Character of O’Brien in 1984
Table of Contents
O’Brien A type character
O’Brien is by and large a “type” character. He is never fully developed a human being, and this is fitting since he is a super-intelligent fanatic playing God to Winston. His character does not really develop through the novel. We learn that his chief motivating force is the need for power, just as the Party’s reason for being is power. In a very real way, O’Brien symbolizes the Party and abstract evil as much as Big Brother does. In religious terminology, Big Brother is the God of an evil-Worshipping world; and O’Brien is His high priest. Furthermore, since Big Brother does not exist, the oligarchy (high priests) that rules Oceania is itself the God. O’Brien’s function as high priest is to “save” Winston. His relationship with Winston Smith is complex. He is both teacher and torturer: he is patient as well as ruthless. The bizarre and elaborate measures the Party takes to insure the capture and rehabilitation of Winston is a testament to the intelligence of O’Brien and to the abstract value he sees in Winston as a challenge to the power of the Party.
Orthodoxy inner Party member
O’Brien is an Inner Party member with whom Smith believes he has shared a moment of telepathic rebellion during one of the two-minute Hates: “There was a link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partisanship. Smith comes to think that O’Brien something in whose face suggests political unorthodoxy, is a leader of The Brotherhood. He feels an impulse ‘simply to walk into O’Brien’s presence, announce that he was the enemy of the Party, and demand his help’. He realizes that it is for O’Brien that he is keeping the diary.
An Enigmatic Character
O’Brien is a member of the Inner Party and Winston has felt a secret understanding between them for years. He is a large man, with a prize-fighter’s physique, but he also possesses a curious, almost old-fashioned elegance in the fastidious way he resettles his spectacles on his nose. Winston feels that O’Brien is not perfectly orthodox, that like him he has secret rebellious thoughts, so that when their eyes meet during the Hate Session described in Chapter I Winston is convinced that O’Brien knows of and sympathizes with his attitude. The voice in Winston’s dream that said: “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness is associated with O’Brien. By the end of the novel we know that this place is the Ministry of Truth, and that O’Brien has, over the years, led Winston into the trap of revealing himself.
Beginning of O’Brien-Smith relationship
As in the first relationship with Julia, here also the first comes from the other side. Smith is invited to call at O’Brien’s flat on the pretence of borrowing a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary. Smith feels that at last he has reached the outer edge of the conspiracy-and again the move is associated with death, with stepping into the dampness of a grave he has always known to be there waiting for him.
The bond between torturer and victim is a familiar theme modern writing, especially in the stories of the Czech writer Franz Kafka (1983-1924): here, Winston has this curious feeling of intimacy with O’Brien because through O’Brien the worst possible truth about human nature is revealed. There is a satisfaction in having our fears confirmed, a relief in finding out that what one suspected to be true is true after all. Winston, in the torture chamber of the Ministry of Love, is brought into intimate contact with the cruelty and violence that lie behind the slogans of Ingsoc. O’Brien understands Winston, he is even sympathetic his task is not so much to punish him as to convert him.
A supporter of the Party
O’Brien claims that Goldstein and the Brotherhood really exist as anti-Party forces, and for their sake both Smith and Julia swear to do anything to weaken or demoralize the Party-except to separate and not see each other again. As in the sexual love which leads them to make this exception, so in work for the brotherhood the end will be personal defeat. O’Brien tells them that they are joining the dead :
“there is no possibility that any perceptible changes will happen within our own lifetime……….our only true life is in the future.”
O’Brien’s attempt to make Winston Smith to accept the teaching of the Party
The most detailed characterization of O’Brien occurs in the scenes where he endeavors through argument and torture to make Winston accept the teachings of the Party. In these pages he is often referred to as an inquisitor or as a priest. And the Catholic if not the Irish associations of his name are presumably intended to emphasize this role. His main purpose as Winston Smith’s grand inquisitor is to destroy Smith’s moral and intellectual autonomy and to establish in its place a slavish, unreflecting adherence to the continually changing and contradictory view of the Party about what is false and true, real and unreal. This is his argument:
“Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes. and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.”
O’Brien believes in the subjection of the individual to the Party
The tone of this justification of the subjection of the individual is philosophical : the words are calm and logical. Only as O’Brien moves on to describe the process whereby the Party converts the heretic do we sense the particular impulse of feeling behind them At this point, we scarcely need to be told that O’Brien’s face was filled with a sort of exaltation, a lunatic intensity. For the rhythm of his words and the gloating cruelty which they convey suggest the distorted emotions that are at work:
“When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.”
O’Brien’s craving for power
The joy in having power over’ which is so patent in these words is the next topic to which O’Brien addresses himself. Here at last we are given an explanation of his deepest motives of the raison d’etre of the Party and the social order which it has created and also, in terms of Orwell’s propagandist intention, the way of totalitarianism generally. The fundamental purpose of the Party, O’Brien explains, is the cult of power, power for its own sake, as an end not as a means ‘God is power’ and the members of the Party are the priests of power’. The Party, he implies, is a communion of those devoted to experiencing the sensation of power, something which is achieved through the very act of dominating others. ‘Power,’ says O’Brien, ‘is in inflicting pain and humiliation Power’ he goes on in words that are reminiscent of Dr. Moreau, ‘is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together in new shapes of your own choosing. For this sadistic sensation the Party works to control and to reduce human consciousness.
‘In our world’, says O’Brien, ‘there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy everything. There will be no art, no literature, no science. But always,’ he goes on, there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler.’ O’ Brien concludes this phase of his explanation with an image which serves to make vivid the unmitigated atrocity of the cult of power. “If you want a picture of the future,’ he says, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face-forever”. In the essay “Raflies and Miss Blandish”, first published in 1944, Orwell remarked that the interconnection between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate.” In 1984 and particularly in these words of O’Brien we have Orwell’s most sustained effort to do more than “scratch the edge of the issue. In them we have the distillation of all his long meditations upon what he regarded as the evil peculiarly inherent in modern life.