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June 25, 2015


I once promised myself that I would read “1984” every year and have kept that promise for years though I have only read it a few times recently. It is the scariest book I have ever read, and I am thankful it is fiction (or fact in waiting). It assumes the end of capitalism and democracy by 1984, and while Orwell’s timing may have been off, there are ominous signs (largely ignored) that his prediction may be accurate. The new “Big Brother” is the rich and corporate class, now poised to take over every facet of our lives much as Big Brother of 1984 took over the lives of Winston Smith and others in Oceania.

I was enchanted by the dour premises of the book: Big Brother, perpetual warfare, Ministries of Love and Truth etc., and wondered if such far out ideas could ever come to fruition in the real world. I paid scant attention to the author. I knew little of Orwell other than the fact that he died young of chronic lung problems (he wound up with only one) and that he was a socialist not because he particularly liked socialism but because all the other choices, including capitalism of the day, were worse.

Where he schooled at exclusive Eton (on scholarship) 15 out of 16 of his class at the time named Lenin as one of the ten most important men in the world. Blair (Orwell) was not a fan of communism (see Animal Farm); he fought and was injured in the Spanish Revolution on the Republican side against the fascist Franco (backed by Hitler) as a member of the Trotsky volunteers. Trotsky was regarded as a counterrevolutionary, exiled from Russia, and was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by a Soviet agent.

Recently my older daughter gave me a Father’s Day gift of a large volume containing 1984 and a number of biographical essays on both the personal and literary life of George Orwell along with some autobiographical notes by Orwell himself, one of which is entitled “Why I Write.” I have spent hours devouring these essays since and know much more about Orwell than I did. I should have had access to such materials earlier as I think an author’s background is strongly linked to his/her literary product. It is for that reason that I am blogging on the background of George Orwell, author of this great book, 1984.

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, the son of an English father who was a member of the Indian Civil Service in Bengal. He changed his name to George Orwell so that his name would sound more English than Scottish. Orwell was the name of a river where he lived a few years in childhood. He made the change circa 1930. He had a younger and older sister, both five years apart from his birthdate.

Blair (Orwell) came to England from India when he was eight (1911) with his mother and two sisters while his father stayed in Bengal in the service of Imperial England. He was an excellent scholar and (as he was always sure to say) went to Eton on a scholarship and not because his parents were rich or famous or were members of the upper class. As he wrote in an autobiographical chapter of his book, The Road to Wigan Pier: “I was born into what you may describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the ‘eighties and nineties’, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded. . .”

Orwell was always sympathetic to and identified with the poor and the underclass, noting that for the working-class family of his day “rent and clothes and school bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance. . .” One of his friends writes that Orwell (unlike many of his friends) was enabled to write so clearly about those in the lower middle class because he had been one of them. Another writes that Orwell’s family were in fact middle class between WWI and WW II and that he exaggerates his poverty a bit, noting in the following that he liked to play the role of the downtrodden: “As late as the War years, when he was a Socialist, when he mixed with cosmopolitan, intellectual friends, and wrote for Tribune, his whole appearance and manner still seemed strangely that of a somewhat down-at-heel Sahib. . .” My guess is that he knew his class but also knew the gap between pretension and reality and refused to obey the class system dictates of the day.

At age 19 Orwell went to Burma for a five-year stint with the Indian Imperial Police. One description of such service from a friend notes that “he was a tall, somewhat consumptive and sensitive young man, a very undecided young man, well able to act the Sahib, yet at heart a rebel. . .  with his innate sense of guilt magnified to unbearable intensity by the authority and power of punishment at his disposal. . . he had decided early on that white rule in the East was an unwarrantable tyranny about which one could say little except a cynical ‘Of course we’ve no right in this blasted country at all, only now we’re here, for God’s sake let’s stay here’”. Orwell as a cop in Burma revealed his true feeling for his task when he stated “I never went into a jail without feeling (most visitors to jail feel the same) that my place was really on the other side of the bars.” (The foregoing are from his first novel, Burmese Days.)

After his return from Burma in 1927, he wrote that “I was not going back to be part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than merely to escape from my job.” He surely did. For the next year or so he spent his time as a dishwasher and odd-job man in France associating with English tramps and members of the underclass. The old Etonian and ex-Sahib went slumming. He explained later that he had gone slumming in France for emotional reasons: “For five years I had been a part of an oppressive system, and it left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces – faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moment of rage. . . haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.”

Orwell and his wife had no children of their own but adopted a son. He and his family had gone through a period of poverty on their own during the early Thirties, but with the success (especially in America) of his savage satire of the Soviet Union, Animal Farm, he finally found a degree of financial freedom. His wife died unexpectedly in 1945, his consumption became worse, and he finished writing his last and greatest novel, 1984, while sometimes in bed. It was published in 1949 and he died on January 23, 1950. He had remarried in 1949 thinking that he had years of work ahead of him and died a few days before he was heading to a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps for rest of the one consumptive lung he had remaining.

So what can we know of his rationale for writing 1984 from this brief background of his life? Was it from his then recent traumatic experiences with the regimes of Stalin, Mussolini and Stalin? His sense of guilt in the way he personally had treated people when empowered to do so? His automatic identification with the poor and oppressed? What are the permissible restrictions on liberty that a society may impose? What is the possibility that the world-wide trends toward authoritarianism and regimentation will prevail?  I think 1984 asks more (and still relevant) questions than it answers.   GERALD    E

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