Originally named Eric Arthur Blair, George Orwell was born in Bengal, British India in 1903. He attended Eton College, became a colonial policeman in Burma, school teacher, militia man, retailer, and down-and-out. Under his pen name, George Orwell, he drew on these experiences and many more to address the major political themes of his times. He inspired generations of writers, political thinkers, and critics through his essays and novels. George Orwell was a writer unafraid to speak plain truths to power and stand up for the cause of common decency, as he saw it.
Orwell Was a Political Writer
The political orientation in Orwell’s writings is always present. His early novels were concerned with poverty (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933), imperialism (Burmese Days, 1934), and the drudgery of provincial life (The Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936).
Yet while Orwell was a sharp political writer, he was a peculiar socialist. His socialism was less about political systems, and more about what he called “common decency” – which he associated with honesty, simplicity, and respectability.
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Unless there were “corrupt motives for clinging to the present system”, he once wrote, it should be “obvious that everyone should get their fair share.” Common decency was a cherished idea in Orwell’s lexicon, and through this lens, he regarded socialism as simple common sense.
Good Prose Is Like a Window Pane
Following on from his idea of common decency, for Orwell the imperative of “plain speaking” in political writing, was a matter of necessity. Throughout his works, direct statements of principle and the “blatantly obvious” catch the eye. “Good prose,” he once declared “is like a windowpane.”
In Politics and the English Language (1946), Orwell took the opposition to task, stating that the political decadence of twentieth-century politics was mirrored in the “ugly and inaccurate” written English of the times. Modern writing was full of stale metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. At its worst, “sloppy writing” encouraged “sloppy thinking.”
Good political writing must by contrast strive to see things as they are, and tell truths that most are unable, or unwilling to make. With his trademark “plain speaking” style, Orwell took it upon himself to master the art of political writing and convey the truth as he saw it through insightful, unencumbered prose.
Homage to Catalonia (1938)
In 1936 Orwell set out for the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with the intention of joining the fight against Fascism. In Barcelona, he enlisted in the anti-Stalinist POUM militia, and served on the Aragon front, before being shot in the neck on 20 May 1937.
Orwell was rushed to hospital, operated on, and transported back to Barcelona. Thanks to the vigilance of his wife Eileen, they both managed to evade the communist purges rapidly enveloping the city. They departed Spain in June. Upon returning to England, simmering with anti-Stalinist rage, he wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938).
Orwell’s narrative offers a priceless glimpse into the life of a militia man and the descent of Barcelona into a hotbed of Stalinist intrigue after 1937. Homage to Catalonia did much to raise awareness about the Spanish Civil War and endures as a classic memoir of the war.
Animal Farm (1944)
Foremost among Orwell’s literary works are his novels. Animal Farm (1944), a retelling of the story of the Russian Revolution and its corruption under Joseph Stalin, is perhaps his most acclaimed. Animal Farm is an allegorical tale of a harshly governed farm where the humans represent the aristocrats and capitalists, while the animals represent the people. The animals rise up, and conditions improve, only to become tainted by corruption.
According to Orwell, Animal Farm was his first attempt to write a novel that expressed his political ideas in “plain style”. It was also a brave book to write in 1944, at a time when the Soviet Union and Britain were allies. Initially, several publishers, including T.S. Elliot at Faber and Faber, refused to publish. Consequently, Animal Farm stands as both a result of Orwell’s mission to transform political writing into art, and a testament to his unwavering opposition to totalitarianism in all of its forms.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – also published as 1984 – serves as both a dystopian novel and a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism. It was Orwell’s last novel and was written on the remote Scottish island of Jura. It was published shortly before his death in 1950. Set in a bleak dystopian future consumed by totalitarianism, individualism, and emotions have been replaced by science and efficiency. In this context, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist, Winston Smith, attempts small forms of rebellion against the Party and its omnipresent figurehead, “Big Brother.”
The enduring legacy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is in the reproduction of its phraseology in popular culture and analysis, from “thought crime” and “newspeak,” to “doublethink.” Above all, the term “Orwellian” continues to be used (and abused) to describe characteristics and politics deemed to be totalitarian.