BORN: 1903 Motihari, India
DIED: 1950 London, England
GENRE: Novels, Essays
Burmese Days (1934)
Coming Up for Air (1939)
Animal Farm (1945)
‘‘Politics and the English Language’’ (1946)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
George Orwell. Orwell, George, photograph. AP Images.
George Orwell gained an enduring international reputation with his two last works of fiction, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Although he was never primarily a writer of speculative fiction, these works have been extremely influential in the fields of fantasy and science fiction. In these works, as in the other writing that filled the rest of his career, he gauged the contemporary European scene of the troubled 1930s and 1940s with critical insight drawn from personal experience and a deep moral commitment.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India in 1903. At the time, India was under direct British control (it remained so until 1947). Many British government officials worked and lived there, including Orwell’s father, Richard Walmesley Blair, a minor customs official in the opium department of the Indian Civil Service. When Orwell was four years old, his family returned to England and settled at Henley, a village near London. His father soon returned to India. When he was eight years old, he was sent to a private preparatory school in Sussex. He later claimed that his experiences there determined his views on the English class system (Orwell was a socialist who rejected the British idea of hereditary social classes). From there he went by scholarship to two private secondary schools: Wellington for one term and Eton for four-and-a-half years.
Orwell then joined the Indian Imperial Police, receiving his training in Burma (modern Myanmar, which was also at the time under British control), where he served from 1922 to 1927. While home on leave in England, he made the important decision not to return to Burma. His experiences there had given him a distaste for imperialism, and his feeling about his experiences can be seen in Burmese Days (1934).
The Long Struggle to Make Writing a Career. Orwell attempted to establish himself as a writer—with very little success at first. He lived virtually as a tramp in London and Paris in the late 1920s, finally settling in 1929 in his parents’ home in Suffolk. Still attempting to establish himself as a writer, he earned his living by teaching and by penning occasional articles, while he completed several versions of his first book, Down and Out in London and Paris, a recounting of his rough-and-tumble life in the two European capitals. He was earning his living as a teacher when the book was scheduled for publication, and he preferred to publish it under a pseudonym. From a list of four possible names submitted to his publisher, he chose ‘‘George Orwell,’’ taking the name ‘‘Orwell’’ from a Suffolk river.
First Novels Spring from Early Experience. Orwell’s Down and Out was issued in 1933. During the next three years he supported himself by teaching, reviewing, and clerking in a bookshop and began spending longer periods away from his parents’ Suffolk home. In 1934 he published Burmese Days, followed shortly thereafter by A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
In the spring of 1936 he moved to Wallington, Hertfordshire, and several months later married Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a teacher and journalist. His reputation up to this time as a writer and journalist was based mainly on his accounts of poverty and hard times, and his next book was a commission in this direction: the Left Book Club authorized him to write an inquiry into the life of the poor and unemployed. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was divided into two parts: the first part was a typical reporting essay, and the second part was an essay on class and socialism. It marked his birth as a political writer, an identity that lasted for the rest of his life.
The Spanish Civil War. In July of 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, with the forces of the Spanish Republic on one side and the ultranationalist forces of General Francisco Franco on the other. Franco's forces prevailed by 1939, and he set himself as the country’s dictator. Many foreigners, including many artists and intellectuals, spoke out in support of the Republicans, and some volunteered for military service in the Republican Army—Orwell among them. He arrived in Barcelona in 1936 and joined the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista), serving with them in action in January 1937. Transferring to the British Independent Labour party contingent serving with the POUM militia, he was promoted first to corporal and then to lieutenant before being wounded in the middle of May. During his convalescence, the POUM was declared illegal, and he fled into France in June. His experiences in Spain caused him to become disillusioned with the leftist philosophy associated with the Soviet Union, but inspired him to become a revolutionary socialist.
After his return to England, Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia (1938), a book about his Spanish experience, which completed his disengagement from the orthodox left. He then wished to return to India to write a book, but he became ill with tuberculosis and was forced to convalesce.
World War II When World War II began, he again wanted to help out. The army, however, rejected him as physically unfit, though later he served for a period in the home guard and as a fire watcher. Instead, moving to London in 1940, he began writing ‘‘London Letters’’ for Partisan Review and joined the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a producer in the Indian section, remaining in this position until 1943. BBC’s main purpose was to help boost the morale of Indian soldiers fighting in British service. Orwell’s involvement in what was basically a propaganda operation was both frustrating and a learning experience for him and may be counted among the sources of inspiration for his two subsequent masterpieces, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, both of which deal satirically with government use of propaganda.
Orwell’s Satirical Masterpieces. The year 1943 was an important one in Orwell’s life for several reasons. His mother died in March; he left the BBC to become literary editor of the Tribune; and he began book reviewing on a more regular basis. But the most significant event occurred late that year, when he commenced writing his novel Animal Farm, which relates what happens to animals who free themselves and then are again enslaved through violence and fraud. Orwell had completed this fantasy satire by February 1944, but several publishers rejected it on political grounds. It was not published, however, until August 1945, when the war was over, purportedly because of paper rationing but mostly because of the unmistakable fact that it parodied the history of the Soviet Union, then an important war ally.
Toward the end of World War II, Orwell traveled to France, Germany, and Austria as a reporter. His wife died in March of 1945. The next year he settled with his youngest sister as his housekeeper on Jura, off the coast of Scotland. By then, his health was steadily deteriorating and his tuberculosis flared up frequently, but his physical weakness did not prevent him from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. By the end of 1948 he was seriously ill. He entered a London hospital in September 1949 and the next month married Sonia Brownell. He died only months after that, in London, on January 21, 1950.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Orwell's famous contemporaries include:
Rachel Carson (1907-1964): Marine biologist, environmentalist, naturalist, and science writer whose work, Silent Spring (1962), was instrumental in the advent of the ecology movement and global environmentalism.
Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960): African-American writer who paved the way during the Harlem Renaissance for future African-American women writers.
James Joyce (1882-1941): Modernist Irish expatriate writer who is typically considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
Leon Trotsky (1879-1940): Bolshevik revolutionary who as People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs and of War and founding commander of the Red Party was exiled for his failed opposition to Stalin. He was later assassinated in Mexico.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Orwell's most significant works are what are considered dystopian novels as well as commentaries on the absurdity of totalitarian cultures. Here are a few works by other writers who explore such issues:
The Handmaid's Tale (1985), by Margaret Atwood. In this dystopian novel, Canadian author Atwood speculates on a horrifying future of gender division, reproductive control, and takeover of society by the small class of elite.
Fahrenheit 451 (1953), by Ray Bradbury. In this dystopian novel, the theme of totalitarian suppression of the masses is reflected in the storyline, one which includes burning of books (which are illegal) as the basis for the plot.
A Clockwork Orange (1962), by Anthony Burgess. In this futuristic work (which has its own dictionary), the powers that be have select ways for treating the truants and thugs in the small gang called the Droogs.
Works in Literary Context
Influences Critics have noted that Orwell took from an eclectic group of influences, including Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Gustav Flaubert, Aldus Huxley, James Joyce, Jack London, W. Somerset Maugham, and Emile Zola, among others.
Dystopias: A Bleak Vision of the Future. It has also often been pointed out that in creating Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell drew on earlier dystopian novels. A dystopia is a vision of society, often a future society, that is the opposite of paradise, or utopia. It is a vision of society gone horribly wrong. Nineteen Eighty-Four bears some similarity to H. G. Wells’s dystopic When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), in which the protagonist is transported into a world of technological tyranny two hundred years into the future. Wells had been Orwell’s favorite author when he was young. He shared not only Wells’s fascination with utopian thinking but also his critical attitude toward the British class system.
However, Wells’s later belief in science and rationality as the ultimate problem solvers had, in Orwell’s opinion, been outdated since World War I. After all, both Hitler and Stalin had been able to harness science in the service of their dictatorships. Some scholars have also pointed to Swastika Night (1937) by Katharine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine) as a likely model. A more significant influence on Orwell’s novel was probably We (1924), by Russian novelist Evgeny Zamyatin. In Zamyatin’s dystopia, individuality has been all but obliterated; personal names have been replaced by numbers; people’s lives are regulated down to the minutest details. Those who do not conform are tortured into submission by corrective brain treatment with X-rays, or publicly executed by a chemical process that might be described as vaporization, the word used in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the sudden disappearance of unwanted persons. Orwell reviewed Zamyatin’s novel in 1946 and found that it was a better novel than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) insofar as it provided a more credible motive for the power elite to stay on top than Huxley had done. In Orwell’s view no totalitarian system could exist without a ruling class motivated by power hunger, the wish to exercise power over others and keep it at any cost.
The Left. In the early part of the twentieth century, many intellectuals and artists were sympathetic toward the Soviet Union because they had hopes that the great suffering experience by the majority of Russians under tsarist domination would be alleviated by a pure communist form of government. Quite simply, a government that valued the well-being of all its citizens seemed preferable to a government that seemed concerned only with the desires of wealthy landowners. Those who sided with the Marxists were called ‘‘leftist,’’ and they stood in opposition to ‘‘right-wing’’ politicians who favored traditional social structures and governmental authority.
To Orwell the factional fighting during the Spanish Civil War between leftist political parties that were supposed to be united in their war against fascism was a shock, and Homage to Catalonia marks a turning point in his political outlook. He saw himself as a socialist and continued to do so for the rest of his life, but he was never a member of a political party. For him, socialism was first of all a matter of ‘‘justice and common decency.’’ Even before Spain, Orwell had expressed impatience with the Marxist theorizing of left-wing intellectuals, and in Spain the Communists, Orwell realized, were employing methods for acquiring power similar to those employed by the Fascists. The common man was the sufferer. His feelings about the corruption of both right-wing and left-wing politics are clear in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.
Works in Critical Context
Orwell’s work generally received praise in his lifetime and after. Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are still widely assigned for classroom study. Orwell’s socialism made him the target for some politically motivated critical attacks, but as Cold-War tensions have faded, Orwell’s personal politics have seemed less controversial and his work has enjoyed a period of renewed critical attention.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The horrors Orwell envisioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four were criticized for being excessive or unbelievable. Undaunted, Orwell emphasized that the novel was meant as a satire, displaying certain totalitarian ideas in their extreme consequence. Conversely, in a review of Orwell’s posthumously published Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (1950) E. M. Forster wrote of Nineteen Eighty-Four that ‘‘There is not a monster in that hateful apocalypse which does not exist in embryo today.’’ It is difficult to point to any major inconsistency that may detract from the overall impact of Orwell’s vision, and its detailed realism makes it all the more distressing. The book made Time's 2005 list of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923.
Responses to Literature
1. While Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, consider the different personalities in the book. Who is meek and easily intimidated? Who is likely to resist suppression/oppression? Where do you think you would have been on the spectrum of personalities? How would you have responded—as a rebel against the absurdity? As a non-confrontational one who wants no trouble?
2. Orwell's novel Animal Farm was controversial at the time of its publication because its events mirrored events taking place in the Soviet Union, a wartime ally of Great Britain. Use the library and the Web to research the power struggle between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky so that you can compare the novel's fantasy plot to the reality of the historical events.
3. Orwell fought in and wrote about the bloody Spanish Civil War that began in 1936. One of the worst atrocities of that war was the Nazi saturation bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica, which became the subject matter of a mural by Pablo Picasso. Research the painting in the library and on the Web. How does Picasso’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War compare to that of Orwell. It might be useful to note that Picasso was a member of the French Communist Party.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Larkin, Emma. Finding George Orwell in Burma. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Writing Conscience of a Generation. New York: Norton, 2000.
Rodden, John, Thomas Cushman, eds. George Orwell: Into the Twenty First Century. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2005.
Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.
Kearney, Anthony. “Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’.’’ The Explicator 54.4 (1996): 238.
Meyers, Jeffrey. ‘‘George Orwell and the Art of Writing.’’ The Kenyon Review 27.4 (2005): 92.
Rodden, John. “Appreciating Animal Farm in the New Millenium.’’Modern Age 27.4 (2003): 67.
Rossi, John P. ‘‘The Enduring Relevance of George Orwell.’’ Contemporary Review 283.1652 (2003): 172
George Orwell.org. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from http://www.george-orwell.org
NetCharles. Charles’ George Orwell Links. Retrieved January 31,2008, from http://www.netcharles.com/orwell
Online Literature Network. George Orwell. Retrieved January 31, 2008 from http://www.netcharles.com/orwell