George Orwell’s 1984 is, at first glance, a critique of totalitarian styles of government, according to which the citizenry of the state are completely manipulated by those who hold power. From this perspective, the novel is entirely a description of the greatest catastrophes of secular culture, whereby the ascendancy of a hegemonic political power ultimately determines in a horribly oppressive manner the lives of those who fall under this regime. However, from another viewpoint, the totalitarian government of 1984 could also be compared to theological conceptions of God. Namely, the central figure of Big Brother in 1984 may be interpreted as conveying a similarity to a concept of God, such that the form of an invisible leader is conceived as governing and mandating the lives of those who are subsumed to this rule.
Arguably, one of the key features of the Big Brother figure in Orwell’s 1984 is that he is continually absent. Namely, continual references throughout the work are made to Big Brother, such that the reader almost anticipates meeting this character somewhere in the work. Nevertheless, the encounter with Big Brother never does occur; instead, characters such as Winston Smith watch as their entire lives unfold underneath the threat of this omnipresent character. In this sense, Big Brother exists as the dominant hegemonic figure of the totalitarian landscape of 1984; Big Brother is the one that acts as a certain maintainer of authority within this bleak dystopian scenario. However, at the same time, the actual presence of Big Brother is absent in the novel itself: Big Brother rather functions as, from this viewpoint, a certain symbol of authority figures.
There are clear parallels in this reading to theological conceptions of God. God as someone who is beyond the world but at the same time gives the world its order and meaning, its law, is a constant motif in monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In other words, although God is never present in the world, God’s authority exists in the world, and thus, institutions such as churches exist which promote the authority of an invisible ruler.
From this viewpoint, the Big Brother figure of 1984 bears a close resemblance to theological conceptions of God. This is primarily rooted in the sense in which an authority figure can inspire fear, for example, in Orwell’s account of the omnipresent posters of Big Brother, which state “Big Brother is watching you.” The question that arises is the following: who exactly is watching who? When we take a perspective that includes concepts of God, we can understood that what is being manipulated in such accounts is the notion that there is some omniscient and omnipresent power which is ruling over our everyday lives, witnessing every detail. In 1984, this constant surveillance is the dominant fear, in so far as the society lives under the continuous constraint that it will be exposed as a traitor to this society. In this same regard, theological concepts of God can also be said to uphold the rule of law in the form of an invisible ruler, who mandates and overlooks the world, although this same figure of God continuously remains absent. The totalitarian structure of 1984, in this sense, cannot only be understood as a critique of political governments which become oppressive, but also of how theology functions as a form of oppressive governing of the people.
The culture of totalitarian dictatorship, as Orwell stresses, is continually perpetuated by its people, through rituals such as the “two minutes hate”, which are directly commandeered by those in power. However, the people are ultimately driven to these acts by the presence of an omnipresent ruler, who, perhaps, does not even exist. In this absence of Big Brother, Orwell’s critique of oppressive political systems may also be interpreted as a critique of the oppressive nature of religions, which subdue the actions of people through reference to an authoritative figure who demands particular patterns of behavior, perhaps only for the sake of perpetuating the myth of an elite who wish to maintain hegemony.