Big Brother (Nineteen Eighty-Four)

Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949.

Big Brother
First appearanceNineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Created byGeorge Orwell
OccupationLeader of Oceania

He is ostensibly the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling party Ingsoc wields total power "for its own sake" over the inhabitants. In the society that Orwell describes, every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens (with the exception of the Proles). The people are constantly reminded of this by the slogan "Big Brother is watching you": a maxim that is ubiquitously on display.

In modern culture, the term "Big Brother" has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance.

Character origins

In the essay section of his novel 1985, Anthony Burgess states that Orwell got the idea for the name of Big Brother from advertising billboards for educational correspondence courses from a company called Bennett's during World War II. The original posters showed J. M. Bennett himself, a kindly-looking old man offering guidance and support to would-be students with the phrase "Let me be your father." According to Burgess, after Bennett's death, his son took over the company and the posters were replaced with pictures of the son (who looked imposing and stern in contrast to his father's kindly demeanor) with the text "Let me be your big brother".

Additional speculation from Douglas Kellner of the University of California, Los Angeles argued that Big Brother represents Joseph Stalin.[1][2] Another theory is that the inspiration for Big Brother was Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information until 1945. Orwell worked under Bracken on the BBC's Indian Service. Bracken was customarily referred to by his employees by his initials, B.B., the same initials as the character Big Brother. Orwell also resented the wartime censorship and need to manipulate information which he felt came from the highest levels of the Minister of Information and from Bracken's office in particular.

Portrayal in the novel


In the novel, it is never made clear whether Big Brother is or had been a real person, or is a fictional personification of the Party, similar to Britannia and Uncle Sam. Big Brother is described as appearing on posters and telescreens as a man in his mid-40s. In Party propaganda, Big Brother is presented as one of the founders of the Party.

At one point, Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell's novel, tries "to remember in what year he had first heard mention of Big Brother. He thought it must have been at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London".

In the book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, read by Winston Smith and purportedly written by Goldstein, Big Brother is referred to as infallible and all-powerful. No one has ever seen him and there is a reasonable certainty that he will never die. He is simply "the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world" since the emotions of love, fear and reverence are more easily focused on an individual (if only a face on the hoardings and a voice on the telescreens) than an organisation. When Winston Smith is later arrested, O'Brien repeats that Big Brother will never die. When Smith asks if Big Brother exists, O'Brien describes him as "the embodiment of the Party" and says that he will exist as long as the Party exists. When Winston asks "Does Big Brother exist the same way I do?" (meaning is Big Brother an actual human being), O'Brien replies "You do not exist" (meaning that Smith is now an unperson; an example of doublethink).

As part of his work in the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith had creatively composed speeches which he attributed to Big Brother, and which were taken up by the Party authorities and published as authentic utterances of Big Brother - which in effect means that to some degree Smith himself was Big Brother.

Cult of personality

Big Brother is the subject of a cult of personality. A spontaneous ritual of devotion to "BB" is illustrated at the end of the Two Minutes Hate ritual:

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmic chant of 'B-B! . . . B-B! . . . B-B!'—over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first 'B' and the second—a heavy murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamps of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.[3]

Though Oceania's Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Plenty and Ministry of Peace each have names with meanings deliberately opposite to their real purpose, the Ministry of Love is perhaps the most straightforward as "rehabilitated thought criminals" leave the Ministry as loyal subjects who have been brainwashed into adoring (loving) Big Brother, hence its name.

The term "ministry" implies that each of these ministries is headed by a minister. If so, however, these ministers seem to be shadowy figures, whose names, words and acts are not publicized - public attention being focused solely on Big Brother.

Film adaptations

The character, as represented solely by a single still photograph, was played in the 1954 BBC adaptation by production designer Roy Oxley.

In the film starring John Hurt released in 1984, the Big Brother photograph was of actor Bob Flag.

In the 1955 film adaptation, Big Brother was represented by an illustration of a stern looking disembodied head.

Both Oxley and Flag sported small moustaches.

Criticism and use as metaphor

Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the phrase "Big Brother" has come into common use to describe any prying or overly-controlling authority figure and attempts by government to increase surveillance. Big Brother and other Orwellian imagery are often referenced in the joke known as the Russian reversal.

Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger jokingly mentioned in their 1956 book Blood Royal the sentence: "Without Little Father need for Big Brother", referring to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.[4]

The worldwide reality television show Big Brother is based on the novel's concept of people being under constant surveillance. In 2000, after the United States version of the CBS program Big Brother premiered, the Estate of George Orwell sued CBS and its production company Orwell Productions, Inc. in federal court in Chicago for copyright and trademark infringement. The case was Estate of Orwell v. CBS, 00-c-5034 (ND Ill). On the eve of trial, the case settled worldwide to the parties' "mutual satisfaction", but the amount that CBS paid to the Orwell Estate was not disclosed. CBS had not asked the Estate for permission. Under current laws, the novel will remain under copyright protection until 2020 in the European Union and until 2044 in the United States.

The December 2002 issue of Gear magazine featured a story about technologies and trends that could violate personal privacy moving society closer to a "Big Brother" state and utilised a recreation of the movie poster[5] from the film version of 1984.[6] The magazine Book ranked Big Brother No. 59 on its 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 list.[7] Wizard magazine rated him the 75th greatest villain of all time.[8]

The iconic image of Big Brother (played by David Graham) played a key role in Apple's "1984" television commercial introducing the Macintosh.[9][10] The Orwell Estate viewed the Apple commercial as a copyright infringement and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and its advertising agency. The commercial was never televised again,[11] though the date mentioned in the ad (24 January) was but two days later, making it unlikely that it would have been re-aired. Subsequent (now posthumous) ads featuring Steve Jobs (for a variety of products including audio books) have mimicked the format and appearance of that original ad campaign, with the appearance of Jobs nearly identical to that of Big Brother.[12][13] In 2008, The Simpsons spoofed Apple's Big Brother commercial in an episode entitled "Mypods and Boomsticks".[14]

Computer company Microsoft patented in 2011 a product distribution system with a camera or capture device that monitors the viewers that consume the product, allowing the provider to take "remedial action" if the actual viewers do not match the distribution license.[15] The system has been compared with 1984's telescreen surveillance system.[16]

A series of laws intended to implement the European Union Data Retention Directive in Romania were nicknamed "the Big Brother laws" by Romanian media and civil society as they would have led to blanket storage of citizens' telecommunications data for six months.[17] All of these laws were struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Romania and the Directive itself was ultimately invalidated by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

In the 2010 video game Bioshock 2, there is an enemy named the Big Sister. The phrase "Big Sister is watching" is a reference to the 1984 phrase "Big Brother is watching".[18]

China's Social Credit System has been described as akin to "Big Brother" by detractors, where citizens and businesses are given or deducted good behavior points depending on their choices.[19]

See also


  1. "Douglas Kellner, George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair, UCLA". Archived from the original on 9 July 2011.
  2. "From 1984 to One-Dimensional Man: Critical Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 August 2011.
  3. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  4. Iain Moncreiffe & Don Pottinger (1956). Blood Royal. Thomas Nelson and Sons. p. 18.
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 11 September 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. "Big Brother is Watching You – George Orwell 1984 Movie Prop Print". Archived from the original on 10 February 2010.
  7. Christine Paik (19 March 2002). "100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900". NPR.
  8. Wizard #177
  9. Remembering the '1984' Super Bowl Mac ad ZDNet, 23 January 2009
  10. Apple's 'Big Brother' sequel BBC News, 30 September 2009
  11. William R. Coulson ‘Big Brother’ is watching Apple: The truth about the Super Bowl's most famous ad The Dartmouth Law Journal, 25 June 2009 Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  12. Farrell, Nick (9 October 2009). "Steven Jobs is the new Big Brother". the Inquirer.
  13. Gianatasio, David (16 December 2010). "Steve Jobs (once again) cast as Big Brother". AdWeek.
  14. Siegler, MG (1 December 2008). "The Simpsons Apple spoof likely has many wondering what a "myCube" is". VentureBeat.
  15. "Content distribution regulation by viewing use". Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  16. Evans, Robert (12 November 2012). "Kinect Makes 1984 Reality: Well, one part anyway". Archived from the original on 7 October 2014. .
  17. "Traian Basescu a promulgat asa numita 'lege Big Brother' care prevede stocarea pentru sase luni a datelor de trafic ale tuturor utilizatorilor de telefonie si internet".
  18. 2K Games (9 February 2010). Bioshock 2. Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC. 2K Marin. Big Sister is Watching
  19. "Big brother: China's data-driven Social Credit system sounds like a sci-fi dystopia". The National. 26 September 2018.
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