Panopticons in Orwell’s 1984

Written by British novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic George Orwell, the novel Nineteen Eight- Four (often written 1984) was first published in 1949. It is a dystopian novel that follows in the tradition of Zamyatin’s We, Wells’ The Time Machine, and Rand’s novella Anthem. In 1984, Orwell examines the consequences of oligarchy, totalitarianism, and collectivism through the literary lens of a social dissenter. It is important to understand that Orwell is not railing against socialism; in fact, he was an ardent supporter of democratic socialism. The novel 1984 is Orwell’s rebuttal to World War II and communism as a governmental practice.
The novel 1984 is set in London – 35 years into the future – and at the center of the novel are London’s society, its political system, and the interplay between the two. The society in 1984 is dominated by its class differences. There are the proletariat, the ‘outer party’, and the elite ‘inner party.’ The proletariat is the lowest, most common class; they are the poor. The ‘outer party’ is the periphery and is similar to the middle class. Those in the ‘outer party’ do the work of the political system without having any true notion as to why. The ‘inner party’ is the elite, ruling class. They know why the political system functions the way it does and they make all the critical decisions.
The political system of 1984 is a totalitarian collectivist oligarchy, but to those kept ignorant (the proletariat and the ‘outer party’) it often appears as a dictatorship with one central figurehead. Totalitarian collectivism means a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life. An oligarchy is a “form of government in which power effectively rests with a small, elite segment of society.” Orwell defines the need for the type of government in 1984 perfectly through the words of Emmanuel Goldstein who serves as the ultimate nemesis for Orwell’s alternate future. Goldstein writes “… the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly.” The society’s ‘inner party’ functions as the ruling unit of government; however, it remains practical to have a face for the government that the proletariat and ‘outer party’ can identify and rally behind – or fear – whichever the case may be: in 1984, that face is ‘Big Brother.’
A common manifestation of this control is for the society to develop into a form of a panopticon. A traditional panopticon, as defined by Jeremy Benthem, is a prison containing a central watch tower with radiating spokes or an outer wall containing cells. The term panopticon gave rise to the social theory of Panopticism, first presented by Michael Foucault, a French philosopher, in his book, Discipline and Punishment. The citizens of London in Orwell’s 1984 are living in a virtual prison. At the center of their prison, acting as the watch tower is ‘Big Brother’. The citizens of London are also controlled by propaganda and technology.
The propaganda and technology employed by the government in Orwell’s 1984 is extremely intrusive into the daily lives of the citizens. Every household in 1984 is required to have a two-way monitor that serves both as a means of disseminating party announcements and monitoring activities, even in private homes. Young children join The Spies and later the Youth League. The Spies is a group reflective of Hitler’s Nazi youth groups. As members of The Spies, the children are trained and encouraged to report any behavior that goes against the Party. The continual fear of being watched by the government or reported by the neighbor’s child (or your own) is often enough to keep the proletariat and the ‘outer party’ in accordance with Party regulations.
Orwell’s novel, 1984, is his warning about the injustices that are created by communistic governments when allowed exist without external controls and disregard for a majority of its citizens. He is warning society about the dangers of ignorance and in a quiet way, he refers back to the famous Francis Bacon quote and proclaiming that “knowledge is power,” an underlying theme in a lot of dystopian literature.



List of forms of government. (2015, November 4). Retrieved October 29, 2015, from
Orwell, G. (n.d.). IX. In 1984. New York, New York: Penguin Group.

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