Study Guide

George Orwell Introduction

George Orwell Introduction

Big Brother is watching you.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

These and so many more ideas that shape the way we talk about politics came from the pen of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. When people speak out against oppressive regimes or argue that the government has gone too far in snooping into their private lives, they tend to invoke ideas that Orwell first articulated sixty years ago. Orwell used his sharp wit and voracious intellectual curiosity to skewer everything from the atomic bomb to misuse of the English language. He traveled the globe in his quest to understand more about how the world works (destroying his health in the process; after a lifetime of health trouble, he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 46). His experiences made him a passionate supporter of socialism and an equally vociferous opponent of totalitarianism. His masterpiece novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four remain the quintessential arguments against the authoritarian state.

Orwell's goal, as he put it in an essay explaining what drove him to write, was "to make political writing into an art." He staunchly refused to veer into hysteria or inaccuracy in order to get his point across, and argued that if a book was boring, it didn't matter what point the writer had to make in the first place. His name and his "Orwellian" creations are frequently invoked today in ways that would probably make real George Orwell cringe. He had no desire to be a prophet or an idol. In the discipline of his craft, the originality of his ideas, and his courage to write what he believed, George Orwell convinces us (and please, George, forgive the cliché) that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

George Orwell Trivia

Big Brother was named the "Scariest Character in Literature" in a poll at the Web site AbeBooks.com. (Harry Potter's nemesis Voldemort came in tenth).

Orwell was so devoted to his native England that his friend V.S. Pritchett once described him as having had "gone native in his own country." Traveling made him anxious, as he worried that he wouldn't be able to find the "proper" tea.

Orwell has resonated with many musical artists. David Bowie, the Eurythmics and Pink Floyd have all recorded albums inspired by Orwell's writings.

Orwell had a tendency toward self-deprivation. One of its more charming manifestations was his fondness for British cooking. He may have been one of the only people in history to describe the mess hall food served to British soldiers as "really very good."

Orwell had had romantic feelings for the woman who asked him to submit the list of communist sympathizers. After their first meeting a few years earlier, Orwell wrote Celia Kirwan a letter proposing either marriage or an affair—when it came to love, Orwell's acuity for words left him. (She turned him down, gently.) His list of suspect individuals included the actor Charlie Chaplin.

The odd jobs Orwell took during his "down and out" years in Europe include teacher, dishwasher at a French hotel, hop picker and clerk in a secondhand bookstore. This last job temporarily destroyed Orwell's love of books. Like all retail employees, Orwell thought his customers were insane and took note of their bizarre habits such as placing elaborate orders for books they had no intention of ever picking up. He recorded them in the essay "Bookshop Memories."

George Orwell Resources

Books

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)
Four legs good, two legs bad! When farm animals decide to overthrow their human caretakers and set up their own government, their experiment in self-governance devolves into an authoritarian nightmare. This biting satire of totalitarianism is one of Orwell's best-known works. You will never look at pigs the same way again.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Okay, we realize that you probably weren't even born yet in 1984. But that doesn't make Orwell's prophecy of an all-seeing, all-controlling state any less chilling. Be careful who sees you reading it—Big Brother may be watching. Required reading for aspiring conspiracy theorists.

George Orwell, Down and Out In Paris and London (1933)
When his career in the British foreign service ended, George Orwell returned to Europe to make his way a writer. This fictionalized account of the lean, hard early years he spent eking out a living in the big cities is wildly entertaining.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)
This is not technically a book, but an essay. Orwell was a prolific essayist who reflected on everything from cooking to nuclear annihilation. Here, his target is sloppy, lazy writing, and the sloppy, lazy thinking that follows as a result. Bad writing—not unlike that found at times in high school classrooms—gives rise to undemocratic mindsets and we should stand shoulder to shoulder against such an atrocity. So to speak.

Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)
Emma Larkin is the pen name of an American journalist who works frequently in Myanmar, the oppressive military dictatorship that was formerly known as Burma. In this book, she retraces the sites Orwell visited and wrote about during the colonial days. The book is a thoughtful, engaging look at both Orwell and the Burmese people.

D.J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life (2003)
Of the many biographies written about Orwell, this book seems to be the definitive one. The book won the Whitbread Biography Award. It sheds light on the many contradictions between Orwell's staunchly radical political views and essentially conservative personal nature.

Christopher Hitchens, Orwell's Victory (2003)
Acerbic Brit Christopher Hitchens usually prefers to write books about people he hates (a list that includes Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana, and, amazingly, Mother Teresa). In contrast, this book is a love letter to Orwell, celebrating his hero's qualities and taking his critics to task. Hitchens is an engaging writer, though he sometimes reminds you of the kid in the back of class who's just a little too impressed with his own cheekiness.

Music

The Eurythmics—For the Love of Big Brother
The Eurythmics, the British duo, performed the soundtrack for the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four released in, well, 1984. Forget Big Brother—we'd be pretty creeped out to know that Annie Lennox was watching us, too.

Robert of the Radish—The Orwell Playlist
Orwell fan and music enthusiast Robert of the Radish has compiled what we think is an awesome playlist of songs inspired by Orwell's writing. It includes tracks by artists like Radiohead and Coldplay. Awesome.

David Bowie—Diamond Dogs
This album by British rocker David Bowie was originally a concept album inspired by the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It didn't totally work out that way, but the disc still includes songs like "Animal Farm" and "1984."

Pink Floyd—Animals
In 1977, Pink Floyd released Animals, an album inspired by Animal Farm. The album's songs are about three different types of people—hypocritical authoritarian "pigs," greedy "dogs" and all-too-happy-to-follow-along "sheep."

Hazel O'Connor—"Animal Farm"
This British singer's 1981 album Cover Plus includes the song "Animal Farm," also inspired by Orwell's novel. She's quite different from Pink Floyd.

Our Lady Peace—"R.K. 1949-97"
The Canadian group Our Lady Peace has a song—more like a spoken word poem—inspired by Orwell's grim predictions of the future. Apparently they were really freaked out by the time that computer beat the guy in chess.

Images

George Orwell
A portrait of the artist.

Orwell's World
A collection of images of places and scenes associated with Orwell.

Orwell at work
The author at his typewriter.

Family photo
Orwell with the son he adopted with his first wife.

Passport Photo
Orwell's passport picture.

Animal Farm
First edition cover.

1984
First edition cover.

Animal Farm & 1984
Cover designs by Shepard Fairey, the guy who did the famous Obama poster.

TIME Magazine
1983 cover featuring George Orwell.

Movies & TV

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
This film, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, earns rave reviews from fans saying that it's a faithful adaptation of the classic novel. Eerie, gritty and worth a watch—after you've finished reading the book, of course.

Animal Farm (1954)
After Orwell's death, the story goes, the CIA obtained the film rights to Animal Farm from his widow and quietly funded this anti-totalitarian film. Like the novel, this animated movie is grim and foreboding. Despite the cartoon animals, it is NOT kid-friendly—they kill Boxer, for crying out loud!

1984 (1956)
This first attempt at a film adaptation of the book is apparently not as good as the later version. We're just letting you know that it's out there.

1984: A Personal View of Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1983)
This British documentary looks at Orwell's world at the time that he wrote his grim vision of a future dystopia. It features archival footage of world leaders at the time such as Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997)
This is a British film version of Orwell's bleakly comic novel by the same name. It is a charming and entertaining approach to one of Orwell's lesser-known works. It came out in the U.S. under the title "The Merry War."

Animal Farm (1999)
The good people at the Hallmark channel decided to take on political satire, and the results are about what you'd expect. This made-for-television movie is horrifically cheesy. We personally find it very difficult to take talking animals seriously—makes us think of Babe and Charlotte's Web. If we ever hear that you watched this movie instead of reading the book, you are officially disinvited from Shmoop.

Websites

George Orwell: The Complete Works
This exhaustively comprehensive site contains the complete works of George Orwell, as well as images and quotes. It's a great place for primary document research.

The Orwell Prize
The website for this annual award for political reporting also contains an enormous archive of Orwell material, plus book group discussions of his works. Check out materials like Orwell's poetry and his never-published article on British cooking.

BBC—George Orwell
This site contains a useful biography of Orwell as well as interesting links to other relevant articles and Internet sources about the author.

Political Writings of George Orwell
This site compiles all of Orwell's politically oriented published works, including letters to the editor, newspaper columns and essays.

Orwell Diaries
Do you want to know what Orwell was doing exactly 70 years ago today? From 2008 to 2012, the Orwell Prize is posting online the diary entry that Orwell wrote seven decades earlier.

George Orwell London Photographs
This page was posted by a pair of American lads who followed Orwell's footsteps while on a tour of London. Their maps and photos are a fun guide to Orwell's biography.

Video & Audio

George Orwell—A Life in Pictures
No recorded footage or audio of Orwell has survived. This entertaining mini-documentary tells his life in photographs and dramatized clips of an actor reading his words.

George Orwell
Multi-part mini-biopic of Orwell's life.

1984—The Book
A reading of the book's final passage.

1984—The Movie
The entire film (made in the same year) is on YouTube.

Animal Farm
Trailer of exceptionally cheesy made-for-TV movie.

Monty Python's "George Orwell: A Life"
We believe that Orwell, the ultimate satirist, would have approved of this satiric take on his life.

Why Orwell Still Matters
Author Christopher Hitchens argues for Orwell in this BBC broadcast.

Primary Sources

Animal Farm
E-text of the novel.

1984
E-text of the novel.

Homage to Catalonia
E-text of the book.

The Road to Wigan Pier
E-text of the book.

Politics and the English Language
E-text of the essay.

"Such, Such Were the Joys"
E-text of the essay.

"A Hanging"
E-text of the essay

British Propaganda
Orwell worked in the propaganda division of the BBC. Here are examples of wartime propaganda posters.

Orwell's Diaries
Blog posting Orwell's journal entries.