The Enduring Relevance of George Orwell

By Rossi, John P. | Contemporary Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Enduring Relevance of George Orwell


Rossi, John P., Contemporary Review


THIS year marks the centenary of the birth of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. Although dead for over a half century, Orwell remains one of the most read and most quoted authors of the twentieth century. His two best-known books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, remain in print and have sold over 30 million copies. They contributed such phrases to the language as 'Big Brother', 'Newspeak', 'All animals are equal hut some are more equal than others'. In 1996 a poll of its customers by the English bookstore, Waterstone's, ranked Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as the second and third most influential books of the twentieth century, trailing only J. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Biographies and special studies about Orwell still appear with regularity: a life by the biographer Jeffrey Meyers was published in 2000, several biographies and studies have appeared in this centenary year, including one by the controversial journalist Christopher Hitchens who stresses Orwell's continuing importance today. Only last month two prominent Democratic politicians in America, Senator Lieberman and former Vice-President Gore used some of Orwell's words to attack President Bush.

Why does this writer continue to fascinate critics and ordinary readers today? Why Orwell's enduring relevance?

Orwell, quite simply, continues to fascinate as a writer and a person. His literary output includes a brace of still readable novels, two works of pure genius (the aforementioned Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) along with some of the best essays to appear in the first half of the twentieth century.

Orwell's political writings especially his exposure of Communism, Fascism and Imperialism may seem dated now when these isms--at least in the form Orwell knew them--are dead. But a closer look reveals the sophistication of Orwell's insights. He was concerned not only about the disastrous effect of totalitarianism but also about the way it corrupted the language and thus made seeking the truth more difficult. He feared the growing power of the centralized state, seeing in it a threat to individual liberty. For these reasons Orwell's appeal crosses the political spectrum. The right has tried to co-opt him: 'body snatching', Hitchens calls it, claiming Orwell as the first Cold Warrior. In fact, there is some evidence that he coined the term 'Cold War' as early as October 1945. For his fellow leftists, he is the champion of egalitarianism and foe of privilege, a prime example of Socialism with a human face.

Orwell's early years were typical of the respectable middle classes (he was always precise about his status, labelling himself lower upper middle class) in Edwardian England. He attended St. Cyprians, a decent preparatory school, and then won a scholarship to one of the leading public schools, Eton. He failed to distinguish himself; and, instead of taking the traditional route to Oxford or Cambridge, Orwell followed in his father's path into the Indian Imperial Police, serving in Burma. He spent an unusual five-year apprenticeship there absorbing a hatred of British imperialism, a distrust of authority and a growing desire to rid himself of an attitude of superiority to the native populations. Unlike many antiimperialists, however, Orwell never romanticized the Indians or the Burmese he came in contact with. In an otherwise sympathetic portrait of the natives in his novel Burmese Days (1933) Orwell created a slimy Burmese villain in U PO Kyin, who for sheer Oriental mendacity is a match for a character such as Fu Manchu.

Orwell returned to England in 1927 and, determined to become a writer, eventually resigned his commission. It would take almost a decade and half before he would earn an income from writing that matched that of his last year as a policeman.

Despite holding a variety of jobs as teacher, storekeeper, and bookstore manager, Orwell wrote incessantly although often without great popular or financial success.

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