Eric Arthur Blair (1903-50), who is better-known to the world as George Orwell, was one of the leading English essayists of the first half of the twentieth century, writing about everything from the Spanish Civil War to the ideal pub to how to make a perfect cup of tea.
Of course, George Orwell is also known for his last two novels, the short fable Animal Farm (1946) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The latter of these led to the adjective ‘Orwellian’ entering the English language.
Below, we select and introduce some of Orwell’s best, and best-known, quotations from both his non-fiction and his novels.
‘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.’
This famous declaration is from the 1946 piece ‘Why I Write’, a sort of memoir in which Orwell describes his early years and how he developed as a writer, from harbouring ambitions to write self-consciously literary works to developing, in the 1930s, into the author of sharp political commentary in both fiction and non-fiction.
One of the key insights in ‘Why I Write’ is the link Orwell makes between his own efforts to become a successful writer and the broader political scene in Europe (and beyond) at the time. The Spanish Civil War, and the rise of Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism, all gave him a clear sense of what he should write about.
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.’
Also from ‘Why I Write’, this quotation will strike a chord with anyone who has tried to write a novel, or any other kind of longer work.
‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
This is from Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm.
‘The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.’
This quotation comes from a letter Orwell wrote to Malcolm Muggeridge on 4 December 1948. In many ways, it has become more true in the last seventy-odd years, with political divides in many countries being clearly drawn between those who privilege individual liberty over other things and those who prioritise authority and restrictions on liberty.
‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’
This is from ‘England Your England’, an essay which was included in Orwell’s longer essay on socialism and Britain, The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). The quotation is an example of Orwell’s genius for opening lines, even in his essays, as well as a reminder of the Blitz air raids going on over London when Orwell was writing.
‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’
Another famous line from ‘England Your England’, and one which remains as relevant now as it was when Orwell wrote it over eighty years ago.
‘But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.’
This is from one of Orwell’s most popular and widely read essays, the 1946 piece ‘Politics and the English Language’, in which he identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation.
‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
Also from ‘Politics and the English Language’, this quotation is a further reminder that modern discourse (especially political discourse) is used to excuse away heinous crimes and to make the insubstantial and even the meaningless sound significant.
‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do.’
Part of the common-sense advice Orwell proffers in ‘Politics and the English Language’, similar to his advice elsewhere that good prose should be as clear as a windowpane.
‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.’
From one of Orwell’s last essays, the 1949 piece ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, written in the wake of Gandhi’s death the year before.
‘At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.’
An oft-repeated line from Orwell’s ‘Extracts from a Manuscript Notebook’ (1949).
‘Man is the only animal that consumes without producing.’
This quotation, and the next three quotations on this list, are all from Orwell’s 1946 novella Animal Farm, his well-known fable and satire about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.
In this quotation, Old Major (representing Vladimir Lenin) makes a speech to the other animals of Manor Farm, arguing that they should rise up against Mr Jones, the farmer, and take control of things.
This is the slogan which the animals of Animal Farm devise after taking control of the farm. The pigs draw up seven commandments which all animals should abide by, including the lines ‘Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy’ and ‘Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.’
Appended to these commandments is the mantra or slogan ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, a political slogan – and indeed, a revolutionary slogan.
One of the original commandments drawn up by the pigs of Animal Farm was ‘All animals are equal’, echoing the idea that, under Communism, all men are equal. But as the pigs begin to abuse their position and keep the other animals in a state of misery and squalor, it becomes apparent that not all of the animals on the farm are equal.
This nonsensical (and wittily satirical) revised slogan is the result.
‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
The closing words of Animal Farm have become almost as famous as the opening words of Nineteen Eighty-Four (for which, see below). The sentence appears just after the animals have looked through the window to see the pigs, led by Napoleon, dressing and walking about like men. The revolution has gone full-circle: the very thing the animas overthrew from the farm (man) has returned, but this time it’s the pigs who are the overlords!
The famous opening line of Orwell’s best-known novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, completed in 1948 and published the following year.
In his sequel to Orwell’s novel, 1985, Anthony Burgess claimed to have read an Italian translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Orwell’s ‘thirteen’ became ‘uno’ (i.e., ‘one’), presumably because the Italian translator thought Orwell couldn’t tell the time.
Thirteen-hundred hours is, of course, one in the afternoon on the 24-hour clock, but church bells do not operate on that basis, and so clocks ‘striking thirteen’ is Orwell’s way of defamiliarising the world he is presenting us with, right from the off.
‘Big Brother is Watching You.’
This is the famous slogan on the poster depicting a moustachioed gentleman, who bears a more than passing resemblance to the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. That gentleman is, of course, Big Brother, the dictator figure who rules over the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One of the most famous aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four is Newspeak, the new version of English which has been devised in Orwell’s dystopian future vision of Britain. Orwell understood that totalitarianism begins with making people believe absurdities – that up is down, black is white, and that two plus two equals five, rather than four (as O’Brien, the villain of the novel, tells its protagonist, Winston).
‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
This is one of Winston’s realisations in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that if a society can rewrite history, it can control what happens in the future. This is why the rewriting of the historical records (something which Winston, who writes for the ironically named Ministry of Truth, does as part of his job) is so sinister.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best George Orwell quotations with one of his most famous lines, also from Nineteen Eighty-Four. The words are spoken by O’Brien, the grand inquisitor of the totalitarian regime in Orwell’s novel.
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 following his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.