of the Party for the people to worship and obey. The ‘thought police’ are constantly watching for those who do not hold Big Brother in the highest esteem, to ‘re-educate’ and ‘vaporise’ those who believe otherwise. The job of main character Winston is to rewrite history – constantly changing old records so that Big Brother is always right.
The power of association in this phrase is on its way to being lost…just as many literary figures and metaphors are re-inhabited by modern reinterpretations and commercialisation which don’t pack the original punch.
Reading the book reclaims the chill of the words:
Big Brother is watching you.