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Orwell, George (1903–1950)

Influential novelist, journalist, and social critic. Born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, India, on 25 June 1903, he adopted the pen name George Orwell in 1933. He attended the elite Eton College on scholarship but failed to earn entrance to a university. He instead joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, working there during 1922–1927 before resigning, having witnessed firsthand the sordidness of imperialism.

On returning to England, Orwell attempted to become a writer but initially earned little for his effort. His first substantial published work, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), was a documentary account of life at the bottom of the social order. This was followed by his 1934 novel Burmese Days, a sharp condemnation of imperialism. More novels followed, mainly chronicling the frustrations of lower–middle-class life in interwar England. In 1936 he traveled to the north of England to live with the industrial working class, subsequently describing their downtrodden, wretched lives in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

At about the same time, Orwell formally became a socialist, although he remained for only a few years in the Independent Labour Party. His socialism was of a vaguely egalitarian, fraternalistic cast, in part a simple reaction to the snobbery of the British class system and in part fired by a belief in social justice. He fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) in support of the Republicans on the political Left and barely survived a bullet wound to the neck. He wrote of his time there in Homage to Catalonia (1938). He was left with an enduring hatred of Soviet leader Josef Stalin and the Stalinist political modus operandi that, Orwell felt, had undermined the Left's struggle against the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. During World War II, Orwell broadcast war reports for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and wrote for the left-wing newspaper Tribune.

In 1945 Orwell published Animal Farm, a knowing parody-novella of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent betrayals of Marxism. In 1949 he produced his last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian, nightmarish analysis of life in a bureaucratic, totalitarian society. Directed at neither Stalinism nor fascism but drawing lessons from both systems, this famous work was a warning with a touch of prophecy. In this final work, which gave us "Big Brother," the "Ministry of Truth," "Newspeak," and the oxymorons "War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength," Orwell expresses most vividly his hatred of political oppression in all its forms.

Orwell's legacy has been clouded in recent years by the revelation, rather heavily overinterpreted, that toward the end of his life he provided a list of crypto-communists, or fellow travelers, to a semisecret department of the British Foreign Office. Orwell died in London on 21 January 1950.

Paul Wingrove


Further Reading
Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. London: Vintage, 2004.
 

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