'1984' Quotes Explained

George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was written as a response to what he saw as the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian thinking in the world both before and after World War II. Orwell foresaw how the combination of control over information (such as the constant editing of documents and photos under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union) and constant efforts at thought control and indoctrination (such as that practiced under Chairman Mao’s ‛cultural revolution’ in China) could result in a surveillance state. He set out to demonstrate his fears with the novel that has permanently changed the way we discuss the subject of freedom, giving us words like ‛Thoughtcrime’ and phrases like ‛Big Brother is watching you.’

Quotes About Control of Information

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, where he alters the historical record to match the Party’s propaganda. Orwell understood that control of information without the objective check on such power provided by a free press would allow governments to essentially change reality.

"In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it ... And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable…what then?"

Orwell took inspiration from a real event in Russia where the communist party celebrated reaching a production goal in four years instead of five by proclaiming that the workers had made 2+2=5. In this quote he notes that we only ‛know’ things that have been taught to us, and thus our reality can be changed.

"In Newspeak there is no word for 'Science.'"

Newspeak is the most crucial concept in the novel. It is a language designed to make disagreement with the Party impossible. This goal is achieved by eliminating all vocabulary and grammatical constructions that could be construed as critical or negative. For example, in Newspeak, the word "bad" does not exist; if you wanted to call something bad, you would have to use the word "ungood."

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

Doublethink is another important concept Orwell explores in the novel, because it makes the Party members complicit in their own oppression. When one is able to believe two conflicting things to be true, truth ceases to have any meaning outside what the state dictates.

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

People represent history through their own memories and identities. Orwell is careful to note the vast generation gap opening up in Oceania; the children are enthusiastic members of the Thought Police, but the older people like Winston Smith retain memories of the time before, and thus must be treated like all history—altered by force if possible, eliminated and erased if not.

Quotes About Totalitarianism

Orwell used Nineteen Eighty-Four to explore the dangers of authoritarianism and totalitarian forms of government. Orwell was deeply suspicious of the tendency of governments to become self-perpetuating oligarchies, and he saw how easily people’s worst tendencies could be subverted to the will of an authoritarian regime.

“A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people ... turning one even against one's will like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”

One technique Orwell explores is directing the unavoidable fear and anger experienced by the population away from the Party and the state. In the modern world, authoritarian demagogues often direct this anger towards immigrant groups and other ‛outsiders.’

“Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema. This again was never put into plain words, but in an indirect way it was rubbed into every Party member from childhood onwards.”

This quote demonstrates how the state has invaded even the most private aspects of life, dictating sexual mores and controlling the most intimate aspects of daily life through misinformation, peer pressure, and direct thought control.

“All beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.”

Orwell cleverly makes Emmanuel Goldstein’s book an accurate explanation of totalitarianism. Goldstein's book, Goldstein himself, and The Brotherhood may well be part of a ruse created by the Party to snare would-be rebels like Winston and Julia; nevertheless, the book lays out how a totalitarian government sustains its hold on power, in part by controlling outward expression, which has a direct effect on inward thought.

Quotes About Destruction of the Self

In the novel, Orwell is warning us about the ultimate goal of such governments: The absorption of the individual into the state. In democratic societies, or at least one which have a sincere respect for democratic ideals, the individual’s right to their beliefs and opinions is respected—indeed, it’s the foundation of the political process. In Orwell’s nightmare vision, therefore, the key goal of the Party is destruction of the individual.

"The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed--would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper--the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."

Thoughtcrime is the essential concept of the novel. The idea that simply thinking something contrary to what the Party has decreed to be true is a crime—and then convincing people that its revelation was inevitable—is a chilling, terrifying idea that requires people to self-edit their thoughts. This, combined with Newspeak, makes any sort of individual thought impossible.

"For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats. ... 'Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'"

Winston initially endures his torture with desolate resignation, and holds onto his feelings for Julia as a final, private, untouchable part of his inner self. The Party is uninterested in merely getting Winston to recant or confess—it wishes to completely destroy his sense of self. This final torture, based on a primal fear, accomplishes this by making Winston betray the one thing he had left of his private self.