George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India, to Richard and Ida Mabel Blair. He had an older sister and a younger sister. His father was a minor customs official in the Indian Civil Service. When Orwell was four years old, his family returned to England, where they settled at Henley, a village near London, England. His father soon returned to India.
As a child, Orwell was shy and lacked self-confidence. He suffered from bronchitis all his life. He spent long hours reading and was especially interested in science fiction, ghost stories, William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) plays, and fiction by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Charles Dickens (1812–1870), and Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). When Orwell was eight years old, he was sent to a private preparatory school in Sussex, England. He later claimed that his experiences there determined his views on the English class system. From there he went by scholarship to two private secondary schools: Wellington for one term and Eton for four and a half years.
Orwell then joined the Indian Imperial Police, receiving his training in Burma, where he served from 1922 to 1927. While home on leave in England, Orwell made the important decision not to return to Burma, but to pursue writing. His resignation from the Indian Imperial Police became effective on January 1, 1928. Later evidence suggests that he had come to understand the imperialism for which he was serving, and had rejected it. Imperialism is a political and economic practice whereby a nation increases its power by gaining control or ownership of other territories.
Orwell wrote 1984 just after World War II ended, wanting it to serve as a warning to his readers. He wanted to be certain that the kind of future presented in the novel should never come to pass, even though the practices that contribute to the development of such a state were abundantly present in Orwell's time.
Orwell lived during a time in which tyranny was a reality in Spain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries, where government kept an iron fist (or curtain) around its citizens, where there was little, if any freedom, and where hunger, forced labor, and mass execution were common.
Orwell espoused democratic socialism. In his essay, "Why I Write," published in 1947, two years before the publication of 1984, Orwell stated that he writes, among other reasons, from the "[d]esire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after." Orwell used his writing to express his powerful political feelings, and that fact is readily apparent in the society he creates in 1984.
The society in 1984, although fictional, mirrors the political weather of the societies that existed all around him. Orwell's Oceania is a terrifying society reminiscent of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union — complete repression of the human spirit, absolute governmental control of daily life, constant hunger, and the systematic "vaporization" of individuals who do not, or will not, comply with the government's values.
To complete questions, refer to the summary in the introduction and information provided.
1. Where was he born?
2. What motivated him to write 1984?
3. What was his political stance?
According to one biography, Orwell's first word was "beastly." He was a sick child, often battling bronchitis and the flu. Otwell took up writing at an early age, reportedly composing his first poem around age four.
Write a journal entry from Orwell's perspective of his life with bronchitis and the flu and how it impacted him and his career.
To complete journal entry, refer to the summary and information below.
George Orwell's gloomy life
George Orwell, born in India in 1903 as Eric Blair, was a sickly child, suffering multiple bouts of bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. As a young man, he had several episodes of bacterial pneumonia, and also contracted dengue fever during his time in Burma. A heavy smoking habit probably also contributed to his gaunt appearance. Perhaps due to his childhood respiratory illnesses, Orwell developed bronchiectasis, a condition characterized by perpetually dilated bronchi and fits of coughing.
In 1938, Orwell went to a sanatorium because he was coughing up blood, and was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. The peripatetic author could have been infected in his childhood in India, as a police officer in Burma, as a soldier in Spain, or “during…years of tramping, poverty, and vagabondage” in France and England, according to author John Ross, MD, of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston. His treatment consisted of simple bed rest and good nutrition--both of which improved his health enough for him to be discharged several months later.
Eight years later, depressed by his wife’s death, Orwell moved to a windy and damp Scottish island. His health worsened significantly just as he was working on the first draft of 1984. Fever, weight loss, and night sweats sent him to the hospital, where he underwent “collapse therapy,” a treatment designed to close the dangerous cavities that form in the chests of tuberculosis patients. Orwell described his experience with collapse therapy in detail, and the treatment “may have influenced the depiction of the tortures of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love” in 1984, according to Dr. Ross. “But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs…the curvature of the spine was astonishing,” Orwell wrote, perhaps drawing on his firsthand knowledge of the wasting effects of tuberculosis.
Orwell’s poor health and apparent infertility (based on his own musings in his letters as well as the medical evidence linking some respiratory ailments to infertility) probably contributed to the despondency in his writing. “Orwell himself told his friends that 1984 would have been less gloomy had he not been so ill—it was a very dark, disturbing, and pessimistic work,” Dr. Ross said. The author’s severe illness “gave him a tremendous amount of focus,” perhaps by making him aware of his own mortality.
George Orwell died in 1950, ending a life plagued by sickness. That sickness, though, contends Dr. Ross, “made him a better and more empathetic writer, in that his sense of human suffering made his writing more universal.”
1. What was the most surprising thing you found out about George Orwell's life?
2. How do you think the events in his life impacted his writing?