|“||We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn-by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation-anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature.||„|
|~ Extract from O'Brien's infamous monologue the will to oligarchy.|
|“||If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.||„|
O'Brien is one of the two main antagonists (alongside Big Brother) in George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is a member of INGSOC's Inner Party. The protagonist Winston Smith, feels strangely drawn to him. Orwell never reveals O'Brien's first name.
In the 1984 film version of the story, he was portrayed by the late Richard Burton in his last role prior to his death. In the 1956 film, O'Brien was renamed O'Connor, possibly to avoid confusion with Edmund O'Brien, who also played Winston. He was portrayed by the late Michael Redgrave.
In the 1954 BBC Television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was portrayed by the late André Morell. In the 1953 adaptation on CBS's anthology series Studio One, he was portrayed by the late Lorne Greene.
Winston suspects that O'Brien is secretly opposing the Party. Eventually, O'Brien approaches Winston with some leading remarks which seem to confirm Winston's suspicions. Winston finds the courage to approach him candidly, declaring himself an enemy of the totalitarian state. At first, Winston's intuition seems to be correct: O'Brien presents himself as a member of the "Brotherhood" seeking to overthrow the Party. In truth, O'Brien is an agent of the Thought Police and is completely loyal to the party and to INGSOC. He is part of a false flag resistance movement whose real goal is to find thought-criminals (citizens who think something that is deemed to be unacceptable by the party), lure them in by pretending to be on their side, then arrest and "cure" them.
O'Brien is next seen shortly after Winston is arrested by the Thought Police. He reveals himself as he enters the cell by responding to Winston's exclamation, "They've got you too!", by wryly commenting, "They got me a long time ago."
Over several weeks, O'Brien tortures Winston to cure him of his "insanity," in particular his "false" notion that there exists an external, self-evident reality independent of the Party; O'Brien explains that reality is simply whatever the Party says it is.
He is entirely honest about the brutal cynicism of the Party; the Party does not seek power to do anything well, but simply to revel in that power: "Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."
Even in the torture scenes, there is a strange intimacy that persists between Winston and O'Brien, who displays an uncanny ability to infer what Winston is thinking. O'Brien even states that Winston's mind appeals to him, and that it resembles his own mind, except that Winston happens to be insane. Eventually, in Room 101, O'Brien tortures Winston into submission so that he "willingly" embraces the philosophy of the Party.
- O'Brien was partly inspired by the character of Gletkin from Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon. The torture scenes (undertaken by O'Brien) were influenced in part by the stories leaked out of the USSR of the punishments inflicted on political prisoners in mental hospitals and the Gulags.
- The choice of the clearly Irish surname is regarded as a reference to Brendan Bracken, 1st Viscount Bracken, under whom Orwell worked during the war creating propaganda, and whom Orwell detested. In what has been described as "one of the strangest coincidences in literature", it was revealed in 2003 that O'Brien was the codename of NKVD agent Hugh O'Donnell, who received reports on the author from his subordinate David Crook when Crook spied on Orwell during the Spanish Civil War.