George Orwell is the pseudonym of Eric Blair, he was born in India in 1903 where his father was a colonial official. As it often happened to the children of British citizens living and working in India he was sent back home to receive a proper education. He first attended a preparatory school and later went to Eton but he always felt ill-at-ease with the rigid discipline enforced in such institutions, such as lack of privacy and demeaning punishments, which were meant to develop in their students a strong sense of belonging to the upper middle-class, a show of character through competition and boundless attachment to the moral code of the time. Yet Orwell’s unabashed refusal of similar practices, through which the youth’s indoctrination was carried out, brought him to develop instead an open minded approach to learning, a self-relying personality and complete disregard for mainstream thinking. While still at Eaton, in fact, he publicly declared being a socialist and an atheist.
From 1922, when he left Eton, to 1927 he served in the Indian Imperial Police leaving the corps because, a free spirit at heart, he adamantly rejected “any form of supremacy of man over man”, as he was used to saying. From then on all of Orwell’s future choices followed an unmistakable political imprinting. In 1927, upon returning to London, he experimented first-hand the life of the outcasts by living as they did in hostels, lodging-houses provided by the English government for the unemployed and the poor, he tried the healthcare reserved to this portion of the British population, such as public hospitals, testing their actual efficiency. He also lived for some time in Paris washing dishes in a hotel. It is about this time that he decided to publish his writings concerning his personal experiences among the poor. Down and Out in Paris and London came out in 1933, under the pen name of George Orwell, a clearly English, down to earth first name and a surname taken from that of a river he was fond of. Burmese Days was published in 1934 and it describes his experience while in the colonial service. In 1936 a publisher, who advocated socialists standpoints, asked him to investigate and write about the working conditions of northern miners, factory workers and the living conditions of the unemployed of that area. This journalistic report was published in 1937 with the title of The Road to Wigan Pier.
In that same 1936 Orwell met and married Eileen O’Shaughnessy who had graduated from Oxford and with whom Orwell had very much in common, especially in art and politics. The two newlywed left England at the end of the year and set out for Catalonia where they were to report on the Spanish Civil War. Here Orwell joined the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification and went to the front. In his writing a Homage to Catalonia, 1938, he gave a detailed account of the events he witnessed and took part in, as well as tracking back to this memorable undertaking the actual time in which he acquired profound insight of the ideals of brotherhood and equality conveyed by socialism.
At the break of World War II he worked at the BBC for two years cooperating in cultural and political programmes for India, but in 1943 he started writing for the “Tribune”, a prominent socialist weekly. In both cases he proved to be an authoritative observer of his time and its devastating world events. But Orwell owes his international fame and economic stability to the book he began writing amidst those tragic times, Animal Farm, which was published in 1945; his second novel, the best-seller, Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1949. He died in 1950 of tuberculosis while his wife had passed, away during surgery, in 1945.
Let’s now take some time to analyse somewhat more closely these two noteworthy and quite unconventional books. As mentioned in previous notes, Orwell is, perhaps simplistically, classified as an anti-Utopian writer and this is due to the remarkably troubled times he lived in that resulted in shattering to the bones all the ideals that many young people had thrived on up to the out-break of the two subsequent World Wars. Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in different ways, exemplify, the ruins in which Europe was left in after the catastrophes that took place in the first half of the 20th century.
In Animal Farm Orwell voices all his indignation and profound delusion that Stalin’s treachery of the Russian Revolution had produced in him and many, many more in Europe, as the news of the Purge Trials began to leak out in the late 1930s spreading the knowledge that, dissent in the Soviet Union was punished in horrifying terror leading to torture and the physical suppression of more than three million people while, the more fortunate were merely sent to labour force camps in Siberia. Moreover the non-aggression pact that Stalin signed with Hitler was yet another element of great disappointment, the pact in fact allowed Hitler to take over Poland and Czechoslovakia as the rest of the Western world leaders chose, conveniently, to ignore in silence, in addition it favoured, on the one side, Hitler’s unscrupulous aims to increase its European territories and, on the other side, the putrefying outcome of what was thought to have been the overthrowing of an oppressive regime, that of the Czars, to free the people, all together united, against injustice but in reality turned out to be the opposite.
The novel’s narration takes inspiration from Swift’s third and fourth books of Gulliver’s Travels, but, as Morris Dickstein points out in his Animal Farm: history as fable, Cambridge University Press, (2007), it wasn’t only Swift to have inspired Orwell; the previous decade, in fact, had been flourishing in cartoon production featuring animals such as Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig and Donald Duck that conveyed the moralistic and conservative message that only order and discipline saved civilised societies from ruin and collapse. Yet, Orwell chooses to use satire and sarcasm, as Swift had done before him, not only to satirise the Soviet Union but to underline, above all, how corruptive and dangerous any ideal can become if it is brought to its extremes. To achieve so he sets the novel in an imaginary farm where all the animals subjected to the unbearable exploitation of Man, decide to join forces and break into a rebellion that aims at freeing them so as to conquer social justice. If on the one side the animals portrayed in the story embody each species’ characteristics, on the other side, he also uses such features to exemplify society’s specific peculiarities therefore, for instance, the sheep represent unquestioning obedience to the conforming thought following meekly the leader, while the horses’ persevering strength in performing tasks and duties are also the symbol of single-minded loyalty to their masters. Nevertheless as the animals’ rebellion for a life of dignity succeeds, its victory is short lived as the new leaders, the pigs, slowly but steadily replace man in dictatorial attitudes and choices. Indeed , they soon discard, one by one, the Seven Commandments that at first were set down as guidelines to protect and establish equality and social justice. As the pigs find reasons to gradually strip down the Seven Commandments the rest of the community is helpless and in the general consternation they find themselves back where they started from. The pigs have taken over Man’s place and with it all the privileges and tyranny they had all fought against, the only principle that the dictatorial pigs recognise was that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. This to show, according to Orwell, that no ideal is safe, or in everyone’s interest, if every individual’s freedom is eroded step by step in, seemingly, harmless concessions to power that will eventually usurp it completely and leave all stripped down naked in the face of terror and injustice.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published in 1949, a year before the death of its author, and soon became a bestseller. If the previous novel leaves the reader with a foreboding feeling of doom, this second one is even more oppressive and dreadful in its atmosphere and in the future society predicted. The conference held at Yalta in February 1945 had outlined the new European borders with its Soviet sphere of influence and Orwell’s novel is set in a future scenario of a world divided in three main blocks, Oceania including England which is no longer a leading power but merely its appendix, Eurasia consisting of Europe and Russia and, finally, Eastasia that included Asia and the Far East. Out of the three, one especially, Oceania, is constantly at war with the other two. The Party embodied in a figure called Big Brother rules the world of Oceania, an oppressive and highly disciplined nightmarish place where the people are constantly kept under control by monitors placed at all corners of the streets and in every closed in environment, including homes. There is no privacy whatsoever and free thinking, sex and any form of individuality is thoroughly banned thanks to a Thought Police that threatens everyone at all moments of their lives, the Party has even established a new language, the Newspeak, which has a limited number of words to impede any form of expression that might go beyond the mere stringent communication of necessity. History is reinvented to conform to the new political order and to celebrate it wiping out any previous memory or understanding of the past, the same happens to information dispatched to portray only what the new regime wanted the population to think and to believe.
Winston Smith, the protagonist, who dares to rebel by writing down in great secrecy and in an illegally bought diary his thoughts, feelings and memories and even falls in love, is brainwashed and tortured to the point of complete surrendering of its utmost deepest identity and when he does finally survive his ordeal he is the mere shadow of a man and pledges his unconditional love to Big Brother. This dictator, despite the name of “Big Brother”, he is not watching over his people as an older, protective brother would do, on the contrary, the theme of “watching” in Orwell’s narrative is meant as a controlling and manipulative action, the epitome of Totalitarian regimes against which all of his narration is addressed. Totalitarianism as the painful distortion of an ideal that had brought hope to many, at first, hope in a better world where privileges and crushing power were to be replaced by brotherhood, equality and freedom for all. A world where the individual self could find room for open-minded thinking, free of oppressive discipline and stifling order, where a post-revolutionary, post-war society could finally nurture the cherished values that came from the past and were now supposed to be a defence against exploitation and suffering.
We’re still waiting!
© L. R. Capuana