O’Brien is a member of the Inner Party in Oceania. He’s in the Party’s upper ranks, meaning he is allowed to live a very different life from that of the normal Party members or the proles. He has far more freedom than Winston Smith does but is also an integral part of the way the Party operates.
He is best remembered in the novel for tricking Winston Smith into thinking he will be inducted into the Brotherhood, a group of rebels led by Emmanuel Goldstein, trying to bring down the Party and Big Brother.
O’Brien gives Winston Smith the famous novel, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism (supposedly written by Goldstein), and tells him to read it and learn everything he can. It’s later revealed that O’Brien wrote the book or that he, along with other Inner Party members, put it together to trick and manipulate people like Winston Smith who see through the Party’s manipulative facade.
O’Brien is a much-debated character Winston Smith first meets at the Ministry of Truth, where they both work. He far outranks Smith, so the two have never spoken before. For one reason or another, Smith suspects that O’Brien is different than everyone else, that perhaps, like Smith himself, he hates and disagrees with the Party.
Unfortunately for Winston Smith, this proves to be false. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that O’Brien is trapping Winston and ensuring that both he and Julia would be arrested in the future. O’Brien learned more about Smith than the latter would’ve hoped, eventually resulting in the climactic torture scene in which O’Brien discusses the nature of the Party with Smith and exposes him to his biggest fear— rats.
Orwell did not spend too much time discussing O’Brien’s actual job. Readers learn that he works in an administrative, managerial position in the Ministry of Truth. This means he does not spend time with the normal Party members, like Winston Smith and Julia. Instead, he oversees some parts of the Ministry of Truth.
It’s likely that the plan he put Winston Smith through is something he’s done multiple times and is likely part of his job description. He can appear like a convincing friend, someone to whom isolated Party members can confess they’re true feelings.
O’Brien is a physical representation of the Party, Big Brother, and the cruelty of Winston Smith’s world. Smith is tricked into believing he has an ally and friend, only to later realize that he was being played all along. O’Brien is a key part of the novel, particularly as it comes to a close. He is a way for Orwell to explain the Party infrastructure to the reader while alluding to its incomprehensible cruelty.
O’Brien’s dialogue is some of the most important in 1984. Here are a few well-known quotes from the novel that demonstrate O’Brien’s character and importance:
You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party? If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face—are you prepared to do that?
This is a well-known quote from 1984 that O’Brien speaks to Winston Smith. He asks Smith about his dedication to overthrowing or weakening the “power of the Party” and asks him to prove his devotion by swearing he’d do anything, even throw acid in a child’s face. Smith agrees with O’Brien’s assertion, which comes back to haunt him at the novel’s end. O’Brien reminds Winston of his answer, using it as evidence for why the Party is necessary.
Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.
This is a chilling quote from the last section of 1984. O’Brien is explaining to Winston how powerful the Party is and how their methods will transform him. He’ll no longer have an independent thought or be capable of “love or friendship.” This goes beyond what Winston and Julia thought the Party was capable of.
Prior to their arrest, the two were in agreement that no matter how much they were tortured, the Party couldn’t get into their minds or hearts and change how they really feel. This is proven to be false when the two meet again after their independent torture session.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
Here, O’Brien shares his view of the Party, simple Party members like Winston Smith, and the rest of society. He knows that the Party is going to triumph and that there will be no hope for people who want to rebel against it. The Party is so powerful that it will act as a boot, stomping on a human face “forever.” It will completely obliterate all free will and thoughts of rebellion.
What does O’Brien symbolize in 1984?
O’Brien symbolized the cruelty and complexity of the Party in 1984. He is the face of the Party, and therefore a physical manifestation of Big Brother.
Did O’Brien betray Winston in 1984?
Yes, O’Brien did betray Winston in 1984. But, more importantly, he was never on Winston’s side, to begin with. He was tricking Smith into believing he was a comrade so that he could arrest him in the future.
Why is O’Brien torturing Winston?
O’Brien explains that he had to torture Winston, or the Party had to torture Winston, to cure him of his “insanity.” This is a classic 1984-style assertion that alludes to the complete control the Party has to have over its citizens.