of this year marks more than a century since the birth of English novelist, essayist, and critic George
Orwell. Born Eric Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India, in 1903, he
is best known for his political satires, Animal Farm (1945), an
anti-Soviet Union tale, and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a bitter
protest against the results of corrupting truth and free speech in modern
Orwell was the second child of Richard Walmesley Blair and Ida Mabel
Limonzin. His mother was the daughter of a modestly well-to-do
tea-merchant in Burma. His father was a customs officer in the British
opium trade. They sent young Orwell back to England to attend boarding
school at Sunnylands, Henley, an Anglican school run by nuns. From
1911-1916, he was a boarder at St. Cyprian's preparatory school, Eastbourne,
Sussex. From 1917-1921, he studied at Eton, although he found being
"It was an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of
becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive," he said.
"...In a world where the prime necessities were money, titled relatives,
athleticism, tailor-made clothes, neatly brushed hair, a charming smile, I
was no good."
Orwell's comparative lack of wealth and the reaction to him by fellow
students was one of the main reasons he soon developed a
distaste for the English class system--something he would write about
rest of his life.
After failing to win a college scholarship, Orwell went
in 1922 to Burma to serve in the Indian Imperial Police (1922-27) as an
assistant superintendent. Eventually, his distaste for imperial rule
led him to resign. Shooting an Elephant (1950) is a collection
of essays revealing the behavior of his fellow colonial officers. In one
of his most famous early essays, "A Hanging" (1931), a
Hindu man is hanged quickly, albeit with a flurry of ceremonial routine.
"An enormous relief had come upon us now that the job was done. One felt an
impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone
began chattering gaily."
Orwell returned to Europe broke and disheartened. He spent several
years in poverty wandering between London and Paris, working as a dishwasher
and hanging around with hobos and prostitutes. He had himself arrested
for drunkenness in order to gain some knowledge about life in prison.
He wrote his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Worried about how his parents might react to the
book, he published it under the pseudonym of George Orwell, the name he
wrote under for the rest of his life. Although Orwell never became a
full-time vagrant, he "dabbled" in the lifestyle every now and then, as much
as an explorer than anything else.
"The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people - people
who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up
trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary
standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work." - Down and Out in Paris and London
Unable to support himself through his writing, Orwell accepted a position
at a private school, where he finished his first book of fiction, Burmese Days,
in 1934. Two years later, he married Eileen O'Shaugnessy, a doctor's
daughter. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the story of a young
bookseller's assistant, appeared in 1936.
During this period of his life, Orwell adopted numerous socialistic
views. Like many of his literary peers, he traveled to Spain in1937 to report
on the Civil War. When he arrived in Barcelona, communists and
anarchists were running the city. At first, he saw it as a kind of
utopia, where everyone was equal and no one was poor, and he signed up to
fight against the Fascists. He fought alongside the United Workers
Marxist Party militia and was shot through the throat by a Franco
supporter's bullet. He later witnessed the Communists suppressing
democracy as fervently as the Fascists had done, leading him to believe that
revolutionaries on the left wing are every bit as dangerous as those on the
right. He wrote about his experiences in the book, Homage to Catalonia (1938). When his own Stalinist party members began hunting down and imprisoning his
friends, Orwell and his wife fled Spain. His experiences turned him
away from communism and back toward British socialism, which he saw as more
tolerant of individual freedoms.
Orwell initially opposed war with Nazi Germany, he eventually enlisted and
served as a sergeant in the Home Guard. He also worked as a journalist
for the BBC, the Observer, and the Tribune, where he was
literary editor from 1943 to 1945. Toward the end of the war, he wrote
Animal Farm, which depicted the betrayal of a revolution.
After the war, Orwell went to Germany as a reporter, but in his
dispatches he sent to The Observer and The Manchester Evening
News, he never mentioned the extermination camps or Auschwitz. In
England, he lived mostly on the remote island of Jura in the Western Isles
Orwell was regarded by friends and enemies alike as an uncompromising
individualist and political idealist. V.S. Pritchett called him "the
wintry conscience of a generation," and both the Left and Right political
wings have espoused his work in their ideological debates.
"The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that
one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one
does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse
impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken
up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon
other human individuals." - "Reflections on Gandhi," from Shooting an Elephant, 1949
In 1998, Martin Seymour-Smith listed Orwell's Dystopia among the
100 most influential books ever written. Although best known as a
novelist, the author also wrote some of the finest essays of the 20th-century,
and he produced newspaper articles and reviews that were carefully crafted
for such journals as Partisan Review, Adelphi, and Horizon.
Without hesitating, he often called Yeats a fascist, accused H.G. Wells
of being out of touch with reality, and declared Salvador Dali decadent.
He defended P.G. Wodehouse. In "Why Write?" and "Politics and the
English Language" (1948), Orwell argued that writers have an obligation to
fight against social injustice, oppression, and the power of totalitarian
Orwell is remembered best for his two greatest works of allegorical fiction.
Animal Farm (1945), a political fable about Stalinism, features a
group of barnyard animals who chase off their human masters and set up their
own society. The smartest animals, the pigs, eventually take control
and turn out to be even more callous and ruthless than the humans they
replaced. In the book, Orwell wrote, "All animals are equal but some
animals are more equal than others."
Unable to find a publisher for the book initially, it was eventually
picked up and became an immediate success. For the first time, Orwell had
money in his pockets. In some countries,
Animal Farm was
distributed by the United States government. When Orwell died, the CIA
secretly bought the movie rights to the book from his widow, made an
animated-film version in England, and distributed it all over the world.
his literary success with
Animal Farm, Orwell was able to devote more
time--between bouts with his tuberculosis--to working on his political
masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a novel set in a future
where the world is controlled by totalitarian
police states. He knew he didn't have much time left to write the
book, so he wrote constantly, even when his doctors forbade him to work.
They took away his typewriter, and he switched to a ballpoint pen.
They pub his arm in plaster, and he learned to write with his good hand.
When the book was finally finished, Orwell told his publisher that it was
too dark a novel to make much money, but it, like
Animal Farm, became
an immediate bestseller. The book gave us words and phrases such as "Big Brother
is watching," "thought Police," "newspeak," and "doublethink." Orwell
said, "On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not
quite all the time." Since it was first published, it has been
translated into sixty-two languages and has sold more than ten million
Orwell's wife died in 1945, shortly after
Animal Farm was
published. Orwell remained single until 1949, when he remarried.
He died three months later from tuberculosis on Jan. 21, 1950, shortly after
publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. With all of his work still
in print in so many different languages, critics have estimated that every
year one million people read George Orwell for...for the very first time.
Discover George Orwell
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling