Police State Rising:  The Function of Surveillance in Orwell’s 1984


In 1984 the archetypal instrument of surveillance is the telescreen, which may be dimmed but never entirely shut off. Winston later learns that even the privileged members of the Inner Party may not turn off their telescreens for more than a half-hour at a time.  There are few places in his apartment where he can escape the unceasing vigil of the Thought Police, who monitor virtually everything citizens say and do. Every morning Winston, who is not athletically inclined, is forced to do government-mandated exercises in front of the telescreen, subjected to the undignified shouts and reproaches of a female exercise instructor for not following her instructions accurately.  And later, when Winston, the incipient rebel, wishes to write in a diary that he has purchased (an action that is punishable “by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp”) (p.6), he must hold the diary at an angle that prevents it from being viewed on the telescreen—especially since at one point he starts “printing in large neat capitals—DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER—over and over again, filling half a page” (p. 14).


The telescreen not only watches and listens: it chatters twenty-four hours a day and/or plays military music to instill appropriate patriotic instincts.  What it imparts is pure propaganda about the successes of Big Brother’s regime—the only kind of information Oceania’s citizens get.  For example, Winston hears “the voice from the telescreen...still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan” (p.4)—another echo, surely, of Stalinist Russia.  In other words, the telescreen provides constant surveillance and uninterrupted brainwashing.


The telescreens are in public places as well as in private residences—on the streets, in the workplaces, in the cafeterias—trumpeting their nonsense about pig iron and production quotas and, in a grimly ironic phrase, reminding all within earshot of “our new happy life” (p. 40).  Winston’s assessment of his “happy life” is hardly reassuring:  “In any time that he could accurately remember there had never been quite enough to eat, one had never had socks or underclothes that were not full of holes, furniture had always been battered and rickety, rooms underheated, tube trains crowded, houses falling to pieces, bread dark-colored, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient—nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin” (p.41).  The difference between his life and that of O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who briefly entertains Winston and his girlfriend Julia, is dramatic:  O’Brien has a very comfortable, well-appointed house with servants; he serves his guests sumptuous food and real wine.  Orwell’s message about the privileged few of society and the suffering, overpropagandized many, made to believe in their “new happy life,” couldn’t be any clearer.


When Winston and Julia, who shares his hatred of their oppressive government, look for places without telescreens to have their trysts, Julia, the more experienced of the two, with numerous love affairs in her background, recommends two places:  a deserted wood, with singing birds and bluebells, a short-lived pastoral retreat that, sadly, reminds Winston of a place he has dreamed about that he calls the “Golden Country”; the other place, a desolate and depressing spot, is “the belfry of a ruined church” (p. 85).  But neither place is without its hazards:  the woods are full of hidden microphones and the trip to the church tower is fraught with dangers.  Subsequently they have brief meetings on “crowded pavements, not quite abreast and never looking at one another,” where “they carried on a curious, intermittent conversation which flicked on and off like the beams of a lighthouse, suddenly nipped into silence by the approach of a Party uniform or the proximity of a telescreen...” (p. 85).  Julia calls these interrupted conversations “’talking by installments’” (p.86).


Aside from their political dissent their love affair is a capital crime, but—one of many Kafkaesque situations in their world—there are no laws in Oceania so no one can be accused of breaking a law.  Paradoxically, however, anyone can be arbitrarily accused of committing “thoughtcrime”; and as Winston notes in his diary, “Thoughtcrime does not entail death:  thoughtcrime IS death” (p.20).  Goldstein’s more detailed entry in his political treatise sheds little light on the matter:  “Thoughts and actions which, when detected, mean certain death are not formally forbidden, and the endless purges, arrests, tortures, imprisonments and vaporizations [i.e., disappearances, along with every trace or record that proves a person once existed] are not inflicted as punishment for crimes that have actually been committed, but are merely the wiping out of persons who might perhaps commit a crime at some time in the future” (pp.140-141).  A citizen’s only guides to action are “right opinions” and “right instincts” (p.141).


In 1984’s Big Brother universe, intimacy—love, sex, the marriage of true minds—was forbidden (not illegal, just forbidden).  The Party wished “not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act”; similarly, procreation—“to beget children for the service of the Party”—was the “only recognized purpose of marriage” (p. 45).  With a view similar to the one that Victorian women often passed on to their daughters, “sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema” (p.45).  In its attempt to squelch erotic pleasure, the Party is quite successful with women like Katharine, Winston’s former wife, who gives sexual intercourse two names:  “making a baby” and “our duty to the Party” (p.46).  Needless to say, their sex life brings Winston no joy.


Julia’s approach is quite different from Katharine’s.  Though she belongs to the Junior Anti-Sex League, “which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes” (p. 45), her real feelings are just the opposite. For her, sex is rebellion.  At their first rendezvous she tells Winston that she has had sex scores of times.  He is delighted:  “Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple, undifferentiated desire:  that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.”  And after their first round of lovemaking, he thinks to himself smugly: “It was a blow struck against the Party.  It was a political act” (p. 84).



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Paul D. Green

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