‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ This is one of the most famous quotations from George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The words are spoken by O’Brien, the grand inquisitor of the totalitarian regime in Orwell’s novel.
In order to understand the full meaning of O’Brien’s words, let’s take a closer look at the passage which contains the famous ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever’ line. O’Brien has just told Winston how, in the future, all pleasure will be wiped out completely:
But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, 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 – for ever.
The quotation in question, then, is a picture of undistilled power, control, and oppression: the key themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and much of the work Orwell wrote since his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. As he put it in his short autobiographical essay ‘Why I Write’, ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’
And the above quotation provides us a clue to the genesis and deeper meaning of that other quotation, O’Brien’s ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ For the precursors to this phrase in both Orwell’s writing and the writings of other authors he admired are numerous.
In his analysis of Orwell’s novel in George Orwell (Reader’s Guides), Jeffrey Meyers outlines the key influences on O’Brien’s boot stamping on the human face. As so often with Orwell’s late work, Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels provides a source. In Book IV, Gulliver finds himself among the Houyhnhnms, horses with reason and intellect who have perfected a kind of totalitarian society:
Their prudence, unanimity, unacquaintedness with fear, and their love of their country, would amply supply all defects in the military art. Imagine twenty thousand of them breaking into the midst of an European army, confounding the ranks, overturning the carriages, battering the warriors’ faces into mummy by terrible yerks from their hinder hoofs.
Could this image of hooves battering human faces have remained in Orwell’s mind when he wrote about O’Brien’s ‘picture of the future’?
Certainly, Orwell viewed the Houyhnhnms’ society as totalitarian, as he made clear in his 1946 essay on Gulliver’s Travels (which we have discussed here). In his analysis of Swift’s satire, Orwell argues that Swift depicts totalitarianism through the Houyhnhnms, but because Gulliver (and, presumably, by extension, Swift himself) approves of the Houyhnhnms’ world, Swift admires the idea of a totalitarian society in which dissident opinion is unacceptable. Orwell, of course, writing in the 1940s, has a different view of such a judgmental and oppressive society.
However, there’s a more direct – and even more likely – precursor to O’Brien’s boot, and it’s found in an early dystopian novel from 1908, Jack London’s The Iron Heel, in which an Oligarchy known as the ‘Iron Heel’ arises in 1920s America.
A recurring phrase in the novel is close to the image conjured by O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mr Wickson tells Ernest: ‘We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces.’ Later in the novel, Ernest recalls Wickson’s words: ‘We shall be robbed of our few remaining liberties; the Iron Heel will walk upon our faces; nothing remains but a bloody revolution of the working class.’
Orwell undoubtedly knew London’s novel, since The Iron Heel is an important work of socialist fiction and one of the first (perhaps even the first) bona fide dystopian novels. And as Meyers points out in his study of Orwell, a similar image to both Wickson’s and O’Brien’s – also used in connection with tyrannical power – is found in Orwell’s long essay on socialist revolution in Britain, The Lion and the Unicorn:
The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.
In the last analysis, then, O’Brien’s image of a boot stamping on the human face forever is a reworking of a motif well-established in literature about tyrannical power by the time Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. But there is something about the casual, even offhand phrasing used by O’Brien, ‘If you want a picture of the future’ (as if choice, or what the individual wants, is even possible in the totalitarian regime of Big Brother), and his call to ‘imagine’ something in a world where imagination is actively stamped out and destroyed, that makes O’Brien’s version of this trope so chilling.