Orwell, George

Tagged: Author | Critic

Pseudonym of Indian-born UK author Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), briefly but intensely in the early 1940s the partner of Inez Holden; much of his best work was contained in his impassioned journalism and essays, assembled in the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (each coll 1968). His fiction and extended social criticism, as in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), also demonstrates his general good sense and the intense clarity of his mind. Two of his books are of sf interest. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1945 chap) is a Satire in the form of a Beast Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] whose primary target is the totalitarian Dystopia that Communist doctrine and Stalin's terroristic leadership had created in the 1930s USSR. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers, including Victor Gollancz (1893-1967), partly because its disillusion was discomfitingly prescient while the USSR remained a Western ally during World War Two, and partly because it savagely undermined the belief structure of those in the West who continued to gamble on the eventual success of what they continued to perceive as a valid experiment in socialism, despite the broken eggs. The impact of Animal Farm depends not only on its brilliantly executed fable form, but on the consequences of taking it seriously: for it mocks not only the ideals of socialism or Communism (many of which Orwell shared) but their corrupt embodiment in any contemporary modernizing state. Despite this universality of address, however, the USSR is clearly the main target. A great revolution takes place on the Farm, but its initial idealism is soon subverted by the Pigs, whose leader, Napoleon, seizes power and distils the Revolution's original Seven Commandments (the last being "All animals are equal") into to a single utterance written in capitals on the communal wall: All Animals Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others. The attack on Stalin is devastating. A cartoon version of the tale was filmed as Animal Farm (1955), animated by John Halas and Joy Batchelor.

Orwell's most famous book remains Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which was published shortly before his death of tuberculosis and which generated, once again, a complex response, especially on the part of some of his colleagues on the Left, who accused him (mistakenly) of betrayal; just as imperceptively, those on the Right tended to welcome it as straightforward propaganda against socialism. It was filmed twice: as 1984 (1955) and as Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984); a made-for-television movie, The Road to 1984 (1984), speculates on the possible truth of Orwell's vision. With Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four is the century's most famous English-language Dystopia, though it clearly reflects the influence of Yevgeny Zamiatin's We (1924). It is a book of hectic, devilish, claustrophobic intensity, so nightmarish in the telling that some critics have faulted it (unwisely) for subjective imbalance. In 1984, the world is divided into three vast enclaves: Britain, now known as Airstrip One, is devastatingly shabby – never having been decently rebuilt after a nuclear World War Three fought in the 1950s – and without hope. It is hard to resist a sense that Orwell was painting, with an unusual savagery of verisimilitude, the UK that he knew, setting much of the action in a London very similar to the 1940s city, still unhealed after World War Two – 1984 being simply a partial inversion of 1948. But only those whose Politics were radically to the right of Orwell's own, and who might have blamed the condition of Britain in 1948 on socialism, could have argued that his presentation of the totalitarian regime ruling Airstrip One could have been intended solely to describe the contemporary Labour government of the UK. The rulers of Airstrip One (symbolized by images of Big Brother) use their ability to inflict pain to drive the fact of their power into the masses, whose lives are mercilessly regimented by the Thought Police and who live in squalid barracks monitored by two-way television, their thoughts controlled by the Newspeak to which Orwell devoted a scathing appendix, not itself written in Newspeak, which allows the reader to infer that the world of the novel is governed by deeply cynical Secret Masters who know exactly what they were creating, and who retain the language to describe it. There is nothing adventitious about Airstrip One. "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable." (see Media Landscape.) The scarifying story of Winston Smith's attempt to liberate himself, and of his eventual surrender of all his human dignity under Torture (see Crime and Punishment) in Room 101 makes up the actual plot of the book as Winston begins to think only the thinkable. "Do not forget this," his chief torturer, one of the owners of the world, tells him at the finish, after glorying in the end of all natural human affinities and goals: "Always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler ... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever."

As an indictment of the deep tendency of modern, technologically sophisticated modernizing states to manage reality, and as a further devastating assault upon the actual situation in the USSR of 1948, Nineteen Eighty-Four was unmatched. Its pessimism was both distressing and salutary (see Optimism and Pessimism). Its understanding of the nightmare of power – when wielded by representatives of a species evolved beyond the constraints of Evolution – remains definitive. [JC]

see also: History of SF; Linguistics; Music; Poland; Psychology; SF Music; Sociology; Theatre.

Eric Arthur Blair

born Motihari, Bengal, India: 25 June 1903

died London: 21 January 1950

works (selected)

nonfiction (selected)

series

Collected Essays

individual titles

about the author

The critical literature on Orwell is vast; a short selection follows:

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