Humanist Profile: George Orwell (1903-1950)

The Humanist, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Humanist Profile: George Orwell (1903-1950)


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George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Bengal, India, where his father, Thomas, worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. When Blair was a year old, he returned with his mother and older sister to England. Aside from a visit in 1907, Eric didn't see his father again until 1912.

The gifted Blair received the eminent King's Scholarship to Eton, the renowned prep school for boys, in 1917. After leaving Eton with middling grades and a growing disdain for authority, Blair joined the Indian Imperial Army in Burma in 1922. III with dengue fever and frustrated with British imperialism, Blair left the army in 1927 and returned to England to write.

Blair's early career was fraught with hardship. He wandered Europe in poverty, honing his craft while working menial jobs and enduring bouts of homelessness. Although he eventually found work as a teacher, his feeble health pushed him out of the school. Still, Blair continued to write. In 1933, he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell as a tribute to the monarch of England and the River Orwell in Suffolk. In his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1934), he wrote, "The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit" A year later he chronicled the exploitation in Burma in his first novel, Burmese Days.

Although modern readers are most familiar with Orwell's novels, he spent most of his career in journalism. In 1936 he composed a documentary about coal miners in Northern England called The Road to Wigan Pier, which not only helped Orwell become one of Britain's most respected literary journalists but aroused his fervor for socialism. He was so horrified with the workers' living conditions that he argued for the ideology in the book.

Also around this time he married Eileen O'Shaughnessy, with whom he later adopted a son, Richard Horatio Blair. She died in 1945, and he married Sonia Brownell four years later.

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