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 15 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.
“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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“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.
“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.
“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.
“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. I 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.
“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.
“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?
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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 novel 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.
“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.