Modes of Power in "1984" by George Orwell

Hausarbeit, 2014

10 Seiten, Note: 2,3


Table of Contents


The narrative situation

Power through Vision

Power through Words

Power through Mind




1984 is, next to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the central novels characterizing a dystopia. On first reading, the reader is surprised in which numerous ways parts of Orwell‘s visions have become true. By reading about the Party manipulating facts and history in its own favour, the questions how and whether such actions are possible or even in action today emerge.

But 1984 is not primarily a novel about the negative usage of modern technology or a political forecast but moreover a story about how to obtain and maintain power. The novel itself refers to former totalitarian systems and explains why they had to fail. This essay will analyze what mechanisms are shown and used to keep the Party in power.

At first it will be examined how 1984 is narrated and in what way the reader is affected by this. Afterwards, three types of power underlying and shown in 1984 will be researched. Power through Vision will take a look at what part surveillance takes and how the panopticon-principle is applied in the novel. Power through Words names the ambitions of Newspeak and reflects how it influences the novel. Power through Mind concentrates on the procedure of doublethink and how it is shown to be possible in the novel.

The narrative situation

The story of 1984 is a powerful one, a dystopia with global dimensions. But how can this story be told and what narrative system can convey the severity of the plot to the reader? The omnipresent and omniscient narrator describes and sees everything, but would be far away from the reader and prevent the identification of the reader with the protagonist. A personal point of view would bear the disadvantage of ‚subjektiver Beliebigkeit‘1, which would lay a focus only on Winston and by that show only his bordered horizon of perception. The point of view in 1984 is not easy to define because it switches continuous.

The perspective is basically personal. The narrator is not omniscient and uses his knowledge to tell the reader what happens at places where Winston remains.

The reader is bound to the event horizon of Winston. On the other hand there are ‚auktoriale Einschübe‘ (Lange,1975:94) like the act of getting caught by the Thought Police (Orwell,1950:19). This is obviously nothing that Winston has (yet) experienced and the description of the procedure is too detailed to be imaginary. Lange also points out the stilistic device of ‘erlebte Rede‘ (Lange,1975:94). This device tells us in not only in detail, but in a personally by Winston expercienced detail what is happening. When Winston writes into his diary we do not just come to know that Winston is writing ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER‘ five times but also that the gin he drank belches in his stomach (Orwell,1950:18). So we can keep hold of the fact that the narrative situation in 1984 is mostly personal with glimpses of an omnicsient narrator. What effect does this have on the reader?

First, the focus of 1984 lays not on the environment of the novel. The reader does not learn how the cars look like, what the exact gouvernmental system is or how members of the Inner Party interact with each another. The novel does not describe how the world works but only how Winston experiences it. The reader can only see what Winston sees in his wanderings through London or what he has seen before. Apart from that the reader gets to know depictions through Goldstein’s book, but only the parts that Winston is reading. The focus lays on Winston’s experiences, actions and thoughts. And all these bear the benefit that they are not neutral (Lange,1975:96). By showing all the phobias and fears Winston yields, the effect of the world of 1984 on the individual is shown and not just the world. Apart from that, the reader gets possibilities to identify with Winston and his surroundings and feelings.

Power through Vision

One of the fundamental instruments of the Party to maintain power and controlling the Party members is surveillance. This fact by itself does not bring a new thought to light, but the imagined advanced technology in 1984 makes it possible to apply a principle to a large population which until not long ago was only meant for prisoners: the panopticon.

The conception of the panopticon, intentionally designed as a prison by Jeremy Bentham, is futher explained by Michel Foucault in ‘Überwachen und Bestrafen‘2.

Thus is the panopticon a construction on which exterior a ring-shaped building is found (Foucault, 1976:256). A tower with broad windows is arranged in the middle so that, in the case of a prison, every cell is visible from the tower. The cells are solitary cells so that no prisoner has the opportunity to make contact with his or her cellmates. Additionally, the windows of the tower should be prepared in a way that the prisoners on the outside are not capable of looking into the tower. By that it is possible to observe every cell from the tower without being seen. In addition to that the prisoner never knows whether he’s observed or not. Foucault states that by creating a conscious and permanent state of visibility the effect of surveillance is permanent even if its execution is not.

The function of the panopticon would not be further interesting for the understanding of power in 1984, but Foucault does not stop by describing the mode of operation of certain kind of prison. Moreover he abstracts the mechanisms that the inmate and the controller are caught in, and these mechanisms are also seen in 1984. Foucault is sure that the panopticon is not only a form of imprisonment but a form of political technology that can and must be abstracted from its specific application (Foucault, 1976:264).

One connection to the novel is that Winston himself is aware that he could be watched all the time but cannot be sure whether or when he is observed3. This leads, just as Foucault describes, not to insurgent behaviour because he may be right now not be observed but to extreme caution and the attitude that ‘you had to live […] in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and […] every move was scrutinized.‘ (Orwell, 1950:3).

The aftermath of this kind of control has Foucault verbalized himself: ‘Es [the panopticon] programmiert […] das elemtare Funktionieren einer von Disziplinarmechnismen vollständig durchsetzten Gesellschaft.‘ (Foucault, 1976:268). Yet the disciplinary measures have become the ultimate and last instrument and have been replaced with surveillance. The fear of the disciplination through the Thought Police may be urgent, but the it is not the Police that is in the people’s minds, even in deep nature (Orwell, 1950:119).

The society in 1984 is steeped with anxiety of your fellow citizen, friend and even family. It is well described that formerly safe institutions like family or marriage have been indoctrinated (Orwell,1950:24/65) and therefore are another instrument of the panopticon-principle to keep the population visible at all time.

One motive that repeatedly appears in 1984 is the dream respectively the dialogue between Winston and O’Brien about the meeting ‘in the place where there is no darkness‘ (Orwell,1950:103). Foucault shows something actually paradox about the panopticon, because it reverses the function of a dungeon: not by darkness and imprisonment there is control, but by full light and the gaze of the controller (Foucault 1976:257). It might be only a coincedence, but Winston’s arrival in the Thought Police starts with a detention where indeed is nothing more than full light and and the gaze of controllers through four telescreens (Orwell,1950:225).

One more fact, not assured if intentionally or by coincedence, is that Foucault speaks of a ‘fictious relationship‘ between the guard and the observed, just as Winston first phantazises about a special relationship towards O’Brien. And later on during the interrogation, this former fictional relationship gets real as Winston actual develops feelings like love and gratefulness towards O’Brien (Orwell,1950: 252).

One purpose of power is always to gain supremacy over another group, in case a confrontation becomes uninevitable. By looking upon the story of the first two books of 1984, one could say the novel covers the tale of a single man trying and failing to oppose a fictional totalitarian system. By completing the third book the reader realizes an insight that brings him to his knees: It is not about fighting the system, it is about that the system had won from the beginning. Winston finds not a weakness or gap in the surveillance when he rents Mr. Charrington’s room, he is not clever when he reads Goldstein’s book in order to understand the world. This is what also Foucault predicted in a slightly different way: he describes the principle of the panopticon as ‘perpetual victory‘ (Foucault,1976:261). Winston is not more than a rat in a labyrinth, an object to study the characteristics of beginning rebellion in the human mind. He is not capable of doing anything that the Thought Police is not tolerating.

This finding has a keen effect on the reader. By recapitulating the novel and scanning through the events he comes to the conclusion that, just as the panopticon-principle intends, even he as external reader cannot tell whether Winston is or is not observed at any given moment. There may be microphones in the forest, they may be a way to observe Winston’s first entry in his diary. By violating the ultimate saferoom, Mr. Charrington’s chamber, the panopticon-principle behind the political system of 1984 reveals its ultimate and everlasting victory over both Winston and the reader.


1 Lange, Bernd-Peter. 1975. “Literarische Form und politische Tendenz bei George Orwell“. Braunschweiger anglistische Arbeiten, Band 6, 94.

2 Foucault, Michel. 1976.Überwachen und Strafen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

3 Orwell, George. 1950. 1984: A novel. Orlando: Signet Classics. P. 3

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Modes of Power in "1984" by George Orwell
Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel
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modes, power, george, orwell
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Michael Büttner (Autor), 2014, Modes of Power in "1984" by George Orwell, München, GRIN Verlag,


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