ENG 3880 Final Critical project

Nadia Tahreem

ENG 3880

English Studies in the Digital Age

Dr. Jennifer Travis


The Concept and Portrayal of Privacy in Literature


Literature consists of various genres, it would be inappropriate to classify a novel

under a single genre. Certain works of literature have genres inside genres that are already

present. As puzzling as it can perhaps sound, but the subject of privacy is a very important

component of literature and how the concept of privacy is portrayed in literature is

extremely crucial because as citizens of America, the basic right of privacy is granted.

However, it is evident that this freedom is limited, and perhaps it is this very limitation that

novels and films tend to circulate around when it comes to privacy. Novels and films like

The Circle, The Giver, Harry Potter and 1984 revolves around the subject of secrecy and not

surprisingly enough, the topic of privacy and anonymity is portrayed very resolutely and

though perhaps they do not directly deliver the message that privacy is not considered to

be something negative, they definitely can give the audience enough approvals that

elimination of privacy is not beneficial at all.


                                     Privacy is Theft, Secrets are Lies, Sharing is Caring

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers that concerns the topic of privacy and

secrecy. Oddly enough, the main character in this novel is exposed to the philosophy and

ideas that hidden things are generally a bad thing and ought to be eliminated. The company

Mae Holland works for vouches for the idea that everyone should go transparent and

become visible. This novel is a work of fiction, so it does not necessarily suggest that

privacy is a crime in all shapes and forms. But the interesting thing is that the main

character Mae Holland is exposed to many traumatic thoughts and despairing moments as

she tries to go transparent and follow the philosophy of “sharing is caring”. (The Circle,

303) There are conflicts in the novel between those that believe The Circle is trying to

establish totalitarianism, and the end conclusion in the novel somehow suggests that

privacy is neutral, it need not always be something related to thievery or dishonesty. If an

individual was to read this novel, he/she would perhaps come to realize that hidden things

may be considered wrong, but if there is no motivation to hide something, then everything

should be okay. In one sequence of the novel Mae temporarily steals a kayak to visit an

island. She just visited the island, and did not feel the need to tell anyone about it. The only

thing that was wrong in this scenario was that Mae had no knowledge of whom the kayak

belonged to, but her intentions were not to steal the kayak permanently, a reader can

assume so from reading. In fact, the word ‘steal’ is not necessarily right, she just ‘borrowed’

the kayak:

“Then she had a thought. The water was just thirty yards away, and she knew

that she could easily drag it to shore. Would it be theft to borrow a kayak that

had already been borrowed? She wasn’t lifting it over the fence, after all; she

was only extending the borrowing that someone else had extended. She

would return it in an hour or two, and no one would know the difference.”

(The Circle, 264)


Mae intends to return the kayak that had already been used by someone else, and

yet her actions were perceived as an action of intentional thievery, according to her boss

and colleagues. Though majority of the characters in this novel appear to be advocating

against privacy, the novel also features a character that is against the policies of The Circle,

and tries to warn Mae that The Circle is trying to establish a totalitarian type of society. It is

revealed in the novel that Kalden is one of those who came up with the idea of The Circle

and tells Mae that even in the digital world there must be a maintenance of privacy. The

novel does not give a direct conclusion that privacy is important, but there are a lot of

conflicts of whether or not privacy is actually considered to be criminal activity. In this

context, the concept of privacy is arguable and definitely takes a stand that lack of privacy

in the world can be seen as a totalitarian establishment, something that can be harmful to

society. Mae gets influenced by the company so she also comes to believe that nothing

should be kept hidden in the world, but her parents and ex-boyfriend do not approve of

these ideologies and dislike Mae’s defense of The Circle.



(Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk) An example of a “See Change”

camera that allows people to go transparent in The Circle, and caught Mae Holland stealing

the kayak without anyone’s knowedge and she is confronted by her boss who tells her that

“secrets are lies.”


The plot is set up in such a way that the binary of private vs. public is conflicted with

each other,  and both arguments are presented so as to give each one an equal

understanding of the pros and cons of privacy and publicity. Since both factors are given

without a direct notion of which one is right or better can make the reader vulnerable to

choosing for themselves, though it is granted that they can disagree if the novel did give a

direct opinion. The Circle gives both privacy and publicity importance, but in a very subtle

way, that it all becomes gradual to understand what is right here and what is clearly wrong.



(www.occupy.com) A cartoon depiction of what internet privacy appears to be in the

digital age that is represented in The Circle.


You’ve Got Nothing to Fear, if You’ve Got Nothing to Hide

A popular work of science fiction that encapsulates the act of privacy and more so

secrecy is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Much unlike The Circle, Deathly Hallows

portrays privacy in a more aggressive manner, and is not at all subtle. Deathly Hallows

comprises of multiple genres; mystery, fantasy, war, secrecy, thriller, and in certain cases

the subjects of psychology and philosophy as well as social sciences are adressed. Privacy

now is definitely not questionable, it is a must- do for majority of the characters, because

the novel introduces a form of dictatorship that the fictionalized Ministry of Magic ensues

amongst its citizens, and the main character is ‘wanted for questioning,’ since Harry Potter

is a person of secrets. In this setting, the consequences of privacy are severe indeed, and

just goes on to show at mutiple times the corruption of government surveillance. The lives

of many people are threatened simply because of the interference of the Ministry of Magic

of an individual’s daily lives. After the death of Albus Dumbledore, the entire Wizarding

World fell apart and the Ministry became infiltrated with the activities of Death Eaters, who

insist that these “changes” can help clean up the wizarding community, according to the

standard that they feel is right. If laws become so harsh, then privacy becomes compulsory,

for the sake of self defense and protection. Obviously in this setting, privacy is shown as

something wrong by the negative characters who enjoy dictatorship, but in terms of

righteousness, the lead character safeguards privacy as something equivalent to heroism.



(harrypotter.wikia.com) In this film adaptation of Deathly Hallows, Death Eaters arrest

Ministry employee Dirk Cresswell, who faked his family tree to hide his inferior parentage

from the Death Eaters as they believe in superiority of pure bloods. Privacy is definitely

theft and calls for severe persecution.


Deathly Hallows portrays privacy as an act of heroism against the tyranny of the

totalitarian policies of the Ministry of Magic, so it is evident that privacy calls for

persecution only by those that feel threatened by it. But generally speaking, privacy

definitely has its benefits in this particular text and film.


Thoughtcrime Tyranny


The most common themes or forms that are seriously against secrecy is dystopia.

Dystopian communities and societies are portrayed as the most severe and extreme cases

of totalitarianism, and in such cases standing up or revolting can be seemingly frightening.

Even more terrifying is the fact that artistic works of literature and media that portray

dystopian communities are set for the future, that can make the audience vulnerable into

thinking that the world of tomorrow can hold possible construction of communism or

totalitarinism. 1984 is a dystopian novel that is against individualism and independent

thinking, which is percieved as “thoughtcrime.’ In this particular setting, freedom of

thought is prohibited, let alone actions of privacy. Unlike The Circle and Deathly Hallows,

1984 is a hardcore establishment of a totalitarian regime under the tyranny of some

unkown Big Brother. Big Brother can be comparable to the “See Change” camera from The

  1. Their purpose is meant to capture secrets and expose privacy. Similar to Deathly

Hallows, the main protagonist is a part of this dystopian world but undercover is against

Big Brother. Winston Smith dreams about rebellion from the world he lives in, and as such

he is committing “thoughtcrime”. There is a telescreen situated in every setting of the

novel. This device contains hidden cameras and microphones that assist the thought police

into spying on everyone so as to uncover those individuals who may pose as a threat to Big

Brother’s rule. There is a telescreen present in Winston’s apartment and office. However, in

his apartment, it is revealed that he sits beside the telescreen, not in front of it, and this is

the only way Winston feels he can become invisible to Big Brother and maintain his privacy.

Privacy now has a privacy within itself, and perhaps gets even deeper to the point where

some of it may become invisible or relinquished.


1984 introduces a world that intends to destroy indivualism, and this world is

considered tyrannical, hence this literary work also vouches for the right to privacy. The

novel ultimately delivers the message that constant tyranny is the cause of privacy, which

is why the main protagonist keeps himself confined in his own thoughts rather than

“sharing,” since “sharing” calls for persecution that is likely to be a death sentence.




A telescreen of Big Brother that is present in all parts of the novel. This device can

and is meant to expose privacy and indivual “thoughtcriminals.” However, it is not even

certain if such a leader even exists.


In this typical context, privacy is now a compulsion.The “see change” camera in The

Circle just wanted to be aware of all thoughts and actions, be it good or bad. But in Deathly

Hallows and 1984, there is no freedom for thought or actions, because nothing is the law if

it is right. Everything is now right because it is the law. So now it can be assumed that

literature now wishesv to safeguard privacy, and those that are against secrets are

portrayed as villains. Big Brother is considered the tyrant, and the Ministry of Magic is

considered a dictator of freedom.


Perfection of Sameness

The Giver is a novel that introduces a society as utopian, but very gradually becomes

more and more dystopian. Initially it is revealed that The Community follows a policy of

“sameness”, to help perfect their world. Little or no privacy is allowed in The Community,

and eccentric behaviors, personalities, and appearances are extremely avoided and

frowned upon, sometimes even outlawed.


Privacy in this novel is not accepted, but with somewhat of good intentions. The

main protagonist Jonas is given a job that ultimately helps him realize that The Community

may appear to be perfect, only because the people living in it have no knowledge of a world

that can be better than The Community. It is definitely arguable whether the establishment

of sameness can help eliminate things like descrimiinaion and racism of differences, but

generally in Utopian civilizations, embracing the variety is widely accepted by the majority,

and acceptance of innovation and authenticity is greatly appreciated. So a reader would

obviously be against of living in such a society where privacy is limited and differences are

subdued. As the reader gets a more firm understsnding of The Community Jonas lives in, it

is revealed that this society also has no color, knowledge, or even tolerance. It becomes

more and more unattractive.



(www.glogster.com) A depiction of the society Jonas lives in is presentewd as black and

white, or colorless, hence the contrast of the significantly red apple and green stem.


Like The Circle, Deathly Hallows, and 1984, The Giver also outlaws privacy in the

belief that privacy can come in the way of what the novels present at first, but eventually

the writers of all the four novels mentioned tend to lean towards privacy for the

betterment of all kinds of societies. Neither novels have same societies, but the backdrop is

similar.The subject of privacy in literature somehow tend to deliver a similar message that

privacy itself has various factors, and perhaps it truly depends on how one interprets

privacy and utilizes it makes the difference of how privacy should be percieved. All positive

character keep things priavte simply for the sake of doing good. It is arguable as to what is

actually “good”, because the novels also feature characters who have a whole different view

of what is considered “good”. It is within this conflict that literature plays a role into

helping us as readers and the audience at large into realizing what privacy is, why it is

practiced, and why it should be allowed.


Literature is the key to knowledge in many shapes and forms, and knowledge itself

is enlightenment. And just like all Utopian societies, everyone should have the right to

enlightenment, and privacy can be a part of the enlightenment that is extremely necessary

for any beneficial society.





Works Cited:


Links to Images

1)     http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/09/circle-dave-eggers-review

2)     http://www.occupy.com/article/learn-safeguard-internet-privacy-youre-007

3)     http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Dirk_Cresswell

4)     http://www.techremedy.net/blog/2012/09/the-technology-of-big-brother/

5)     http://www.glogster.com/soccerplayer20/the-giver/g-6mh383qinf4u8f5gc287ha0