Literature

Key Quotations from Orwell’s 1984 Explained

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the best-known work of George Orwell (1903-50), who, as well as writing two of the most enduring novels of the 1940s, was also one of the greatest essayists of the first half of the twentieth century. Orwell’s dystopian vision of a future world in which ‘thoughtcrime’ is real, the history books are altered to remove any inconvenient facts, and citizens are monitored at all times remains as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1949, just one year before the author’s death.

Below, we discuss some of the best-known and most significant quotations from Nineteen Eighty-Four, starting with that famous opening sentence.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

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 Joseph Stalin. That gentleman is, of course, Big Brother, the dictator figure who rules over the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’

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 (of which more below).

This quotation, presenting three sets of axiomatic statements which are fundamentally contradictory, exemplifies the ways in which the totalitarian society in Orwell’s novel alters the meanings of words in order to manipulate people’s understanding of the world around them. How can war be its opposite, peace? How can freedom be enslaving, when the two things stand in stark opposition to each other? And how can ignorance be lauded as a strength? It is from such topsy-turvy statements that the world of Airstrip One, in Orwell’s novel, was created.

‘For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.’

Of course, it is not just language, but thought itself which can be dangerous in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and these words come from near the end of the novel, after Winston has undergone his reprogramming in Room 101. As Orwell’s narrator tells us:

From now onwards he must not only think right; he must feel right, dream right. And all the while he must keep his hatred locked up inside him like a ball of matter which was part of himself and yet unconnected with the rest of him, a kind of cyst.

In other words, he knows that he hates the state that has crushed him so, but he must try to forget about that hatred. He must know that what he believes is a lie, but he must act as though it’s the truth, because it’s the ‘right’ thing to believe according to the government.

‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’

This quotation is also relevant in light of the one above. ‘Doublethink’ – a Newspeak word – is close to what we would also call cognitive dissonance, whereby someone believes two contradictory things at once.

‘Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’

These words are spoken by Syme, who says them to Winston. As Winston quite rightly predicts, Syme is ‘too intelligent’ for the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and will be ‘vaporised’ one day …

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’

This famous quotation concludes Chapter 7 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which also contains this famous line: ‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.’

Curiously, Orwell may have got the idea of ‘two plus two make four’ as a political truism from G. K. Chesterton, who once wrote: ‘We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.’

Of course, later in Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien will force Winston to ‘accept’ that two plus two can equal five – an idea that may have been suggested by Stalin’s five-year plan, which he hoped to achieve ahead of schedule in just four years.

‘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.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’

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.

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