George Orwell once said, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on the human face, forever." What does Orwell mean in this quote, and how does this quote hint at a dystopian future?

In "England, Your England," Orwell points out that the goose-step adopted by the German army is terrifying because it is "the vision of a boot crashing down on a face." However, the goose-step is also ugly and ridiculous, and free people who are not afraid of the government would simply laugh at it. The dystopian future, therefore, must eradicate the humor and freedom of thought that would allow them to do this.

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By the time he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had already elaborated on this image and the ideas surrounding it in his wartime essay "England, Your England." Here, he wrote:

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. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is "Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me," like the bully who makes faces at his victim.

Orwell goes on to say that a free people, such as the English, would laugh at the goose-step. To make quite sure that no one laughs, everyone has to be terrified out of having any sense of the ridiculous. The child in the street who points out that the Emperor has no clothes is the one who is not afraid, and the same is true of the adult who laughs at the goose-step.

Understanding and laughing at a joke are signs of intellectual freedom. This is why humor must be entirely absent from the dystopian future, to be replaced by terror. The absurdity of the goose-step becomes terrifying when you imagine that yours is the face on which it will come crashing down, and at this point you will replace the detached, ironic perspective which allows for humor with whatever the Party wants you to put in its place. This is why the future envisaged by O'Brien is one in which your mind will not be your own. The last freedom you give up will be the freedom to think for yourself, even without expressing any thoughts, which is precisely what happens to Winston at the end of the novel.

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O'Brien makes this statement in 1984 as he explains to Winston what the new world the Party is creating will be like. O'Brien first asks Winston how one person asserts power over another. Winston, who has been long subjected to life in Oceania, and now to torture, answers that it is by making the weaker person suffer.

O'Brien agrees, explaining that you can't  know for certain a person is obeying your will and not his own unless he is suffering. He goes on to paint a picture of a new social and political order in which nothing will matter but power. This does not hint at dystopia: it is dystopia. Facts and science won't matter: they will be whatever those in power say they are. Further, as the single-minded focus on power grows, people will become ever more merciless. Human relationships will be destroyed--O'Brien points out that this is happening already--and people will be taught to experience only four emotions: "fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement." There will be no art or literature. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. People will live miserably. However, O'Brien says:

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.

He then says:

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

In other words, O'Brien is giving Winston (and the reader) an easy-to-remember image to capture what he is saying. Humanity, represented by the human face, will be stamped out by an increasing exercise of violence and power, represented by a boot. Orwell was referencing what already had happened in the recently defeated Nazi Germany and what was continuing to occur in the Stalinist U.S.S.R. He was warning that this could spread if people weren't vigilant about holding onto relationships, language, and political power.

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There are many questions we could ask, and interpretations that could be made, from this quote. We should be careful not to overdo it!

The symbolism of the boot is pretty clear; it represents power, authority, and so on. One thing that it unclear (and perhaps Orwell deliberately left it unclear), is to whom the boot belongs; is it government, military, or some other specific group? I don't think it is; I think it simply represents an abstract idea of subjugation and control. Orwell believes that the future of humanity lies in the suppression and control of the individual by some greater force.

We might also ask what he means by "the human face"; is he referring to a person, or all of humanity? I believe he's referring to all of humanity. By saying "the human face" he might as well say "the face of mankind". "The face" is "every face".

This quote hints at a dystopian future in several ways;

  • The invisible owner of the boots is unknown. We don't know who our "master" will be.
  • There is no sign of resistance to the stomping.
  • If the face is representative of all of humanity, then our entire species is powerless.
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