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


Mark Poster’s comments on the Foucauldian concept of “governmentality,” which the French philosopher developed in a 1978 essay, are relevant here.  In terms of the amount of control exerted by authorities, “governmentality” went beyond mere “sovereignty” of monarchs in the Early Modern Period:  “Also known as bio-power, governmentality extended the reach of the state in a productive if highly dangerous manner.  One feature of bio-power that has been of interest to many scholars is the state’s need to gather vast amounts of information about the population in order to pursue effectively its goal of regulation.  With the advent of computer databases, something Foucault himself did not address as a problem, the knowledge gathered by states (and corporations) dramatically expands in scope and, through its speed of access, effectiveness.  I have labeled this coupling of governmentality and computers a ‘super-panopticon’ to indicate its connection and difference with Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon in Discipline and Punish” (Poster, pp. 359-360).


Foucault’s comments on surveillance provide a convenient theoretical framework for 1984, one that, in effect, acts as a supplement to the written principles of “Goldstein,” O’Brien, et.al. Indeed, the ending of 1984, in which Winston is imprisoned, intimidated, and eventually “converted,” thanks to the efficacy of surveillance techniques in Oceania, has few fictional counterparts for demonstrating the tactics of repressive governments.


The milieu in 1984 is more Foucauldian than Benthamesque, more power-driven than people-driven. It is in the last part of the novel, during Winston’s conversation in prison with O’Brien, that his formal political education, begun by his reading of selected chapters of “Goldstein’s” work, is completed by O’Brien.  For Winston, in fact, it seems to be O’Brien, not Big Brother, who is the embodiment of the State.  O’Brien informs Winston unequivocally what the Party’s true goal is: “’The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.  We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power...pure power’” (p.135).  And, O’Brien continues, “‘Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation.  Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing’”(p. 177).


Winston learns that the Thought Police have been watching his every movement for seven years.  They know everything about him; no diary entry, no gesture, virtually no thought of his has remained outside their detection.  Now he must endure the Party’s sadistic punishments:  the unending inquisitorial sessions, the unmerciful beatings on every part of his body, the excruciating electroshock treatments, all within the subterranean confines of the ironically named Ministry of Love.  O’Brien says Winston is insane and must be cured; i.e., he must abandon his individual views and ideas, in favor of those demanded by the Party.  In spite of much resistance, he finally yields to the Party doctrine that there is no objective past or reality or truth: they are all determined by the Party.


Winston’s re-education, or “‘reintegration,’” to use O’Brien’s term, has three stages: “‘There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance’” (p. 173).  Winston successfully passes through the first two stages, the intellectual stages, which entail knowing and obeying Party requirements.  He has yet to attain the third and highest stage:  acceptance, which implies total emotional alteration.  When asked about his true feelings towards Big Brother, Winston replies to O’Brien, “‘I hate him.’”  It is not enough, O’Brien responds, merely to obey: “‘You must love Big Brother’” (p.187).


In an astute historical explanation, O’Brien explains to Winston that past autocratic groups, such as the Medieval Inquisition, trying to stamp out heresy, or the Russian leaders in their purges, did not go far enough:  they simply executed dissidents without changing their opinions.  “‘But we,’” O’Brien gleefully declares, “‘make the brain perfect before we blow it out. ... We make [the rebel] one of ourselves before we kill him’” (p.169).  Before receiving the much-anticipated, well-placed bullet in the back of the head at some unspecified future time, Winston must willingly forgo all traces of resistance and enter the final stage, acceptance.


The crossover from stage two to stage three, complete psychological conversion, requires a different form of torture, more subtle and even more effective than brutal beatings or the pain of electric shock: a visit to Room 101. Winston’s mentor and principal torturer, O’Brien, defines Room 101 as the place where the prisoner experiences the “‘worst thing in the world’” (p. 188).  “’Pain is not always enough,’” O’Brien insists. “‘But for everyone there is something unendurable—something that cannot be contemplated’” (p. 189).  For Winston, that something is a cage full of rats.


Twenty-four-hour surveillance has uncovered Winston’s bête noire, his greatest fear.  Tied to a chair without being able to move his head, Winston is threatened with having his head pushed into a cage full of vicious rats—carnivores, as O’Brien coolly remarks.  “‘They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.’...O’Brien moved the cage nearer.”  Winston is terrified: “There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness.  Everything had gone black.  For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal.” Then, in his terror, loosening the one remaining tie of loyalty to another human being, he screams out the ultimate betrayal of his former lover:  :‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her.  Tear her face off, strip her to the bones’” (p. 190).  At this point he belongs completely to the Party. 


Subsequently Winston follows the pattern of other converted prisoners.  He is released from prison, for the authorities no longer care about him.  He can do whatever he likes; he has become a non-person.  Like many others before him, he sits at a bar sipping Victory Gin, ignored by all but the waiters.  The authorities have given him a meaningless but higher-paying job than the one he used to have, altering the past on official records for the Ministry of Peace.  Whereas he used to ignore the propaganda spewing from Oceania’s telescreens, now he sits mesmerized by all the fabricated news accounts of Oceania’s military triumphs over the country’s enemies.  He inadvertently bumps into Julia one day.  It is an uncomfortable situation:  each has changed physically and psychologically; each admits betraying the other; and, finding this accidental encounter unpalatable, each is happy to leave the other as soon as possible.


In the final paragraph of 1984 we learn how complete is the victory of the State (read “O’Brien”) over Winston.  Seated at his usual table in the bar, he “gazed up at the enormous face...Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose.  But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother” (p. 197).


The Lexicon of 1984:  Big Brother, Thought Police, Doublethink


A writer can be his own toughest critic.  Thus Orwell was not entirely satisfied with 1984.  In a letter to F[redric] J[ohn] Warburg (October 22, l948), Orwell wrote, “I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of T.B.”  He also told Warburg, interestingly enough, that he had not “definitely fixed on the title but [was] hesitating between Nineteen Eighty-four and The Last Man in Europe” (p. 284).


Undeniably 1984 has had its detractors, but they appear to be outnumbered by its defenders.  One of them is Irving Howe, a major twentieth-century critic, who has called l984 a “remarkable book” (“1984: History as Nightmare,” p. 321).


In answering the frequently heard charge that 1984 lacks “credible or ‘three-dimensional’ characters,” Howe reminds these objectors that fully rounded characters would cancel out one of Orwell’s primary goals:  “In 1984 Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime. ... Orwell has imagined a world in which the self, whatever subterranean existence it manages to eke out, is no longer a significant value...” (“1984:  History as Nightmare,” p.322).


Furthermore, in spite of the lack of three-dimensional characters, 1984 has its poignant moments.  As contemporary novelist Thomas Pynchon declares, “The scene toward the end where Winston and Julia meet again, after the Ministry of Love has forced each to betray the other, is as disheartening as any in fiction” (“Foreword,” pp. xxii-xxiii). 


Moreover, Orwell, a lover of words and one of the most precise of writers, has made significant contributions to the political vocabulary of the English language:  “Big Brother,” for example, and “Thought Police” are now listed in many contemporary dictionaries—and so is “doublethink,” the Inner Party requirement of all its citizens that they be able to hold contradictory ideas or modes of thought simultaneously.  Most of all, for his keen insights into the workings of totalitarian states, Orwell deserves to be called, as some have insisted, the greatest political novelist of the twentieth century.






(1) All page references to 1984 are from Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd ed. New York et.al.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.




“Dystopia.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. 3. 1987.


Foucault, Michel.  “The Eye of Power.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977.  Ed. Colin Gordon. Trans. Colin Gordon, et.al. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.  pp. 146-165.


Foucault Michel.  “Panopticism.”  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. l975.  Trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977. New York: Vintage Books. 2nd ed. 1995. pp. 195-228.


Howe, Irving. “1984: History as Nightmare.” In Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd ed. New York et.al.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. pp. 320-332.


Orwell, George. from “Letter to F.J. Warburg—October 22, 1948.” In Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd ed. New York et.al.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. p. 284.


Orwell, George. 1984. 1949. In “1984: History as Nightmare.” In Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd ed. New York et.al.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. pp. 3-205.


Poster, Mark. “Foucault, Michel.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005. pp. 357-360.


Pritchett, V.S. “Review of 1984.” 1949.   In Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd ed. New York et.al.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. pp. 291-292.


Pynchon, Thomas.  Foreword. Nineteen Eighty-four. By George Orwell.  Afterword by Erich Fromm.  New York et.al.: Plume-Harcourt Brace, 2003. pp. vii-xxvi.

Back to Archive

Paul D. Green

Image © Peter Groesbeck



© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5