Orwell, George (1903–1950)

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ORWELL, GEORGE (1903–1950)


English author

George Orwell was the wintry conscience not only of England but of much of the world through his two most influential books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He was born Eric Arthur Blair in India, where his father was a civil servant with a position supervising the opium trade. In 1907 with his mother, who was of French descent from a family in the timber business in Burma, and his older sister, Marjorie, he came to England, where the family settled in Henley, joined by a younger sister, Avril. Orwell's father, except for leaves, remained in India for some further years. Orwell, with that social precision for which he became famous, characterized himself as a member of the "lower-upper middle class." They had that position because of descent from a younger son of the aristocracy and from vicars, but not much cash to keep it up. As is the custom among his class, at the age of eight he was sent away to a boarding school, St. Cyprians, but he needed to be there on scholarship, which he resented. Years later he wrote powerfully, and not totally accurately, about his experiences there in "Such, Such Were the Joys." The power of his prose is such that the reader is convinced that the truth is being put forward. Orwell is much more of an artist than is generally allowed and is a creator of worlds through his prose. Hate the school as he did, it nevertheless gave him a good education and helped instill in him, in reaction, his particular sort of socialism, yet imbued him with love of country. His first two publications during World War I were highly patriotic poems in the Henley paper. He achieved the coveted position of being a king's scholar at Eton and was there from 1917 to 1921. He had an undistinguished career, and, quite unusually for a king's scholar, he neither went to university nor into a profession, but in a sense into the family business as a police officer in Burma from 1922 to 1927.

When he returned to England on leave he decided to abandon his job and dedicate himself to being a writer. The first five years of the attempt were extremely difficult, but he used his partially self-inflicted condition of poverty to provide the material for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. Partially not to embarrass his family and partially because he felt a need to distance himself from his past, he chose to write under a pseudonym, selecting that most English of first names, George, and the name of a river in Suffolk, near where his parents were then living. During the 1930s he became in terms of reputation a moderately successful novelist. His first novel, Burmese Days (1934), drew upon his experience as a policeman, as did two essays, "Shooting an Elephant" (1936) and "A Hanging" (1931), that have become among the most famous in the language. What was unusual in these writings was his pointing out the illegitimacy of imperialism without being at all sentimental—quite the contrary—about its victims. In rapid succession he wrote two further novels, A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Both of these novels, of which he was not particularly proud, explored the effects of poverty upon members of the middle class. He himself was barely surviving financially. He came to the attention of Victor Gollancz, a prominent publisher and founder of the Left Book Club, who commissioned him to write a study of the effect of poverty in England. The result, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), was a powerful account of the ravages of the Depression. Contrary to the wishes of the book club, the book also included an autobiographical essay combining a critique of the failures of middle-class socialists with a rather romantic vision of the warmth and values of working-class life.

As a reporter he went to Spain shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. The socialist world he found in Barcelona so inspired him that he joined the militia of the POUM, a semi-Trotskyite group. He was almost killed at the front when a bullet went through his neck. When he returned to Barcelona he was caught up in the fighting of the "May Days" in which the communists were trying to suppress those to the left of them. The experience of Spain made him committed to democratic socialism "as I understand it" as well as a dedicated anticommunist. His magnificent account of his time in Spain, Homage to Catalonia (1938), received scant attention and did not achieve much of a readership until it was reissued in 1952, when he was much better known and had become a useful document in the Cold War. On his return to England he published one more traditional novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), in which he contrasted the tawdry values of contemporary England with the quality of life earlier in the century.

His experience in Spain and his personal happiness in his marriage to Eileen O'Shaughnessy in 1936 ushered in the period in which he became a writer of his canonical essays and many shorter pieces. Although he never changed his name legally (remarking that he would then have to find another name to write under) he was known to those he met after Spain as "George Orwell." With great skill he now examined in sympathetic and insightful ways popular culture, such as his piece on boys' weeklies and comic postcards. He also became a guardian of the language (most famously in "Politics and the English Language," published in 1946). With the outbreak of World War II he committed himself to both patriotism and socialism, holding that England must change dramatically politically while maintaining its traditional values. Both in terms of health and age he could not serve, other than in the Home Guard. He worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation on its Talks Service to India, and he became a regular columnist and literary editor for the socialist weekly Tribune, writing a very successful series of columns, "As I Please."

His ideas about how the communists betrayed the socialist revolution bore fruit in his fable Animal Farm (1945), which made him internationally famous. Four years later he published Nineteen Eighty-Four on the same theme. The central figure of the latter novel, Winston Smith, is employed to rewrite the past in order to make it conform to the ever-changing political position of Airstrip One (Britain), part of Oceania, one of the three great powers in the world. He made permanent contributions to the language—terms too easily used, as he would have hated, as clichés—such as "Big Brother," "Thought Police," "two plus two equals five," and indeed "Orwellian." He conceived the book as a warning rather than, as those on the right saw it, as a prophecy.

Of Orwell's traditional novels, Burmese Days is the best. All of his books of reportage are excellent, with Homage to Catalonia having great moral authority. Animal Farm is a gem. Nineteen Eighty-Four, though crude at times, has great power. He is one of the best essayists in the language, writing in the plain prose of the English tradition, being able to project both his personality and a sense of truth. Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950.

See alsoAnticommunism; Antifascism; Spanish Civil War; Totalitarianism.


Primary Sources

Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Edited by Peter Davidson. 20 vols. London, 1998.

Secondary Sources

Crick, Bernard R. George Orwell. Boston, 1980.

Sheldon, Michael. Orwell. New York, 1991.

Stansky, Peter, and William Abrahams. The Unknown Orwell. New York, 1972.

——. Orwell: The Transformation. New York, 1979.

Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. New York, 2003.

Peter Stansky