George Orwell, one of the luminaries of the dystopian genre, commented overtly on the dangers of totalitarianism. His influence extends far beyond his prophetic bestseller 1984 and satirical novella Animal Farm; Orwell also published an abundance of essays on politics, literature, and language, arguing zealously through his writing career that unclear language plants the seeds for political manipulation.
With the continued increase in mass surveillance, Orwell's fiction seems more prescient than ever. Here are 17 George Orwell quotes from his fiction and nonfiction writing that serve as a chilling reminder of the terrors of totalitarianism.
"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."
This is a quote from Orwell’s 1946 essay “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he reminds us that the avoidance of reality has become an epidemic. We should always make a point, Orwell says, to keep track of our beliefs and opinions–especially political ones–so that we can think critically about our behavior and how the world is being presented to us.
This quote feels particularly prescient in our current political climate against the backdrop of digital information. While the internet grants access to virtually limitless information, it has also presented avenues that allow us to create ever-tighter bubbles around the information we prefer to consume. In effect, the struggle to see what is in front one’s nose has never been more difficult.
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“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
You’ll see several 1984 quotes on this list because they continue to be so shockingly relevant. Most people would choose happiness over freedom, Orwell writes, because most believe happiness includes freedom. But the happiness (if we can even call it that) described in 1984 is more a form of slavery and ignorance.
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This is really an indictment of society’s predilection for complacency in the face of comfort. Much like the frog in a slowly heating pan of water, history has consistently shown that societies are often all too willing to ignore a slow descent into autocracy and fascism if their essential needs are otherwise met and exceeded.
In reality, it is a hollow happiness, but nonetheless can be an alluring one when the alternative is something far darker.
“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”
This comes from a letter published in the 1948 edition of The Socialist Leader by the British Freedom Defence Committee for which Orwell served as vice-chairman.
Orwell knew that the socialist system he had once advocated for would soon spiral into one that disrespects its citizens’ rights, but it’s frightening how much this sounds like our current world climate.
It’s a common historical occurrence, a death of basic rights by 1,000 cuts. In only the rarest of circumstances, do an otherwise free people simply wake up one morning under the thumb of an oppressive regime.
Rather it is a slow, insidious descent where the path is greased by a number of seemingly-innocuous limitations on various freedoms. The shift to autocracy can surely feel sudden, but unfortunately it is very likely anything but.
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“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
This is one of those stand-out lines from 1984. This quote is still incredibly apt as it relates to our current political systems, and is a chilling reminder that history is written by the victors.
Orwell understood that our past – and crucially, our recollection and understanding of the past – shapes who we are both as individuals and as a society.
The ability to essentially control what is considered the past, and more importantly society’s perception of the past, is an extraordinary and terrifying power.
“If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I'm a free man in here” - he tapped his forehead - “and you're all right.”
This is from Orwell’s first full-length work, the memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. Contrasting the cynical outlook that Orwell typically injected into his prose, this quote reminds us that it’s possible to find internal solace and freedom no matter our sitaution.
Given that Orwell’s best known work, 1984, is essentially a deconstruction of this very idea, this is a fascinating insight into the inner workings – and potential internal conflicts – of one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century.
“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
When you thought the 1984 quotes couldn’t get any more terrifying, this one comes along to prove you wrong. We can’t speak for Orwell, but he would probably describe “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength" as what totalitarian regimes want their citizens to think.
For a totalitarian regime to be successful, we must be convinced that what we see with our eyes is not accurate, that truth and reality are, at least in some ways, illusions.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Pulled from the allegorical Animal Farm, this is a quote that struck a chord with me, especially given its connection to current discussions of equality.
In the novella, the pigs control the government and manipulate the other animals, so this quote is very much an example of the systematic abuse of logic and language that Orwell warned us about.
In the communist system Orwell so brutally satirized with Animal Farm, “equality” was the siren call for the masses and perfectly illustrates how easily it is to be swept up in simple platitudes and ignore the dangers closing in.
“Big Brother is watching you.”
This may be the most well-known line from 1984, but it is just as unsettling to me every time I read it. How could Orwell have predicted the level of government surveillance and lack of privacy that we have today?
Indeed, the fact that surveillance – both by governments and private companies – has become such a prevalent part of modern society and the fact that we are so willing to hand over our privacy on the altar of social media simply shows that Orwell’s warnings were both alarmingly prescient and largely ignored.
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“There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”
This line is from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, an account of his personal experience in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was a fighter who advocated for socialist principles and human liberties through most of his life.
The question of what we give up by not fighting in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity is a common thread through much of Orwell’s writing, fiction and otherwise. The idea that some fights are of such moral importance that they must be had regardless of the outcome is a vital lesson that Orwell understood well.
“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”
It’s frightening how relevant this quote, which is from the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” still is when it comes to current global affairs.
Patriotism, particularly when it begins to butt up against nationalism, is all too often a convenient mask for ignoring the fault’s of one’s own society. It’s a path that can easily lead to some very dark places.
“On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”
This quote comes from the essay “The Art of Donald McGill,” published in 1941. And really, who would want to be good all the time?
“You can be rich or deliberately refuse to be rich. You can possess money, or you can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail to get it.”
Sure, money is valuable and makes the world go ‘round, but it’s not all we should live for, Orwell preaches.
This quote is from the 1936 George Orwell book Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a social critique that warns of the vapid life that results from worshipping money.
“Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers.”
Animal Farm is just as insightful as Orwell's later book 1984, but much shorter in length.
At first glance, this quote from the novella seems to radiate positivity, but I can’t help but think, in a cynical, Orwellian way: if we’re all brothers, isn’t Big Brother watching us?
“It is not possible for any thinking person to live in such a society as our own without wanting to change it.”
This is a quote pulled from Orwell’s "Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party,” published in the 1939 publication of The New Leader, a socialist-founded liberal and anti-communist political and cultural magazine based in New York City.
Orwell’s profound distaste for communism and his own political advocacy is central to all of his work and for many, we’re certain, it is all too easy to identify with this particular quote. Of course, Orwell’s larger unspoken question here is whether a thinking person will actually do anything about it.
“It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realise what your own beliefs really are.”
This quote from Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier is another example of Orwell’s belief that ignoring the world around us in favor of an insular existence is a recipe for folly.
Only when we step outside of that which is comfortable can we really begin to understand what it is to be free. But more importantly, is there any use to a belief held in a vacuum? What is the purpose of a belief left unexamined?
For Orwell, that sort of belief was of not much use at all – at best a comforting distraction and at worst a stone paving the road to hell.
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“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion.”
This quote, pulled from a review of A Coat of Many Colours by Herbert Read in the winter 1945 issue of Poetry Quarterly, is both a near-perfect distillation of Orwell’s cynicism, and a depressing explanation of his continued prescience.
If any one thing is obvious from a reading of Orwell quotes, it is the unfortunate conclusion that his words remain so relevant precisely because we as a society have most often ignored them.
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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
Last, but certainly not least is – you guessed it – another 1984 quote.
Throughout his life, and particularly in this novel, Orwell criticized the manipulation of citizens by totalitarian regimes. This quote speaks to the collective ignorance that arises in oppressive systems, something Orwell often addressed.
In a broader sense, it speaks to Orwell’s fascination with language as a means of control. The use of language to shape a narrative and thereby shape one’s perception of the narrative is a central theme of 1984.
Additional photos: Wikimedia Commons.