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Orwell, George

animals writing social society

(British, 1903–50)

Orwell was one of the most influential English writers of the twentieth century. His real name was Eric Blair, which he dropped when he started writing seriously. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), was a social documentary about his true-life experiences doing menial jobs for a pittance. The change of name is significant. It signalled the shedding of his previous persona—comfortable upper-middle-class family, father a civil servant in India, himself educated at Eton—and with it a rejection of the élitist values and blatant snobbery of the ruling classes. As ‘George Orwell’ he quite literally reinvented himself. Orwell insisted that all writing was political in the broadest sense, and in his last and finest novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), written while he was dying of tuberculosis, he produced a nightmare vision of a future society crushed into submission by a totalitarian regime, ruled and watched over by Big Brother and fed on spin-doctored Newspeak. The spectre of this book lay like a shadow of grim prophecy over the latter half of the twentieth century. His fears were more concentrated in the modern fable, Animal Farm (1945). When the animals take over from the tyranny of humans, there is the prospect of a fairer farmyard society, with due respect for the dignity of each species. Then the pigs, once installed as leaders, take on the worst traits of their former oppressors, while mouthing such slogans as ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’

With these two books Orwell lost a lot of friends on the left, who accused him of betraying the cause of socialism. But he had come to distrust any political creed that cynically manipulates the truth to suit itself. Shining bright and clear through all Orwell's writing is the voice, honest and compassionate, of a decent man who rejects intellectual humbug and exposes injustice wherever he finds it; and does so in simple transparent prose that is stripped of literary pretension.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is closely autobiographical, seething with the frustration Orwell himself had endured, as penniless, struggling poet Gordon Comstock, working in a bookshop, desperately seeks some small measure of success, and does in the end find happiness with a new, pregnant wife. Coming Up for Air (1939) has sad, middle-aged George Bowling seeking to escape a joyless marriage and death-in-life existence by revisiting the golden past of his childhood; alas, it has vanished for ever, and war darkens the horizon.

The importance and enduring value of Orwell's legacy to us rests as much on his essays, social commentary, and non-fiction books as with the novels. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a passionate, factual document of the Depression in the North of England; Homage to Catalonia (1938) recounts his own experiences during the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought and was wounded.

James Hanley, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler. See HUMOUR, RUSSIA, SCIENCE FICTION  TH

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