It Happened
in History!
(Go to It Happened in History Archives)

George Orwell

June 25 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 society.

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 there difficult.

"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 throughout the 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. 

Although 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 of Scotland. 

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 regimes.

Undoubtedly, 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. 

Following 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 copies. 

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

Search Now:

Indulge Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling
Fiction - Nonfiction - DVDs

- HOME -

NOTE: All material on this site is copyright protected.  No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically,  mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author.  Contact the editors for right to reprint.  All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers.  Copyright 2006 by the American Society of Authors and Writers.







Hit Counter