“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”
“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (Orwell, p. 4) Some regard George Orwell as one of England’s greatest authors. Orwell was a political writer prominent in the post-World War II era, and clear critic of the totalitarian states that were consolidated or formed during this period. In his novel, 1984, Orwell uses symbols and images to bring life to the characters and scenery along with depth to this dark dystopian story. In this story, how do imagery and symbolism used in the story affect the tone of the novel?
The year is 1984, and Winston Smith cannot make a single move without being monitored. The governing political party the Party, who is behind the surveillance, monitors all of the Party members which are the ruling class of Oceania. Their attempts to control the population do not only stop at surveillance; social control, information control, identity control as well as reality control through rewriting and editing history is the norm in this totalitarian society. Despite this, Winston decides to start keeping an illegal diary. Throughout the story he grows steadily more rebellious, something which is accentuated when he meets Julia. Somehow Winston draws attention to himself by the charismatic O’Brian and they form a friendship, which in itself, given the regime, is rare for members of the Party. This leads to complications that alters Winston’s reality.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (p. 3) This highly symbolic novel starts with a symbol that instantly sets the tone for the readers, who will immediately notice that the clocks were striking thirteen instead of one. Imagining a 24-hour clock leads the thoughts to both the alien way that time could be told as well as lending evidence to the fact that something is fundamentally different. For readers with a cultural influenced by Christianity, the number thirteen is considered an unlucky number. One can explain this by looking at the biblical meaning of the number. There were thirteen people present at the last supper, and usually either Jesus or Judas is considered the thirteenth person. In this case the number thirteen can mean that someone is going to be betrayed or killed. This creates an image that fits to the description of a bright cold day in April, which also can be viewed as a paradoxical image given the location. London is generally warm when there is a bright day in April.
One of the key points in this novel is the attention to the written language. It is clearly seen as a threat by the totalitarian government portrayed in 1984. The goal of the Party is to reduce the number of words in the language, thus limiting the ability to think freely. In newspeak, the prefix Un- is used for negation; therefore, the default English word warm becomes uncold in Newspeak. Moreover, the intellectual concept of the word bad is communicated expressed with the word ungood. By eliminating all negative words, the population is lead to believe that the language is made clearer and more positive, however limiting the diversity of the language also limits the free thought. In turn this leads to easier thought control, as a polarized language will make the thought police have an easier task at catching thought criminals. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it. ” (p.55). Most readers will have connotations to a society where a basic thing like language is also being controlled and altered, which further emphasizes the dark and slightly claustrophobic tone of the novel.
The paperweight is one of the most symbolic objects in this story. The old coral paperweight sold to Winston symbolizes the society before the Party. This easily can be explained by the fact that the paperweight requires a type of handwork that is no longer being used in Oceania. By looking at the paperweight, Winston allows his thoughts to imagine a new world, in which there is no Party and Winston and Julia do not need to hide their love for one another. This becomes Winston’s own utopia, which in turn fills the reader with hope for a brighter future for Winston and Julia, and by this a less dark tone is set. “The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal.” (p. 154)
The paperweight does not only represent happiness and hope. It is known that a paperweight is a heavy object that is used to keep papers in place, and one can look at the paperweight in 1984 as something that keeps Winston grounded or maybe even keep him down. The paperweight may also represent vulnerability and fragility. The glass that surrounds the coral symbolizes protection which is easily shattered the second Julia and Winston were caught by the thought police. They have been as vulnerable as the paperweight all along and all it took was a single strike to break them. This interpretation of the symbol affects the tone in a much more negative way than the one described earlier. “The fragment of coral, a tiny crinkle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat. How small, thought Winston, how small it always was!” (p. 232)
The clearest and most used symbol of the novel is Big Brother. Big Brother is viewed as an omnipotent and undisputed leader of Oceania. In the book Big Brother (or BB in newspeak) never shows his face in public. The readers cannot really be sure that he even exists, and the main character of the novel, Winston, doubts that as well. Readers will early in the book question the existence of Big Brother and this contributes to a tone of scepticism where the reader will question most everything.
“‘Does Big Brother exist?’
‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’
‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’
‘You do not exist.'” (P. 271–272)
The image of Big Brother also draws a clear parallel to Joseph Stalin and his leadership of the Soviet Union from 1924 to his death in 1953. When looking at Winston and Julia’s arrest by the thought police and the way they were tortured in room 101, one can see the similarities between Big Brother and Stalin. When Winston was tortured he was forced to renounce his love for Julia and confess his love to Big Brother. One sees examples of Joseph Stalin doing something similar during his cleansing of the community through his “Great Purge”. Most readers would likely be unsettled by this similarity which underlines the severe tone in this part of the novel. Another similarity is Big Brother`s rewriting of history. Big Brother (and the Party) rewrote history and made changes, so it seems like events occurred differently or that they never occurred at all. An example of this would be Winston remembering that Oceania was at war with Eurasia, although there was no proof this. The parallel drawn to Soviet Russia, we have proof that Joseph Stalin rewrote history erasing the proof of an alliance or covenant between himself and Adolf Hitler during the second world war. Joseph Stalin was the Big Brother of USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). “It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” (Joseph Stalin). This again keeps the slightly claustrophobic tone observed throughout the story.
Several times rats are mentioned in the novel. Peoples general connotation to rats are not looked at as something beautiful, more so the other way around. To call someone a “rat” means that the person is untrustworthy or has betrayed someone. Rats are also seen as a carrier of the plague and represent deprivation and diseases. Furthermore, most people find rats to be disgusting. In the novel, rats represent Winston’s worst fear, and that is something O’Brien uses to his advantage in room 101. As said earlier rats can be a symbol of betrayal, and the protagonist, Winston, is no exception. When he gets a cage filled with two big rats in front of him, Winston decides to turn on his promise to Julia, and betrays her to save himself. This is a turning point, where despair as even the protagonist does not have the power to resist the oppressive regime. At this point, the tone is inarguably at its darkest. “‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual.’ … ‘in your case’ said O’Brien ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats'” (p. 296–297)
Winston constantly exposes himself to Victory Gin even though he has the same negative reaction to it every time. This may be a subconscious acceptance of the regime, and which denotes that the regimes rhetoric and control actually influence even the largest opponents. “He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, gulped it down like a dose of medicine.”(p. 7)
Throughout the novel, Victory Gin is being consumed by Winston. The image of Victory Gin constitutes one of the clearest images used. Winston constantly exposes himself to Victory Gin even though he has the same negative reaction to it every time he drinks it. This may be a subconscious acceptance of the regime, and which denotes that the regime’s rhetoric and control actually influence even its most determined opponents. “He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, gulped it down like a dose of medicine.”(p. 7). This image also frames the storyline of the novel and always bring the reader back to a baseline of futility and despair.
The severe, dark and claustrophobic tone of Orwell’s 1984 is present throughout the novel, although there are some symbols and images that contributes to a less gloomy tone, as discussed with the paperweight symbol. Other images affecting the tone, like the clearing where Winston first makes love to Julia, also contributes to a more positive tone, however, the novel 1984 is fundamentally dystopian.