George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

And Nineteen Eighty-four

By Bram de Bruin and Ian Mackean
 

The Ministry of Truth - Minitrue, in Newspeak - was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH [From Nineteen Eighty-four]

 

Few writers have been so straightforward yet so controversial as Eric Arthur Blair, who took the pen-name George Orwell in order not to embarrass his parents on the publication of Down and out in Paris and London (1933).  Orwell was a great thinker, whose writing has influenced our understanding of twentieth century politics.  He was outspoken in his opinions, sometimes to the point of rudeness, yet those who knew him considered him to be a genteel man.  His use of English is impeccable in its transparency, with the result that his writings are a pleasure to read. 

Orwell was straightforward yet controversial in that he held firm to his belief in the value of individuality and humanity, even when his views brought him into conflict with those on the political left or right.  He refused to adapt his views to fit political doctrines, and although generally socialist in outlook he never joined a political party; to have done so he would have considered restraining, and he was not to be restrained.   He preferred to offer his readers the truth as he saw it, even though most of his early writing was rejected because of publishers’ reservations about its political content.  For example T. S. Eliot rejected Animal Farm in 1944 when Orwell offered it to Faber and Faber. 

Orwell was born in the Indian city of Motahari in 1903, the son of Richard and Ida Mabel Blair, both civil servants. After an undistinguished academic career in England, he joined the Indian Civil Police in Burma, during which time he acquired an aversion to colonialism, which he expressed in Burmese Days (1934), and in essays such as ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’.

Returning to Europe in 1927 Orwell went to Paris, initially intending to make his living as a teacher and a writer. Instead he voluntarily spent eighteen months struggling at subsistence level in the streets, observing the appalling circumstances of the poor and destitute.  He wrote about this experience in the first of his books to be published, the autobiographical Down and out in Paris and London.

Orwell's book Homage To Catalonia (1938) drew on his experience in Spain in 1937, where he reported on the Spanish Civil War, and was shot in the neck while fighting against the Fascists.  It was during this period that he saw through the pettiness of totalitarian regimes.  Orwell was a communist in the literal sense of the word. To him communism should involve the commune of man, each bearing his own burden, the sharing of responsibilities, and the fair distribution of wealth. He expressed this in the political satire Animal Farm (1945), which was misunderstood by both the capitalist and communist worlds, being acclaimed in America and forbidden in the Soviet Union.

Some of Orwell’s books, such as Burmese Days, and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) - about unemployment in the north of England at the height of the economic depression - and Animal Farm, were not accepted wholeheartedly by the literary establishment. As a result his writing did not make him financially independent; he still had to work to pay his bills. His best-known novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) could have brought him a degree of wealth, but by then he was too ill with tuberculosis to enjoy the financial gain and he died shortly after its publication, at the age of 46.

Nineteen Eighty-four

In 1949, the year 1984 was sufficiently remote for Orwell to project onto it his fears for the continued existence of free man in a free society.  Nineteen Eighty-four shows his dystopian vision of a world in which propaganda has come to dominate man’s thought, and permeate every aspect of his life to the extent that free will has become subordinate to the dictates of the state.

The central character, Winston Smith, tries to keep himself aloof from the oppressive control of the state, determined to retain his individuality rather than conform to the behaviour expected of a model citizen.  He wishes to have a place of his own in which he can be himself, unobserved by Big Brother’s ever-alert watchdogs, and he sustains his sense of individuality by keeping a diary.

Whether or not 'Big Brother' exists in reality is beside the point; he exists as an idea in the mind of the authorities and the people; a symbol of repression to Winston, and an object of love and reverence to those who have adapted to the state's notion of what is acceptable. The citizen of Airstrip One (Britain) must love Big Brother, and if he doesn’t, he is doomed.

The novel can be seen as a thriller in which the good guy suffers the fate of the bad guy; a world turned upside down.  As does the bad guy in most thrillers, Winston believes himself to be successful for a while.  He embarks upon a forbidden relationship with Julia, who has rebellious attitudes similar to his own, and believes that they can become part of the resistance movement, having contacted its leader, O’Brien.

His hopes are dashed when he is betrayed by this very O’Brien whom he thought to be his ally. Then follow some of the most horrific torture scenes ever described in prose fiction, ending in the ultimate betrayal. Winston's mind and body are broken and he wishes that the thing he fears most should be done to Julia. He now loves Big Brother, and he doesn’t just say so in order to be rid of his torturers; at the moment he utters the words, “I love Big Brother,” he means what he says. The state has won and he is now 'normal'.  When he meets Julia again, all human passion has evaporated and the only conversation that takes place is bland, devoid of feeling, and meaningless.

In many ways the story draws on Europe as it was just before and after World War II, when the political convictions held by opposing groups, each claiming to hold the ultimate truth, were as stifling as the dictates of Big Brother.  In Europe the dividing lines between political and religious factions are less rigid today, but there is still division, and propaganda is still a powerful influence on human action. In some regions of the world an individual’s refusal to give in to what his society wants him to be will bring about his isolation and downfall.

Orwell was acutely aware of the power of propaganda to manipulate a society.  Not only had he gained knowledge of the workings of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Russia in his time as a journalist, but he had also seen propaganda at work when he fought in Spain, and when he himself had been a BBC propagandist, broadcasting messages to wartime Germany imploring the German troops to surrender.

Orwell was an acute observer of his time, and a sage in that he accurately saw the weakness of man and his willingness to believe anything that reinforces his preconceived ideas.  His plea was for people to stop being led by those in charge and to start thinking for themselves.  He expressed this notion most clearly in the behaviour of the sheep in Animal Farm and the proles in Nineteen Eighty-four.  The sheep declare themselves guilty of dissatisfaction even though they have no notion of the implications of doing so, and are actually quite innocent; the mindless proles are a weapon in the hands of the state.

Orwell was conscious of his limitations as a novelist, and some critics argue that Nineteen Eighty-four can hardly be termed a novel, because a novel ought to offer more in the way of characterisation, with the action and the setting being subordinate to character development.  In Orwell’s writings the message is paramount, and the characters are there to drive that message home.  His ‘novels’ are novels of ideas - elaborate and brilliantly conceived political expositions. In this respect he can be seen as continuing the long tradition of prose fiction used as a vehicle for social criticism, the satirical and science-fiction elements of his work even having something in common with Jonathan Swift’s fantastic satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Another criticism is that Nineteen Eighty-four is incomplete, because Orwell needed an appendix to explain terms such as 'Newspeak' and 'Doublethink', while a competent fiction writer should incorporate all relevant information into the narrative itself.  On the other hand it can be argued that the appendix is not really necessary, and that its presence adds a certain pseudo-authority to the fictitious world.

Orwell was the chronicler of a confused society, caught between two world wars.  He depicted the wrongs of colonialism, Stalin’s communism, and authoritarianism in all its manifestations.  He feared the power of the few, whether placed in their position by the workers or by privilege of class, and he did not write from the safe lodgings of the pampered bohemian whose writings, albeit well-meant, were not based on actual experience, but wrote from his own experiences, taking risks and never giving in.

Selected works: Down And Out In Paris and London (1933); Burmese Days (1934); A Clergyman's Daughter (1935); Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936); The Road to Wigan Pier (1937); Homage to Catalonia (1938); Coming Up For Air (1939); Inside The Whale And Other Essays (1940); The Lion And The Unicorn (1941); Animal Farm (1945); Critical Essays (1946); James Burnham And The Managerial Evolution (1946); The English People (1947); Nineteen Eighty-four (1949); Shooting An Elephant (1950); England Your England and Other Essays / Such Were The Joys (1953); A Collection Of Essays (1954); The Orwell Reader (1956); Selected Essays (1957); Selected Writings (1958); Collected Essays (1961); Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (1965); Orwell: The War Broadcasts (1985); The Complete Works Of George Orwell (1998).

Further reading:
Meyers, Valerie. George Orwell (Modern Novelists Series). Palgrave Macmillan. 1991.
Meyers, Jeffrey (Ed). George Orwell (Critical Heritage Series). Routledge. 1975.
Hitchens, Christopher. Orwell's Victory. Penguin. 2003.

© Bram de Bruin and Ian Mackean 2005

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