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George Orwell

George Orwell

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four

His health failing fast, Orwell struggled to complete the manuscript of his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. He finished the book in December 1948 and in January checked into a sanatorium to recover from tuberculosis. In March, a friend named Celia Kirwan visited Orwell at the sanatorium. Kirwan worked for the British Foreign Office and was hiring a unit of people to write anti-communist propaganda. She asked Orwell to supply the names of any people who should not be hired for the unit, and he gave her a list of people whom he suspected to have communist sympathies. The publication of the complete list in 2003 was shocking—George Orwell, the spokesman against government intrusion against citizens' privacy, ratted out Reds to the government? His biographers have pointed out that this is not the gross example of hypocrisy it might seem on first glance. Though people on the right tended to conflate socialism and communism, they are in fact completely different things—one Orwell supported, and the other he abhorred. In fact, as anyone who's read Animal Farm should understand, Orwell saw Soviet-style communism as a profound betrayal of true socialist values. "Orwell believed the people he named (usually correctly, occasionally erroneously, seldom recklessly) served or sympathized with a murderous state and an ideology that was rotten to the core," wrote journalist Benjamin Schwarz of Orwell's act. "In the early days of World War II Orwell kept a list of those he suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. How many critics today would hold that had Orwell shared that list with the Foreign Office he would have acted wrongly?"11

No one knew about this in June 1949, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. The book told the story of a civil servant toiling under an authoritarian regime where thought crimes, the opinion-controlling "Newspeak," and "doublethink"—the acceptance two contradictory thoughts at once—were rampant. The book, practically defining the idea of dystopia, was an enormous critical and commercial success. And perhaps the best example of its legacy is that it is just as chilling today, with the actual year 1984 decades behind us, as it was when that spooky year was still decades ahead.

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