George Orwell: The Man Behind the Curtain
Without a doubt, George Orwell is one of the most complex writers whose works, written through personal experiences, contain political jests hidden under mists of exciting plotlines. George Orwell was a classic English Socialist as well as a novelist, essayist, and critic (“George Orwell”, “George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”) who has been called one of the most debated writers in modern literature because of his profound examination of the definition of human nature with his allegorical stories and politically-fueled novels. From his works, one might assume that he might be slightly depressed, but in reality, he had experienced many of the problems within social classes and had seen too much of human nature to not express his thoughts on his experiences with others. George Orwell shows that his knowledge of the world contains great depth, as he has experienced all walks of society, and this experience is displayed in his works. However, to understand the complex and interesting life of George Orwell, we must first examine the life of Eric Blair.
Eric Blair’s early life was spent in a variety of places, with a variety of people. Eric Blair, later known as George Orwell, was born on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, India (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 12). The Blair family had moved to India before he was born. As he was of English descent, though born in India, he was a member of the class of “sahibs”, which was the formal title of respect for a European man in colonial India. His family was that of what Orwell described as “lower-middle-class”, which he said meant: “upper-middle class without money” (“George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”); they had high social status but earned little income (“George Orwell”). His mother was a more dominant figure in his life than his father, who worked for the Opium Service (“George Orwell: Voice in a Long Generation”). He had only two sisters: Marjorie, the eldest, and Avril, the youngest, but no brothers. As a child he was shy but an eager and intelligent student who learned without much difficulty in every subject (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 15-18). To further advance the education of her son, Mrs. Blair sent young Eric to St. Cyprian’s, a boarding school on the Sussex coast in England in 1911, when he was 8 years old (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 26,“George Orwell”). It was hard for young Eric to adjust to his new life, without his family, as he was constantly bullied for his intelligence and willingness to learn. Later in his life, Orwell was heard to say: “The new school my parents chose for me was on the East Coast. At first I was miserable there and cried night after night,” (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 34). After a period of time, he began to adjust to his school. He did so well there that he earned a scholarship (“George Orwell”) and went off to pursue his interest in writing.
Once he left his early life behind, he attended college, and sought his place in the world. He had spent nine weeks at Wellington College, where he was a Scholar of the school. With the war that was engulfing the world at the time, many of the older scholars at Eton College were leaving to enlist to fight, so a few spots opened up to the younger scholars in nearby schools. In March 1916, Blair was invited to fill one of the spots, and he accepted (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 84). Blair, K.S. (King’s Scholar), entered College in May 1917, a month before his fourteenth birthday (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 85). He attended Eton College on a scholarship from 1917 to 1921 (“George Orwell”). The next step for most graduating “Collegers” was to go to university, however, Blair was one of the remaining three (of the fourteen in 1921) that did not (the other two went into each of their family’s businesses) (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 140). There are two major reasons that Blair did not continue in the tradition of scholars are the time: money and lack of interest. The Blair family lived off Mr. Blair’s meager pension, to sustain themselves and send Eric to school; to send Eric to university would cost more than the Blairs could afford. In addition, Eric was eighteen and wanted to see the world (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 141-142). In 1922, Blair traveled to Burma following in his father’s footsteps by entering the Indian Imperial Police as Assistant District Superintendent (“George Orwell”) which he retired from in 1927 (“George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”). His days in Burma later inspire him to write Burmese Days in 1935, (“George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”) His family moved with him, as it has been, through hall there previous addresses. Since Blair’s birth in India, the Blair family moved to England, where they lived at a good number of addresses (chronologically): Nutshell, Western Road, Henley-on-Thames(1907-1912), Roselawn, Shiplake (1912-1915), 36 St. Mark’s Road, Henley-on-Thames (1915-1917), 23 Cromwell Crescent, Earl’s Court, London (1917), 23 Mall Chambers, Notting Hill Gate, London (1918-1921) and by the time Blair finished his time at Eton, 40 Stradbroke Road, Southwold (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 147). Blair loved England, especially the country side and had been called by one writer, “quintessentially English” in this way (“George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”). By 1927, Blair had moved himself into the East End of London after being haunted by guilt of social classes and races. He wanted to see how the people of the London slums lived and survived. Down and Out in Paris and London was his first book, published on Monday, January 9, 1933 (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 3). The book was inspired by his time working lower class jobs in Paris and London. (“George Orwell”) Down and Out in Paris and London was the first work in which Eric Blair took the pseudonym “George Orwell” (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, xvii). As it turns out, Blair did not even choose the name “George Orwell”, his publisher, Victor Gollancz did. At first, Gollancz wanted to use just “X” for Blair’s pseudonym, but Blair had used that for other smaller works in local papers, and wanted his new name to be different (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 15). The “Orwell” came from the River Orwell in East Anglia (a section of England located on the Sussex Coast); George is a common English name (“George Orwell”). Most of the reviews for Down and Out in Paris in London were positive, but one critic published a scathing review in which he called Orwell’s works: “inaccurate because there was always a way out for him,” (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 16). From mid-October 1934 to August 1935, he lived in 77 Parliament Hill, Hampstead, London, Great Britain (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 72, 92). Orwell would go on to begin his successful career as a writer, despite all of what his critics said and what his parents thought of his career.
Orwell finally began to see what he thought of politics, and so moved on to more complex ideas than those in his youth. He was a proud member of the ILP: the Independent Labour Party, until World War II broke out (“George Orwell: Voice to a Long Generation”). While he only became a member of ILP in June 1938, the Spanish Civil War (which lasted from 1936 to 1939), had been ongoing for two years (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 237, “Spanish Civil War Breaks Out”). The ILP had a sister party, the POUM, or the Party of Marxism Unification, located in Spain. Many English ILP members at the time wanted to help Spain: Orwell was one such person (as he was developing an interest in joining the group); he and many other men signed up to be in the POUM militia. Orwell was transferred to Spain to ILP representative John McNair and he arrived in Barcelona on December 30th, 1936. He was placed in the 3rd Regiment, Division Lenin led by Commandante Georges Kopp. Although Orwell’s brigade was only half a mile from the line of fighting they saw very little action (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 237-238, 242-245). He was inspired to write the novel The Road to Wigan Pier because he served in the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War (“George Orwell”). The Road to Wigan Pier describes living among the unemployed of the real working class (“George Orwell: Voice of a Long Generation”). As a result of his fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became severely afraid of communism and began write Homage to Catalonia in 1938 (“George Orwell”). Orwell used letters that he wrote to his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, during the war to help him recall events (Stansky and Abraham, Orwell¸ 248). Orwell had met Eileen O’Shaughnessy at his friend Rosalind’s party in 1935. Eileen was another friend of Rosalind’s. After leaving the party, Orwell is noted to have said: “Eileen O’Shaughnessy is the girl I want to marry.” Eric Blair and Eileen O’Shaughnessy were married in June, 1936. Eileen was a very dedicated and faithful wife; when Orwell enlisted to fight for POUM, Eileen felt that she wanted to be closer to her husband and so she took a secretary job for John McNair. They were happily married for nine years: until Eileen died in 1945 (Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell, 108,110,247). After the war, he went back to England, where he continued writing until his death. He had wanted to fight in World War II, but he had developed tuberculosis that could not be treated (Crick). The last pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four were written in a remote house on the Hebridean island of Jura, between bouts of this tuberculosis. Orwell died of tuberculosis in a London hospital in January 1950 (“George Orwell”) .
Orwell’s interest in writing started when he young. In fact he knew he wanted to be a writer since he was about four or five (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 18). He read Gulliver’s Travels at least seven times at different stages in his life, the first time begin the night before his eighth birthday. He snuck downstairs in his house and found the book, which was his birthday present (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 19). The faraway setting, poetic language, and allegorical fairy tale hidden meaning intrigued him. Even as a child, Orwell greatly admired the works of other classic British writers, such as Kipling, and their influences are seen in his writing (Stansky and Abrahams, Unknown, 13). It is known that most, if not all of his works, are based on politics in his era. Popular themes in his works included: government systems, sex and the views of sex, interaction between persons, and comparisons to real-world people and events (Firchow). His two most widely recognized novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, feature at least three out of four of these aspects. Another interesting fact is that almost every one of his works contains a character that is like Orwell. It is important to remember that Orwell writes fiction, not history (Firchow). The events that occur in his novels are based either off his personal experiences or are paralleled to historical events, but the stories and characters are a work of fiction. Whether Orwell wrote fiction because he had a great imagination and wanted to express events in a fictitious way or he feared persecution by the political systems that he was imitating for showing them in a negative way is not clear, but we should all be glad that he started writing, because he had a great gift for story-telling.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of Orwell’s most famous works. Written in 1948, Nineteen Eighty-Four reverses the last two digits of the year it was written. This novel is similar to another of Orwell’s work, Animal Farm and another novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, as they all feature dystopian societies (Firchow). Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of an oppressive society that exists in a fictional world. The main protagonist of this story is Winston Smith, a clerk at the Ministry of Truth, a government agency responsible for the rewriting of any written document that contains information that contradicts the current government, their predictions, statements, or government leader, Big Brother. Big Brother is the face of the government, the leader, though it is not certain if he even exists. Everyone is equipped with telescreens that are monitored by the government. One can never know which screen they are looking through at any one moment. In the area where Smith, called Airstrip One, the government system is “INGSOC” which is Newspeak for “English socialism”. “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism” Its purpose is to decrease the number of words in the English language but still have words that can be used to express the same idea. For example, the word “good” takes the place of all its synonyms (wonderful, terrific, amazing, etc.) and its negative “bad” is erased, replaced by prefixes such as plus-, double-, and doubleplus-; it one wanted to describe how amazingly wonderful something is, he or she would use “doubleplusgood”, if they wanted to describe something as bad, he or she would say “ungood” ( to that extent, something incredibly terrible would be “doubleplusungood”). Useless words can be removed from language. In addition to rewriting history, denying citizens basic necessities to life, and changing the language, Big Brother also requires all the citizens of Oceania to know the code of Ingsoc that was indoctrinated in every citizen from their earliest days:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Smith knows these codes but does not believe them as many of his “comrades” do. The police force of Oceania is the Thought Police; there are no actual police, because there is no actually crime, just think-crime which is the only offense in this society. Thoughtcrime is simply thinking, going as far as conspiring, against Big Brother. As Smith once observed: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death”. The Thought-Police may not catch you in the beginning but they will always get you in the end. You can be certain that when they will do, you will never know yourself again. The novel concludes with the standard Thought Police execution: an unknown period of time in which a thoughcriminal is tortured, beaten within an inch of life, confused, testing, and reshaped into a model follower of Big Brother, followed by immediate death by shooting (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four).
The reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four presented a challenge, as the ideas it presented were a bit before my time, however, it brings the mind through these ideas with some help. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. When reading this book, it is important to keep in mind the time period in which it was written, post-World War II/rise of communism era. The USSR, led by Dictator Joseph Stalin, had an iron grip on its citizens through its claims of “communism”. Pure communism, also known as Marxism or pure Marxism, is a utopian society in which every person works as much as he or she can and receive goods based on their individual needs. There is no central government because society has no use for it. For leaders like Stalin, Mao Zedong, or even Big Brother to claim that they rule a “communist” society is a lie. I find the character of Julia, Winston’s lover and fellow conspirer, to be my favorite character, as she shows the views of how the younger generation responds to the government. The children in Nineteen Eighty-Four are trained to seek of potential thought-criminals, even reporting their own parents if they find them guilty. Like Winston, Julia portrays herself as a member of Oceania by participating in community events and organizations (like the Junior Anti-Sex League) to hide her true thoughts and feelings about the society,. Nineteen Eighty-Four examines the mindset of a brainwashed people: how the sheep follow mindlessly the hateful battle cries of their government without reason and how certain people rebel. It leaves one to wonder how current government and social ideas will look to newer generations.
Orwell was a very creative, complex, and complicated, and Peter Edgerly Firchow and Sir Bernard Crick share with readers their ideas on his enigmatic novels. Sir Crick once said of Orwell: “There is so much more to Orwell than his books, impressive though they are,” (Crick). This is very true as many of Orwell’s works are based off his personal experiences (Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia, and many others), and because of this, readers are more prone to trust him. He could describe both sides in his writings because Orwell went through many important events and often saw both sides of politics. For example, Animal Farm affirms the dream of a “golden free time,” while at the same time denying that such a golden future time has yet to arrive. Animal Farm presents an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1907. All of the characters and places represent important members and people during that time (Firchow). The pigs represent the leaders at the time while the various barnyard animals represent the different types of people that were important at the time. Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four presented an alternate society that might have happened if communism had overcome democracy. The work also showed how badly things would go if power was pursued for its own sake. His polemic, The Lion and the Unicorn written 1941, was written to express his hatred of Fascism and Hitlerism. The lion and the unicorn symbolizing Britain as the sign of Britain is a lion and a unicorn standing side by side (Crick).
Eric Blair, or George Orwell, lived a very eventful life filled with many experiences that the average person would never undergo. With all his life experiences, Orwell gained a rather exclusive outlook on the world. He had seen despair, fear, depression, happiness, and anger in every form. He knew what it felt to be bullied, to have no purpose in life, to be poor, and to be rich. By his journey around much of the world and in all walks of life, Orwell came to understand the definition of human dignity, and what it means to be human. Orwell used his background, education, and imagination to portray to the rest of the world, who may not ever feel these things as strongly as he did, how if one man can accomplish so much, then all of humanity can accomplish so much more for everyone.