You've probably heard people whisper about "Big Brother" or heard an unpopular policy decried as "Orwellian." What you probably don't know—and what most of the people who use these terms don't know either—is very much of the true story about the creator of these words and concepts that have so influenced the way we speak and think about politics. In simplest terms, George Orwell—the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair—was an English writer of novels, essays, and critical reviews. His best-known works are the novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—one a spot-on allegory about the dangers of totalitarian government, the other a creepy prophecy of complete government control. But Orwell also wrote dozens of essays in which he aimed his sharp wit at everything from British imperialism, social inequality, and nuclear war to the ways that language is used to keep people under control. "What I have most wanted to do," he once wrote, "is to make political writing into an art."blank">Nineteen Eighty-Foursupplied the British government's propaganda wing with a list of people he suspected of having communist sympathies (that too is complicated—more on that incident later). He was as flawed as any human being, but what all of Orwell's friends, colleagues and biographers noted about him after his untimely death was his simple human decency. George Orwell critiqued no point of view as harshly as his own. He formed his opinions carefully and wrote about them with courage and discipline.
Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell's given name) was born on 25 June 1903 in Motihari, Bengal, a British colony in what is now India. Eric's father, Richard Walmesley Blair, worked in the Indian Civil Service (the arm of the British government that ran the colony) overseeing opium exports to Asia. A year after Eric's birth, his mother Ida Mabel Limouzin Blair packed up Eric and his 6-year-old sister Marjorie and moved back to England to raise the children there. This was a common thing to do for English colonial families at the time. The Blairs were members of what Eric Blair would later describe as the "lower-upper-middle class" He left in 1921 without his diploma. Instead he took the entrance exam of the Indian Imperial Police, the British colonial force that maintained order in the South Asian colonies. He passed the exam and in June 1922, Eric Arthur Blair set sail for his posting in Burma.
Eric Blair spent five years in Burma. He didn't like it. He saw things as a policeman that left him disillusioned by the British colonial system, experiences that he recounted years later in essays like "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant," and his first novel, a bitter look at the corruption and prejudice of imperial Burma entitled Burmese Days. In 1927 he contracted dengue fever, the first of a series of health crises in his life, forcing him to leave Burma for health reasons. When he returned to England, he decided to resign from the Imperial Police.
"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer," Orwell wrote later in his life. "Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
Orwell was excited when Britain entered World War II in 1939, hoping that the war would convert more people to socialism. He volunteered for military service but was rejected because of his poor health. Instead, he contributed to the war effort at the BBC, where he was hired in 1941 to produce propaganda radio programs to be broadcast in India. He worked there for two years but eventually grew frustrated with the BBC, which he described as a cross between "a girls' school and a lunatic asylum." Its publication was delayed because English publishers were afraid of offending the Soviet Union, Britain's wartime ally in fighting against Nazi Germany, and also because a Soviet spy working in the Ministry of Information found some success in suppressing it. Once the book was finally published, however, it found both commercial and critical success.
Orwell followed up on Animal Farm with several essays that outlined his approach to writing and politics, most notably the 1946 classic "Politics and the English Language." In that essay, he argued that sloppy writing gave way to lazy thinking, and that a public that didn't pay attention to how language was used could be too easily lulled into overlooking more important things. (His rules for good writing remain some of the best out there—use active voice, not passive; cut words when you can; don't use a long word when a short one will do.) English, he said, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." He continued:
"Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."
Though he was thriving professionally, in his personal life Orwell was floundering badly. With his wife gone, his household was decrepit and depressing. He proposed to four different women and was rejected by all of them—evidence of Orwell's famously poor luck (or lack of skill) with the ladies. He moved briefly to the Scottish island of Jura and then returned to London at the start of what turned out to be one of the coldest winters in years. The weather was devastating for his already weak health, and in December 1947 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis—the disease that would eventually kill him.
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?"blank">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.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was the last professional achievement of Orwell's life. By the time the book was published, its author's health was declining rapidly. In October 1949 he married an editorial assistant named Sonia Brownell in his hospital room in London. Just a few months later, George Orwell died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. At his request he was buried in an Anglican ceremony under a simple marker that read only, "Here lies Eric Arthur Blair—Born June 25th 1903—Died January 21st 1950."
His grave may be simple, but the legacy Orwell left is anything but. His influence extends far beyond that of most writers, and he even has his own adjective—"Orwellian." As it's typically used, "Orwellian" refers not to things associated with Orwell personally, but with the things he condemned in his writing. A quick Google News search shows that critics have slapped the euphemism "Orwellian" onto targets as diverse as a British plan to collect cell phone data, the name change of a private equity firm, and even Barack Obama's speeches. Orwell despised euphemisms in political writing—he thought they were lazy and ineffective—and the fact that his name has become one would probably have driven him nuts. "It would surprise, and doubtless irritate, him to discover that since his death in 1950 he has moved implacably toward NT [National Treasure] status," the writer Julian Barnes wrote of Orwell. "He is interpretable, malleable, ambassadorial, and patriotic. He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone." Orwell was no saint, but as a voice of moral conscious and political courage, he's about as good as we've got.
Father: Richard Walmesley Blair (1857-1938)
Mother: Ida Mabel Limouzin Blair (1875-1943)
Sister: Marjorie Frances Blair (1898?-?)
Sister: Avril Blair (1908-?)
Wife 1: Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy (1905-1945)
Son: Richard Horatio Blair (adopted) (b. 1944)
Wife 2: Sonia Brownell (1918-1980)
Eton College (1917-1921)
Policeman, Indian Imperial Police, Burma division (1922-1927)
Dishwasher, Paris hotel (1929)
Private tutor, England (1930)
Hop picker (1931)
Teacher, Hawthorne High School for Boys (1932-1933)
Teacher, Frays College (1933-1934)
Clerk, Booklover's Corner used bookstore (1934-1935)
Volunteer soldier, Spanish Republican Government (1937)
Talks producer, BBC Eastern Service (1941-1943)
Volunteer, Home Guard (1940-1943)
Literary editor, Tribune (1943-1945)
War correspondent, The Observer (1945)
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
Homage to Catalonia (1938)
"A Hanging" (1936)
"Shooting an Elephant" (1936)
"Charles Dickens" (1939)
"The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (1941)
"How the Poor Die" (1946)
"Politics and the English Language" (1946)
"Why I Write" (1946)
"Such, Such Were the Joys" (1946, published posthumously)
King's Scholarship, Eton College (1917)
The Orwell Prize in Political Writing (named for Orwell, established in 1993 by the Orwell Memorial Trust)