In his short life, George Orwell managed to author several works that would inspire debate across the political spectrum for years to come due to his extreme views on Totalitarianism as exemplified in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is now regarded as one of the finest essayists in modern English literature because of his inspired common sense and power of steady thought. Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal on January 23, 1903. He lived with his two sisters, mother, and father, who was minor official in Indian Customs. Orwell’s childhood has been an influence on his later life and writing.
British Writers by Ian Scott-Kilvert quotes Orwell as saying: “Looking back on my own childhood, after the infant years were over, I do not believe that I ever felt love for any mature person, except my mother, and even her I did not trust, in the sense that shyness made me conceal most of my real feelings from her. I merely disliked my own father, whom I had barely seen before I was eight and who appeared to me simply as a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t.'” Early in his childhood, he was sent to a fashionable preparatory school on a scholarship. The other boys were much better off than Orwell was.
Looking back on his school years, British Writers by Ian Scott-Kilvert again quotes Orwell as saying: “I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt. The conviction that it was not possible for me to be a success went deep enough to influence my actions until far into adult life. Until I was thirty, I always planned my life on the assumption not only that any major undertaking was bound to fail but that I could only expect to live a few years longer.”
At the age of 13, Orwell was rewarded with not one, but two separate scholarships. Orwell decided upon Eton, which was the more distinguished and prestigious of the two. Of his time at Eton, Modern British Essayists by Robert L. Calde quotes Orwell as saying, “I did no work there and learned very little, and I don’t feel that Eton had much of a formative influence on my life.” However, the majority of English students do not work at universities but instead broaden their outlook on life and acquire a new sense of self-confidence, along with an ability that is far more valuable than academic learning.
After Orwell’s time at Eton, the natural thing for him to do would have been to go on to Cambridge and continue his career there, where he could easily have gained a full scholarship. Instead, Orwell was advised by a tutor to break away and begin his own career. Orwell took this advice and took an open post in the Indian Imperial Police, where he spent the next five years of his life. It was there that Orwell began his writing career and wrote about his life experiences in Burma and India.
Orwell felt very guilty about the actions in which he took part during his time in India, so he sought to escape the guilt in England. When that did not work, he instead traveled to Paris, supposedly to write. However, an unknown author in a foreign country is not likely to make much of a living, so his motives most certainly must have been otherwise. It is thought that he went to Paris to face the down-and-out lifestyle that he was brought up to fear and to experience a level of pain and failure to which very few people were subject. It is also believed that Orwell did this as an act of public defiance against those wealthier than himself who had humiliated him during his school years. Orwell also referred to the time as “a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs, — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
Eventually, Orwell accepted a friend’s offer of a job and money. After this job was over, he made enough money as a private tutor to keep himself afloat. After years of tutoring, he got a job as an assistant in a bookshop. It was during this time that Orwell married his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy. In addition, during this time, Orwell became very active as a Socialist. After writing some more in England, he grew tired of it and then traveled to Spain.
Upon recalling his reasons for going, Orwell was quoted as saying, “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately because at that time and in that atmosphere, it just seemed to be the only conceivable thing to do.” The unit which Orwell was recruited into was at first peaceful, but before long, they were involved in heavy fighting, and Orwell was hit in the throat, mere millimeters away from his windpipe and carotid artery. The wound ended Orwell’s fighting career, but because of the injury, he got an opportunity to see a new side to the fighting while recuperating. After another number of months passed, Orwell and his wife managed to escape with a few friends back to France.
When World War II began, Orwell frantically tried to join the army but was not allowed due to his injuries. However, he was able to land a job in the British Broadcasting Company into which he threw himself completely. A man in full health might have been stressed from the activities, but to a man in already bad shape, the conditions were near fatal. Added to this was also the tragic news of his wife’s death during a very minor surgery.
Following the end of World War II, Orwell worked for two more years in London before retreating to the remote island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland to rest and to get on with the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he had by now drawn out in his mind. However, life on the island was extremely rough on his already poor health, and he was forced into the hospital several times. By 1949, he entered a sanatorium, and a few months later, he was moved to University College Hospital in London, where he finished the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
While once again in London, Orwell married a second time, this time to Sonia Brownell, who was an editorial assistant on a magazine that had been involved in the publication of some of Orwell’s many essays. Together, they discussed plans for future works, and he had even roughed out the plans for a new book with her. The book was scheduled to be a complete break from his propagandist way of writing and would have instead concentrated on the treatment of human relationships.
Unfortunately, the book was destined never to be completed because Orwell died on January 23, 1950, a few minutes following a tubercular hemorrhage. Orwell wrote many intriguing works through his years as an author; among those are many essays that are mostly political in nature. One of his first essays, “Shooting an Elephant,” tells of a story in his life in which he was forced to hunt down an elephant that was running amok throughout the countryside. The essay is “an example of his prose style at its most lucid and precise.” Another essay written by Orwell is “Wells, Hitler, and the Soviet State,” which discusses H.G. Wells’s misunderstanding of Hitler and World War II. In all, Orwell released four books of essays: Inside the Whale (1940), Critical Essays (1946), Shooting an Elephant (1950), and England Your England (1953).
Orwell’s early books were mostly about his life experiences and political perceptions. His novels include Down and Out in Paris and London, which tells of his years among the dogs in Paris, Burmese Days which tells of his police years in Burma, Homage to Catalonia tells about the years he spent in Spain and of the political movements there, and finally, Road to Wigan Pier tells of his trip around England and was placed on the Left Book Club’s officially recommended reading list, but is today considered one of his worst works.
By many people’s reckoning, Orwell’s finest book was published in May of 1945. The book had a very difficult time coming into print, going through four separate publishers who refused it on the grounds that it was not wise to print a book attacking an ally of the nation during wartime. However, the timing could not have been better, and Animal Farm was an instant bestseller in Britain and in the United States.
Animal Farm is a satire on the Stalinist dictatorship in which pigs play the role of leaders and overthrow the current leader, Farmer Jones. However, after the threat of Jones’ return is passed, the pigs are forced to focus the animals’ attention on other threats to keep them working at maximum levels. Finally, after a time of this, the other animals figure out that they’re getting the short end of the stick, which leads to the theme statement of the book, “All Animals are Equal,” and below that in another handwriting “But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”
Orwell’s other very well-known book was Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is Orwell’s version of the future awaiting mankind. The world is completely controlled by totalitarian governments that have rewritten history and extracted any and all sense of freedom. Every room is watched remotely via cameras and the dreaded Thought Police keep track of any and every person’s actions to ensure that there are no thoughts or actions that might be viewed as harmful to The Party. This book shot to the top of the bestseller list in 1984 as people rushed to see how the prophetic book compared with the reality in which they lived.
Although a few of his earlier books gained some amount of popularity, it was not until “Animal Farm” that Orwell gained the recognition which would ensure that his name would live on past his death and into decades to come. Beyond monetary value and international renown, Orwell gained a sense of contact with ordinary people for the first time. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is also considered to be one of the best futuristic novels of all time due to Orwell’s great insights into the true nature of Totalitarianism.
The gifts for writing that Orwell possessed gave him a very unique style. His gifts were not those of a novelist, for he had little imagination and little understanding of human relationships. His gifts were instead a “very inspired common sense, power of steady thought, wary refusal to be taken in, and the courage of a lonely man who is not afraid of being alone.” Another style often used by Orwell is to add a very unforgiving essence to his novels.
The author’s own anger conveys a sense of discomfort to the reader, who feels he is being “nagged at for something which is only very indirectly his fault and resents that an author of such uncommon talents should care so little whether he conveys enjoyment to the readers.” Orwell’s essays show his unique qualities to advantage. He was very adept at choosing topics that interested normal people because he himself was nothing more than an ordinary person, and he had seen life from the lowest possible level. Few other authors were able to write with the skill, insight, and frightening reality that Orwell constantly was able to muster and display.
The themes of Orwell’s books are mostly derived from his own view of the world. Due to his childhood and years in Paris, he was very familiar with the low end of the spectrum of life. His years in Spain served to give him a view of Communism at its worst and gave him the inspiration he needed to write his two most famous books, “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The theme of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was derived from another book, “We” by Zamyatin. There is a resemblance in detail and structure that occurs multiple times throughout. For example, both books assume that Utopia will lead to the end of the mere idea of freedom and the total destruction of history.
However, while Zamyatin explored the technological and mechanical side of the future, Orwell instead was able to focus on the cultural and psychological side of Totalitarianism. Another essential difference is the timeline on which the respective Utopias took place.
Zamyatin assumed that such a time and set of circumstances would need thousands of years to develop, whereas Orwell insisted that less than half a century was sufficient. Orwell’s themes, however, serve a purpose other than mere entertainment. They serve as a warning to those who dare not see life from the viewpoint that he himself opened his mind and let himself explore. Kinley E. Roby, in his biography, quoted Orwell as saying, “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive.”
All of Orwell’s characters are alike in that they are solitary beings that seek to make contact with others but are almost always betrayed or rebuffed. There was Winston Smith, the main character of Nineteen Eighty-Four, who was incapable of both showing and feeling love for any other person, including Julia, who in return did not love him but instead used him for her own gain. Then also there is Gordon Comstock from Keep the Aspidistra Flying who gives up a great opportunity in an advertising firm and instead goes to work in a bookstore so that he can be alone and work solely on his writing. Once again in Coming Up for Air, Orwell writes about a fat, good-natured man who keeps his feelings hidden from those around him in order to protect himself.
Another attribute that belongs to many of Orwell’s characters is cowardice, a lack of courage that plagues them throughout their respective stories. In Animal Farm, the barnyard animals, though they easily outnumber the pigs, are too afraid to attempt an overthrow. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the characters have been completely cauterized of any semblance of courage or self-expression. Orwell’s works have gained their fair share of both lovers and haters.
British Writers by Ian Scott-Kilvert quotes Compton Mackenzie as saying in reference to Down and Out in Paris and London, Clergyman’s Daughter, and Burmese Days, “No realistic writer has produced three volumes which can compare in directness, vigor, courage, and vitality of Mr. George Orwell.” George Woodcock stated in his book The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell that “Orwell possesses an extraordinary ability to so thoroughly entrance a reader that he feels every bit of the pain expressed in the text.” For every person who enjoyed Orwell’s texts, there were without a doubt others who could not stand them. Orwell’s preoccupation with the present acted as a handicap to his understanding of the past and his perception of the future. Mr. Scott-Kilvert in British Writers also said that Orwell was never quite capable of making the close contact with the working class that he so desired.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is Orwell’s warning to the world of how the future could be unless everyone puts forth an effort to keep their freedom. The book is set thirty-five years in the future from the time of writing in 1949 in England, which is then known as “Airstrip One.” The government has broken into four separate branches, also known as ministries. The Ministry of Love maintains law and order through the Thought Police. The Ministry of Plenty keeps the citizens rationed and down to the barest necessities. The Ministry of Peace is in charge of the war efforts, and the Ministry of Truth is in charge of education and news, which includes the deleting of history and the changing of news to fit the Party’s schemes.
Three separate countries constantly wage war against each other. At the time of writing, Oceania and Eastasia are allied against Eurasia, but the text of the book leads the reader to believe that these alliances switch back and forth every few years. Indeed, there may, in fact, not be any war at all, but instead, just a large propagandist ploy to keep people occupied and to give them, someone, to hate, so that they will not turn against The Party.
The book is an example of Totalitarianism at its finest. The government controls every aspect of people’s lives, and the mere thought of freedom has completely been erased from people’s minds. The Party is controlled by the secret Inner Party that controls the Party’s direction and decisions.
The main character of the story is Winston Smith, who uses the attic of an old bookstore to keep a diary in which he documents his anti-Party thoughts. He meets Julia in the hallway of the Ministry, and they proceed to make love in the open and arrange many more such meetings. After several of these meetings, he trusts her and tells her about his feelings toward the Party. They plan together and, in the end, confide in the wrong person who reports them, which results in Winston being beaten until he gives up and finally betrays Julia, who had long since already betrayed him.
This novel has a very strong message for those who care to read it. If society is not careful, it could easily fall into a trap such as this. As fewer and fewer people care about the state of the nation and about freedom, the world that Orwell wrote about becomes closer and closer to reality. If mankind does not take a stand for what it believes in, then there are those who will happily take advantage of that fact and use it in their interest to create a society like Orwell’s, in which everything is run by a select few people, and everyone is so far gone that they don’t believe there is any way out.
For a book written in 1949, Orwell did a very good job of writing about the future and about the technologies that might be developed. Orwell wrote of Telescreens, which would allow The Party to keep track of everyone. Even the people in Orwell’s novel seem a lot like the people of today in that they do not care as much as they should, and they fail to even recognize what freedom is being taken from them. However, there are differences in their world from ours, namely in the technological devices. While there are Telescreens, people still fight with rockets and Tommy guns, and there are no cars or other vehicles for transportation mentioned in the story.
This novel was really enjoyable because it is very thought-provoking, and it really has the quality of making oneself look at the world around them and think about just how easy it would be for something like this to happen. Many of the pieces are already in place, and others are not far away. All it would take is one good leader and a strong push. This book should be read by everyone to make them aware of the future ahead of mankind if they are not careful.
The novels which Orwell wrote will continue to inspire and spark debate for years to come, and hopefully, they will also serve as a constant reminder and warning of what is to come if our society continues its current trend of not caring. Orwell will forever be remembered for his keen insight and his great ability for thinking about a situation all the way through and predicting all possible outcomes.
- Bloom, Harold, ed., “George Orwell.” Twentieth-Century British Literature, vol. 4, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
- Bloom, Harold, ed., “George Orwell.” Classic Science Fiction Writers, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
- Caldo, Robert L., “George Orwell.” Modern British Essayists, first series, Gale Research Inc., 1990.
- Frederick, Karl R., “George Orwell: White Man’s Burden.” A Reader’s Guide to the Contemporary English Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.
- Reilly, Patrick, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
- Roby, Kinley E., ed, George Orwell, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1987.
- Scott-Kilvert, Ian, ed., “George Orwell.” British Writers, vol. VII, Collier Macmillan, 1984.
- Smyer, Richard, Animal Farm: Pastoralism and Politics, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
- Woodcock, George, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell, Little, Brown & Company, 1966.
- Words/Pages: 3,284/24