By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Watch-Towers’ is one of the finest of J. G. Ballard’s early stories. Published in 1962, the story concerns a town whose skyline is dominated by the tall observation-towers which provide the story with its title. Ballard’s story follows Renthall, a man who is trying to figure out just how much interest the watch-towers are taking in him and his fellow townsfolk.
‘The Watch-Towers’: plot summary
The story takes place in some near-future world – or perhaps an alternate version of our present – in which illness and even death are rare occurrences. However, this is no utopia. Many of the local entertainments, such as the cinema, have been shut down, although a rogue local, Victor Boardman, tries to keep it going on the quiet. Most people languish in their own homes.
Even the local school is only opened when the Council, a mysterious bureaucratic organisation, decrees it, suggesting that – as in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the ruling establishment wishes to keep the people uneducated so they don’t question anything or rise up. However, unlike Bradbury’s novel, even mindless entertainment has been outlawed.
The protagonist, Charles Renthall, is a teacher at that school, along with his friend, Hanson, who has a contact within the Council. Indeed, as educators, the men are technically employees of the Council, although Renthall appears to lack detailed knowledge of how the Council operates.
Renthall is conducting an affair with a married woman, Mrs Osmond, whose house he visits frequently. As he does so, the watch-towers – tall structures which loom large over the surrounding houses at regular intervals – are supposedly keeping everyone under surveillance.
However, if this is not a utopian world, it’s no Orwellian dystopia either – or at least, it’s not as simple as that. Nobody can be sure that the watch-towers actually are watching anyone or anything at all. Renthall believes they may be abandoned or unoccupied, and the occasional movement of the towers’ observation windows may be nothing more than a trick of the light, or the locals seeing what they want (or expect) to see.
Eventually, Renthall decides to put his doubts to the test. He tries to organise a public party, despite opposition from Dr Clifton (who suspects him of trying to start a revolution), to whom he initially turns for help. In the end, he secures the help of Boardman, who agrees to let Renthall use the beer garden outside his cinema for the fête.
Renthall doesn’t intend to hold the fête, because he predicts – rightly, as it happens – that the Council will learn of his plans and intervene to ban the event. Sure enough, one of the town clerks visits Renthall and tries to warn him off holding the garden party, but Renthall refuses. He is summoned before the Council at its next meeting, but then the meeting is postponed.
Renthall takes this as a sign that he has won: the Council knows that its authority has been challenged. Shortly after this, a sun deck is built on the roof of one of the buildings, from which people can watch the towers that surround them. Renthall is aghast: why would the locals wish to sit in full view of the much-feared towers?
He becomes convinced that the locals are over-reaching themselves and that the Council – acting in the name of the watch-towers – will react to this blatant display. To make things worse, Boardman has turned Renthall’s fête into a full-on funfair, with all manner of amusements. Boardman is convinced the Council are ‘playing it quiet’ now, but Renthall expects some imminent retribution.
Renthall believes that the locals have ceased to be able to ‘see’ the watch-towers at all: it’s as if the towers have ceased to exist. But Renthall is still aware of them, and wonders if the townsfolk have been the victim of some mass hypnosis to which he – and Dr Clifton – remain impervious (they are both still able to see the towers).
Renthall goes to see Mrs Osmond, asking her if she can still see the watch-tower outside her window, but all she can see is a ‘haze’: she has no recollection of the towers. Convinced he is the only sane man left, Renthall wanders out into an unfamiliar part of town that’s little more than waste ground. Looking up, he sees the observation windows of the towers have opened, and the mysterious ‘watchers’ are looking down at him.
‘The Watch-Towers’: analysis
It’s tempting to view ‘The Watch-Towers’ as a kind of allegory for religious belief. Ballard provides several clues in this regard, although the word ‘allegory’ – which implies that the story functions along the narrow lines of ‘x = y’ – may be too limiting for the story, whose rich symbolism is far more interesting and multifaceted than this term implies.
For this reason, I’d propose the term ‘soft allegory’ for Ballard’s story, because although it invites clear parallels with religious thinking, the story is constantly escaping from the confines of this allegorical model.
Nevertheless, there are clear parallels between the watch-towers and the idea of a god: both of them are associated with the sky, both looking down and supposedly observing everything the townspeople do. At one point, Mrs Osmond asks Renthall if he is frightened by the watch-towers hanging over them at all times. This sounds like a religious believer asking an atheist – or at least a religious doubter of some stripe – whether they’re not terrified by the mere possibility that God might be able to see and judge (and punish) them.
When Ballard’s story is analysed in this way, the mysterious Council becomes a stand-in for the Church, which appears to have some direct hotline to God (sorry, the Watch-Towers) and to act in his (sorry, their) name. When Hanson asks Renthall whether he has considered the consequences of holding a party under the gaze of the watch-towers, Renthall replies ‘nothing’: a response which, the third-person narrator tells us, struck Hanson as ‘blasphemy’. He even glances up nervously at the towers ‘as if expecting instant retribution to descend from them’.
There are other clues that the story may be intended as allegory – or ‘soft allegory’ – for the way religions function. Renthall remarks to Boardman that the two watch-towers which overlook the latter’s beer garden are the ‘chief attraction’ of the garden, implying that the locals watch the towers as much as (or instead of?) vice versa. This sounds eerily akin to religion, where the godly keenly observe a deity which may or may not be there.
At the same, ‘The Watch-Towers’ is not about religion at the cost of other things. At one point, the story’s narrator tells us that the towers are ‘framed between the twin spires of the church’. Traditional religion exists in the universe of Ballard’s story, and is distinct from whatever authority the watch-towers have. It’s possible to view the towers as a riff on the classic science-fiction trope of aliens watching Earth, and the natives’ uncertainty over whether these strange visitors are watching us at all.
In the last analysis, ‘The Watch-Towers’ is a story about surveillance and collective delusion, although it is, perhaps, impossible to avoid detecting a religious subtext to Ballard’s cleverly crafted, open-ended narrative.