George Orwell was the pen name of British author Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903–21 January 1950). Noted as a political and cultural commentator, Orwell is among the most widely admired English-language essayists of the twentieth century, though he is best known for two novels he wrote in the late 1940s, the political allegory Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The latter described a totalitarian dystopia so vividly that the adjective 'Orwellian' is now commonly used to describe totalitarian mechanisms of thought-control.
Eric Blair was born in 1903 in Motihari, Bengal, in the British colony of India, where his father, Richard, worked for the Opium Department of the Civil Service. His mother, Ida, brought him to England at the age of one. He did not see his father again until 1907, when Richard visited England for three months before leaving again until 1912. Eric had an older sister named Marjorie and a younger sister named Avril. With his characteristic humor, he would later describe his family's background as "upper-lower-middle class."
At the age of five, Blair was sent to a small Anglican parish school in Henley, which his sister had attended before him. He never wrote of his recollections of it, but he must have impressed the teachers very favorably for two years later he was recommended to the headmaster of one of the most successful preparatory schools in England at the time: St Cyprian's School, in Eastbourne, Sussex. Young Eric attended St Cyprian's on a scholarship that allowed his parents to pay only half of the usual fees. Many years later, he would recall his time at St Cyprian's with biting resentment in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," but he did well enough to earn scholarships to both Wellington and Eton colleges.
After a term at Wellington, Eric moved to Eton, where he was a King's Scholar from 1917 to 1921. Later in life he wrote that he had been "relatively happy" at Eton, which allowed its students considerable independence, but also that he ceased doing serious work after arriving there. Reports of his academic performance at Eton vary: some claim he was a poor student, others deny this. It is clear that he was disliked by some of his teachers, who resented what they perceived as disrespect for their authority. In any event, during his time at the school Eric made lifetime friendships with a number of future British intellectuals.
Burma and afterwards
After finishing his studies at Eton, having no prospect of gaining a university scholarship and his family's means being insufficient to pay his tuition, Eric joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He resigned and returned to England in 1928 having grown to hate imperialism (as shown by his first novel Burmese Days, published in 1934, and by such essays as 'A Hanging', and 'Shooting an Elephant'). He adopted his pen name in 1933, while writing for the New Adelphi. Perhaps surprisingly for a writer with progressive, socialist views, he chose a pen name that stressed his deep, lifelong affection for the English tradition and countryside: George is the patron saint of England (and George V was monarch at the time), while the River Orwell in Suffolk was one of his most beloved English sites.
Orwell lived for several years in poverty, sometimes homeless, sometimes doing itinerant work, as he recalled in the book Down and Out in Paris and London. He eventually found work as a schoolteacher until ill health forced him to give this up to work part-time as an assistant in a secondhand bookshop in Hampstead, an experience later recounted in the short novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Spanish Civil War
A member of the Independent Labour Party, Orwell felt impelled to fight as an infantryman in the anti-Stalinist POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia he described his admiration for the apparent absence of a class structure in the revolutionary areas of Spain he visited. He also depicted what he believed was the betrayal of that workers' revolution in Spain by the Spanish Communist Party, which was abetted by the Soviet Union. Orwell was shot in the neck (near Huesca) on May 20, 1937, an experience he described in his short essay "Wounded by a Fascist Sniper", as well as in Homage to Catalonia.
Literary career and afterwards
Orwell began supporting himself by writing book reviews for the New English Weekly until 1940. During World War II he was a member of the Home Guard and in 1941 began work for the BBC Eastern Service, mostly working on programmes to gain Indian and East Asian support for Britain's war efforts. He was well aware that he was shaping propaganda, and wrote that he felt like "an orange that's been trodden on by a very dirty boot". Despite the good pay, he quit this job in 1943 to become literary editor of Tribune, a left-wing journal sponsored by a group of Labour Party MPs.
In 1944 Orwell finished his anti-Stalinist allegory Animal Farm, which was published the following year with great critical and popular success. The royalties from Animal Farm provided Orwell with a comfortable income for the first time in his adult life. From 1945 Orwell was the Observer's war correspondent and later contributed regularly to the Manchester Evening News. He was a close friend of the Observer's editor/owner, David Astor and his ideas had a strong influence on Astor's editorial policies. In 1949 his best-known work, the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published. He wrote the novel during his stay on the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland.
Between 1936 and 1945 Orwell was married to Eileen O'Shaughnessy, with whom he adopted a son, Richard Horatio Blair (b. May of 1944). She died in 1945 during an operation. In the fall of 1949, shortly before his death, he married Sonia Brownell.
In 1949 Orwell spoke to the Information Research Department, an organization run by the government to encourage the publication of anti-communist propaganda. He offered them information on the "crypto-communist leanings" of some of his fellow writers and advice on how best to spread the anti-communist message. Orwell's motives for this are unclear, though it does not necessarily follow that he had abandoned the democratic socialism that he consistently promoted - merely that he detested Stalinism, as he had already made very clear in his earlier published works. Some have also speculated that the tuberculosis from which he suffered had affected him mentally.
Orwell died at the age of 46 from tuberculosis which he probably had contracted during the period described in Down and Out in Paris and London. He was in and out of hospitals for the last three years of his life. Having requested burial in accordance to the Anglican rite, he was interred in All Saints' Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire with the simple epitaph: Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th 1903, died January 21st 1950.
During most of his career Orwell was best known for his journalism, both in the British press and in books of reportage such as Homage to Catalonia (describing his experiences during the Spanish Civil War), Down and Out in Paris and London (describing a period of poverty in these cities), and The Road to Wigan Pier (which described the living conditions of poor miners in northern England). According to Newsweek, Orwell "was the finest journalist of his day and the foremost architect of the English essay since Hazlitt."
Contemporary readers are more often introduced to Orwell as a novelist, particularly through his enormously successful titles Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The former is an allegory of the corruption of the socialist ideals of the Russian Revolution by Stalinism, and the latter is Orwell's prophetic vision of the results of totalitarianism. Orwell had returned from Catalonia a staunch anti-Stalinist and anti-Communist, but he remained to the end a man of the left and, in his own words, a 'democratic socialist'.
Orwell is also known for his insights about the political implications of the use of language. In the essay "Politics and the English Language", he decries the effects of cliche, bureaucratic euphemism, and academic jargon on literary styles, and ultimately on thought itself. Orwell's concern over the power of language to shape reality is also reflected in his invention of Newspeak, the official language of the imaginary country of Oceania in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspeak is a variant of English in which vocabulary is strictly limited by government fiat. The goal is to make it increasingly difficult to express ideas that contradict the official line - with the final aim of making it impossible even to conceive such ideas. (cf. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). A number of words and phrases that Orwell coined in Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered the standard vocabularly, such as "memory hole," "Big Brother," "Room 101," "doublethink," "thought police," and "newspeak."
The comprehensive edition of Orwell's work was edited by Peter Davison and published in 20 volumes in 1998.
Quotations from George Orwell
- "The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." – From the essay "Why I Write" http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/897/
- "Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income." – From the essay "Antisemitism in Britain" http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/antisemitism/
- "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". From 'Animal Farm' (1945).
Main description: Essays of George Orwell
Books about George Orwell
- Gordon Bowker - George Orwell (2003)
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