George Orwell, the British writer of the 20th century, captivated readers with his thought-provoking novels and essays that explored themes of power, oppression, and the fragility of truth. Through works like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Orwell’s literary legacy endures as a compelling examination of the human condition in the face of authoritarian regimes and social injustices.
Born as Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell adopted his pen name from the River Orwell in East England. Over time, his pseudonym became inseparable from his identity, and only a select few, mostly relatives, were aware of his true name.
George Orwell in BBC, 1940
Orwell was born in Motihari, India, on June 25, 1903. His father served as a minor official in the Indian civil service, while his mother was the daughter of a teak merchant in Burma. After returning to England, he attended a preparatory boarding school where he stood out due to his intellectual brilliance and financial struggle. He grew up a gloomy, introverted, and odd boy. In an autobiographical essay Such, Such Were the Joys, he revealed the sorrows he endured during those years.
Orwell skipped university and instead went to Burma, working as an assistant district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police. He gradually realized the oppressive nature of British rule and felt ashamed of his role as a colonial officer. In his autobiographical essays, Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, he candidly shared his experiences and critiqued imperialism.
To alleviate his guilt, he immersed himself in the lives of Europe’s impoverished and marginalized people. He lived among laborers and beggars in London’s East End, as well as in Parisian slums, working as a dishwasher. These experiences formed the basis for his book Down and Out in Paris and London, blending real events into a semi-fictional story. Its publication brought him some initial recognition as a writer.
In Orwell’s debut novel, Burmese Days, he set the foundation for his future works by depicting a sensitive and diligent protagonist who finds himself alienated and alone within a repressive and deceitful social setting. The story revolves around a low-ranking official in Burma, who wishes to break free from the dull and narrow-minded nationalism of his fellow British colonialists.
In December 1936, Orwell went to Spain to report on the Civil War but ended up joining the Republican militia. He served on the Aragon and Teruel fronts, becoming a second lieutenant. His injury at Teruel permanently affected his voice, lending it a compelling quietness. This experience left him with a lifelong fear of communism, vividly depicted in his book Homage to Catalonia. Many regard it as one of his best literary works.
During the onset of World War II, Orwell’s application for military service was declined. Instead, he took charge of the Indian service at the BBC and later assumed the role of literary editor at the Tribune, a left-wing socialist newspaper. Throughout this period, Orwell established himself as a prolific journalist, penning numerous newspaper articles, reviews, and thought-provoking critiques.
In 1944, Orwell completed Animal Farm, a political fable inspired by the events of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Joseph Stalin. The book depicts a group of farm animals who rise up against their oppressive human owners, establishing an egalitarian society. However, as time passes, the intelligent and power-hungry pigs take control, undermining the revolution and establishing a dictatorship that proves to be even more oppressive and cruel than the rule of the previous human masters.
While Animal Farm is widely regarded as one of Orwell’s outstanding works, cherished for its cleverness, imagination, and impeccable writing, its fame has been somewhat overshadowed by his final masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. This novel serves as a cautionary tale, born out of Orwell’s contemplation on the alarming threats posed by Nazism and Stalinism.
Set in a fictional future, Nineteen Eighty-Four portrays a world dominated by three constantly battling totalitarian regimes. Orwell offers readers a glimpse into a chilling reality where governments control every aspect of individuals’ lives, even their private thoughts. The title of the book and several of its memorable phrases, such as “Big Brother is watching you,” “newspeak,” and “doublethink,” have since become symbolic of modern-day political abuses.
In a remote house in Scotland, Orwell penned the final pages of Nineteen Eighty-four. He faced intermittent hospital stays due to tuberculosis, the illness that eventually claimed his life on January 21, 1950, in a London hospital.
Words of Wisdom
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind.” —Marcus Aurelius
“We don’t even ask happiness, just a little less pain.” —Charles Bukowski
“If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” —John von Neumann
“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works.” —Leonardo da Vinci