Authors: George Orwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

British novelist and essayist

June 25, 1903

Motihari, Bengal, India

January 21, 1950

London, England

Biography

George Orwell, with an international reputation based on his two finest works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, has emerged as a prominent prose stylist and perhaps the twentieth century’s most important political writer. Born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, at Motihari in Bengal, India, he was the second child of Richard Walmesley Blair and Ida Mabel Limouzin Blair. Richard Blair, an administrator in the Opium Department of the government of India, had a singularly undistinguished career, and in 1905 his wife and two young children returned to England, where he did not permanently join them until his retirement in 1911.

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Orwell’s early years in Edwardian Henley-on-Thames, although basically idyllic, fostered within him a sense of his family’s precarious position. The ambivalence he felt as a member of the “lower-upper class,” a phrase he used to contrast his family’s social aspirations and their middle-class budget, was heightened during his years in a prestigious preparatory school, St. Cyprian’s, which he first attended in 1911. Orwell enjoyed the freer intellectual atmosphere that he found when he enrolled in Eton College in 1917; he read widely and began to question the conventions of his upbringing, although he did not excel academically.

George Orwell

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(Library of Congress)

Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police and accepted a posting to Burma in 1921. His experiences there proved to be the epitome of all that he despised in the British social system: The natives were resentful and oppressed, the British officers arrogant and prejudiced, and everywhere distinctions of class and power figured absolutely. In August of 1927, Orwell returned to England on leave and almost immediately resigned his position and announced his intention of becoming a writer, a profession for which he had shown no previous inclination.

After several fruitless months in England, he moved to Paris, where he began to polish his craft. He published several articles in Parisian newspapers on social concerns such as unemployment, poverty, and politics, issues that would continue to dominate his writing. He also wrote two novels and many short stories, all of which were rejected by publishers. At the end of his stay, destitute and starving, he took a job in a Paris hotel, and out of this experience he fashioned the rough drafts of what would later become Down and Out in Paris and London, which he expanded with additional material gleaned from several months spent “tramping” among the poor in London. The book combines personal narrative with biting social criticism, a style that became the trademark of Orwell’s early work.

The minor success of his first book was followed by the rapid appearance of three novels, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, all of which feature protagonists who grapple with the inequities of poverty and social oppression in a world that values money and position. Then, in 1937, a work appeared that joined Orwell’s social consciousness to a clear political agenda, The Road to Wigan Pier, a detailed study of poor coal miners in Yorkshire and Lancashire. For the first time, Orwell identified himself specifically with the goals of socialism, although his endorsement was tempered by criticism.

This stance placed him on the fringes of leftist politics in the 1930’s, and his distrust of the Communist Party crystallized during his sojourn in Spain, ostensibly as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, although he joined an active combat force almost as soon as he arrived. Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938, relates his experiences fighting the spread of Fascism. After a brief interlude spent in Morocco recovering from a tubercular hemorrhage, during which time he wrote Coming Up for Air, Orwell plunged himself into the wartime arena of London, where he joined the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and wrote extensively for various newspapers and journals. Animal Farm, a political allegory famous for its depiction (using barnyard animals) of socialism gone sour, was written in late 1943 and early 1944 but not published until the war ended in 1945; it was seen as a potentially dangerous attack on the Soviet Union, then a powerful Western ally.

Orwell’s first wife died in 1945, during an operation, leaving their adopted son, Richard, in Orwell’s care. In 1946 he published a collection of essays on popular culture, Critical Essays (published in the United States as Dickens, Dali, and Others). Orwell then fled London for the primitive and secluded island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland, where he began work on his most famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shortly after the novel, with its grim description of the authoritarian state of the future, was published in 1949, Orwell suffered a serious attack of tuberculosis. He died in London on January 21, 1950, leaving behind his second wife, Sonia Brownell Blair, whom he had married the previous October.

Orwell’s insistent social and political writing has made him one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. His vision of a totalitarian future in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made household words of concepts such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” has fascinated and frightened generations of readers who have taken his work as a prophecy and a warning. Orwell’s legacy transcends that suggested by his most famous works, for in other ways he espoused some very traditional values about the role of the artist. Committed to intellectual integrity, Orwell passionately believed in the power of language for good and for ill; it was the artist’s responsibility to foster the right use of language and to give voice to the otherwise inarticulate longings of humanity. Clear and unfettered thought was inherent in clear writing, Orwell believed, and his own plain speech, unsparingly direct both in words and in meaning, vigorously informs all of his work—his essays, articles, and novels as well as his social criticism.

Author Works Long Fiction: Burmese Days, 1934 A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935 Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936 Coming Up for Air, 1939 Animal Farm, 1945 Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949 Nonfiction: Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933 The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937 Homage to Catalonia, 1938 Inside the Whale, and Other Essays, 1940 The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941 Critical Essays, 1946 (pb. in the U.S. as Dickens, Dali, and Others) Shooting an Elephant, and Other Essays, 1950 Such, Such Were the Joys, 1953 England, Your England, 1953 Decline of the English Murder, 1965 The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, 1968 (4 volumes; Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, editors) Orwell: The War Commentaries, 1986 The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to The Complete Works of George Orwell, 2006 Diaries, 2009 (Peter Davison, editor) Edited Texts: British Pampleteers, 1948–51 (with Reginald Reynolds) Miscellaneous: Orwell: The Lost Writings, 1985 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. George Orwell. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This compilation includes thirteen articles from leading critics and scholars, which deal for the most part with major themes and well-known novels. A short bibliography and chronology are included. Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. An important full-scale effort, considering all phases of Orwell’s career. The first biography to benefit from unlimited rights of quotation from Orwell’s works held under copyright. Based upon extensive use of the writer’s archives and other manuscript sources as well as numerous publications. Davison, Peter. George Orwell: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. This book follows the course of Orwell’s career as a writer. Although it does contain background chapters explaining his origins, it is chiefly concerned with his literary influences and relationships, including those with his publishers and editors. Gardner, Averil. George Orwell. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This interesting summary treatment of Orwell’s career and literary contributions takes note of areas where interpretive controversies have arisen. The chronology and the annotated selected bibliography are also useful. Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Biography emphasizes Orwell’s criticism of Nazism and Stalinism—philosophies he never softened his view of in order to sell books. Hitchens says Orwell’s analysis of those two governmental systems applies in the early twenty-first century. Holderness, Graham, Bryan Loughrey, and Nahem Yousaf, eds. George Orwell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Essays on Orwell’s novels; his use of allegory; his politics; his handling of form, character, and theme; and his view of England. Includes a bibliography. Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. A well-researched biography that provides a balanced look at Orwell’s life and work. Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. 4 vols. London: Secker and Warburg, 1968. Supplements the uniform edition (1948-1965) of the novels and is distinct from the Penguin one-volume Collected Essays (1970). Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published the American edition. Reilly, Patrick. “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: Past, Present, and Future. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This spirited defense of Orwell’s last novel upholds his conceptions against the claims of modern detractors. Contains a detailed chronology and an annotated bibliography. Reilly also wrote an earlier critical study of Orwell’s fiction, George Orwell: The Age’s Adversary (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986). Rodden, John. Every Intellectual’s Big Brother: George Orwell’s Literary Siblings. Austin: University of Texas, 2006. This book examines the impact that Orwell has had on other writers, and how his writing continues to be significant today. Includes interviews with critics and scholars from the 2003 George Orwell Centenary Conference. Rodden, John. Every Intellectual’s Big Brother: George Orwell’s Literary Siblings. Austin: University of Texas, 2006. This book examines the impact that Orwell has had on other writers, and how his writing continues to be significant today. Includes interviews with critics and scholars from the 2003 George Orwell Centenary Conference. Rodden, John. The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of “St. George” Orwell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Essentially a study of publications about Orwell rather than of the writer himself. Points to the seemingly ubiquitous impact of phrases and concepts associated with his ideas, many of which have been used in recent contexts that Orwell himself scarcely could have foreseen. The breadth of Rodden’s research, in more obscure newspapers and journals, is impressive. Sandison, Alan. George Orwell After “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” London: Macmillan, 1986. This interpretive effort, based on an earlier work, regards Orwell’s writings as a reflection of a long intellectual tradition of religious and philosophical individualism. A lengthy postscript presents Sandison’s views on other works about Orwell. Shelden, Michael. Orwell: The Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A major biography, with extensive notes and a bibliography. Stansky, Peter, and William Abrahams. The Unknown Orwell. London: Constable, 1972. Orwell’s early years in India, at Eton, in Burma, in Paris, and in London are considered in the light of his decision to become a writer in the period leading up to the publication of his first book in 1933. Information provided by those who knew him personally supplies details about Orwell’s education and the beginning of his literary career.

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