George Orwell

George Orwell was an influential British author who became famous in the 1940s for his two classic anti-totalitarian novels, Animal Farm and 1984. He was born in 1903 and died of TB at the age of 46. He married twice, and wrote nine novels and numerous essays. His name has entered the English language as the adjective "Orwellian," usually used to mean relating to the sinister government and dystopian world of 1984.


Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair, in the small Indian village of Motihari, near the border of Nepal. His parents, Richard Walmesley Blair and Ida Mebel Limonzin, were fairly well-off British civil servants. Orwell later jokingly referred to them as "lower upper middle class." They moved back to England in 1907 so that Eric and his sister would enjoy a more traditional upbringing. Orwell attended Eton College in 1917, but did not win a scholarship to a university, and so in 1921 he returned to India and joined the Indian Imperial Police.

Orwell spent six years in India, during which he acquired a distaste for colonialism and its political injustices. His feelings and some of his experiences can be found in his second novel, Burmese Days, as well as his essays "Shooting an Elephant" and "The Hanging." He returned to England in 1927.

Back in Europe, Orwell lived in self-imposed poverty. He tramped around London, and worked in downtrodden hotels in Paris, only occasionally surfacing for a little assistance from his family. Several years later, he changed his life to facilitate his career as a writer. He found a job as a private teacher, taught, owned a book shop, and wrote. In 1933 he published the mostly auto-biographical Down and Out in Paris and London. He was concerned that the book would be poorly received, so he published it under the pseudonym "George Orwell." He needn't have worried; Down and Out was a mildly successful, and the bulk of his writing published under that name have made the pseudonym a highly recognizable one among the works of literature.

The next year he published Burmese Days, although not without difficulty. Editors were concerned about the content being too sharply critical, although eventually Orwell managed to get the book out. He was also becoming more interested in politics, associating with members of the International Labor Party. At this point in his life he was no socialist, although its fair to say that throughout Orwell's career he showed a distate for machine-age capitalism. However, Orwell's politics over the course of his career are complicated and often contradictary.

Orwell continued writing at a pretty good clip. He published A Clergyman's Daughter in 1935. This novel was a collection of stories about the strange adventures of a spinster in Kent. It sold poorly, and of all of Orwell's novels, draws the least from his life experiences. Draw your own conclusions. Next Orwell published Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a sort of gentle parody of Orwell's own anti-wealth ideals. The protagonist of the book, Gordon Comstock, is a rather dreary man who works in a dingy bookstore, avoiding "respectable" employment but heavily resenting his own poverty.

Then came 1936, a year which for Orwell brought many changes. He was commissioned by the Left Book Club to write a book about the poor industrial workers of northern England. Orwell travelled to coal mines, gathering information for his book, in what was probably his first real encounter with ordinary working-class people. These experiences had the effect of turning him on more to socialism. However, the book he wrote, The Road to Wigan Pier, contained Orwell's usual dedication to plain-writing and honesty, and was seen by the Left Book Club as being overly disdainful of the socialist movement. It criticized socialists for their middle-class background and induced a preface by the chairman of the Book Club which responds to a few of Orwell's points. Thus was Orwell's reputation established as a bit of an iconoclastic leftist.

That same year, Orwell was married for the first time, to Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy. Civil war broke out in Spain, and the two of them travelled to Barcelona, where Orwell enlisted in the militia of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification. (POUM) The POUM were socialists fighting the Stalinist coup against the Spanish government. Orwell was greatly impressed by the classless society both envisioned and put into practice in the POUM, and he came to believe that socialism was a possible ideal and worth fighting for. Orwell saw some fighting, nothing heavy, but was shot in the neck by a sniper. This wound left him voiceless and partially paralyzed in one arm, and he returned to England to heal.

When Orwell, healthy, returned to Spain, he found that the Stalinists were firmly in control. With the POUM being put up against the wall, so to speak, Orwell escaped back to England. Orwell believed that the left wing of England had too easily swallowed the anti-POUM propaganda of the Communists. He was then determined that the world (England, anyway) needed a good socialist revolution. He was disgusted with Stalinist Communism and totalitarianism in general. He published Homage to Catalonia, an account of his experiences in the war, in an effort to set the record straight.

It was during this time in his life that Orwell contracted tuberculosis, a disease which he would eventually die from. He wrote Coming Up for Air from Marrakech, Morrocco, a novel in which a 45 year old protagonist reflects on his life. The book also dealt with Orwell's thoughts on the coming world war and its effects on society. When the war did break out, Orwell enlisted to fight the Nazis, but was turned down for health reasons. He could not write novels due to wartime life and restrictions on publication, rather devoting himself to magazine and newspaper articles.

In 1941 Orwell went to work for the BBC, as an Indian broadcaster. It was here that he started getting ideas for 1984. He adopted a son in 1944. The next year, tragedy struck him, as his wife died under anaesthesia during a routine surgery. Orwell kept a stiff upper lip in the tradition imparted by his English education, but his wife's death stuck him rather strongly, and left the remainder of his life quite lonely.

Orwell resigned from the BBC in 1945 and began work on Animal Farm. When it was eventually published, Orwell very suddenly became very famous, but he shied away from the spotlight, moving to the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. The climate there did not do good things for his TB. In 1948, in pain from his disease, he wrote 1984. 1984 was inspired by We, an earlier work by Russian writer Evgeny Zamyatin. The name of 1984 comes from a transposition of the numbers in the year in which it was written. Orwell said that his purpose writing it was "to alter people's idea of the kind of society they should strive after."

1984 did just that, standing as one of the classics works of literature. Although Orwell was distressed by his novel's initial adoption as a source of anti-Communist propaganda, his work has stood the test of time for better or worse. Orwell returned to England and married Sonia Brownwell in September of 1949. He died four months later of complications related to tuberculosis.


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)
Animal Farm (1945)
1984 (1948)

+ many assorted essays, literary criticisms, etc.

A few factual corrections to dogwalker's otherwise excellent write-up:

The POUM were not "a group of rebels fighting against the Stalinist Spanish government." The Spanish Civil War started as a right-wing military revolt against the Popular Front government: the POUM and the Stalinist Communists were both fighting to defend the government, at least at first.

Orwell left the BBC in 1943. not 1945. He was Literary Editor of Tribune, a (then) socialist political magazine, between 1943 and 1945.

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