“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”


You may not recall the name Eric Blair, but you’re almost certainly aware of his pen name, George Orwell. His novels Animal Farm and 1984 have sold tens of millions of copies—more than any other two books by any other 20th century author.

Those novels also embedded a number of famous quotations into our language.

Among the best known from Animal Farm are:
     – “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others;” and,
     – “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Orwell’s 1984 coined several potent political terms we still use today, such as Big Brother, Doublethink, and thought police.

It also contains famous quotations like:
     – “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” 
     – “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
     – “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Throughout his writing career, Orwell kept diaries and manuscript notebooks. The notebook he was using in 1949, as he was working to finish 1984, includes notes that became some of those famous terms and quotes in the novel.

The last entry in his final notebook, dated April 17, 1949, is probably Orwell’s most cited quote outside of lines from his novels.

It says, “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”

The idea that we have facial karma is a not an idea Orwell created, though his version is the one that is most often quoted. As noted by a number of books of quotations and websites that provide background on quotations, other versions of the saying go back to at least the mid-1800s.

For example, in a post on his great Quote Investigator site, Garson O’Toole (author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations) traces precursors of Orwell’s line to the mid-1800s.

During the American Civil War, Edwin M. Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, said about an ugly man he disliked: “A man of fifty is responsible for his face!”

In the decades since, variations on the saying have been used by other celebrities and writers, including Albert Camus, Coco Chanel, Ingrid Bergman and many others. One probably apocryphal variation has even been attributed to Abe Lincoln: “Every man over forty is responsible for his face.”

Sometimes Orwell’s quote or versions of it are applied in a way that suggests what we think as we grow older affects how our face looks. Supposedly, consistently ugly thoughts will lead to an ugly face, and someone who usually thinks beautiful thoughts will look good when they’re older.

More often, the “face he deserves” aphorism is used to suggest that if a person is a mean-spirited and does bad things, their face will reflect the ugliness of what they did in their life.

In June 1949, not long after Orwell wrote his line about faces in the notebook, 1984 was published. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to age 50. On January 21, 1950, he died at age 46.

Orwell’s novels and the often biting opinion pieces, news articles, and reviews he wrote reflect the thoughts of a man who was deeply concerned about the dark side of humanity and politics. Those grim thoughts may have aged his face. But in his final months, it was affected far more by the tuberculosis that ravaged his body and ultimately killed him.

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Comments? Corrections? Questions? Email me or post them on my Famous Quotations Facebook page.

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