Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known as George Orwell, was an English writer. Although he was an accomplished essayist, he gained his fame through later works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He was born in India but grew up in England. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him off to a private prep school in Sussex. As a young adult in the 1920s, he served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. After Blair resigned from his post in Burma, he tramped around London and Paris. He set out as a wanderer, sometimes without any place to stay, recording the daily struggles of the poor.
He wrote enough to get by but didn’t find much acclaim until years later. During different periods of his early adulthood, he picked hops in a field, washed dirty dishes in fancy restaurants, taught teenagers at a private school, and clerked in a bookshop.
Ever since the publication of his first book (Down and Out in Paris and London), which was seen as too scandalous for the time, he wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell.
In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he volunteered to fight in Spain. He joined up with the communists and anarchists and socialists, among other leftist groups, in opposition to fascist powers.
During a battle on the front, a sniper shot him in his throat, almost killing him. While recovering from his wounds, he was forced to flee to France after conditions around him became too unsafe (Soviet propaganda turned against the militia he once was a member of). After many dissenters were repressed, Blair became disillusioned with intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union. Throughout his life, however, he deepened his commitment to democratic socialist principles.
Blair wanted to fight against the Nazis in WWII, but the British army rejected him due to his poor health. He accepted a position at the BBC instead. While there, he contributed a minor part to the propaganda campaign against the fascists. Eventually he quit so he could work on literary pieces for the Tribune, a democratic socialist magazine.
During different periods in his life, Eric Blair worked as a dishwasher, novelist, journalist, schoolteacher, bookshop clerk, and soldier. He was a tramp on the muddy roads of England, a lieutenant in the trenches of Spain, and wrote about it.
His writings exposed the brutal inequalities in authoritarian systems. As a result, his ideas were seen as too subversive. In some countries, his novels were banned and burned. People caught with his words were put in prison.
Blair had his blind spots as well. Some scholars have criticized his racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes. Yet many of his experiences were so impactful that he was forced to confront his prejudices.
He felt a lot of guilt, for instance, as a privileged white man in the service of the British empire. During his employment with the Indian Imperial Police, he had to take on the compromised role of an authority figure. He was seen as an outsider, as part of an occupying force, oppressing the poor of another country. The more that he adhered to the duties expected of him, as if he were performing before the locals, the more ashamed he felt. After five years as a police officer, after witnessing the direct effects of imperialism, he quit his position.
He later disguised himself as a tramp, voluntarily living in destitution, so that he could learn more about those in extreme poverty. While many in the lower classes had no way out of their unjust circumstances, he could escape. Even though his family were “lower-upper-middle class,” (as he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier), he still had socioeconomic opportunities that others didn’t have.
After his time in Burma, though, he had changed. He wanted to write authentic stories about the downtrodden. He often took the side of the poor laborer who struggled for higher wages, of the vagabond who roamed the countryside, of the hopper who slept next to other workers in a tin hut, of the miner who toiled in the coal mine.
Blair was known for being a sharp critic of injustice. He looked through the biases of ordinary living to find truths that most were afraid to admit. He attacked authoritarians in every guise, despising those who wanted power for themselves while hiding their true intentions behind propagandistic language. Despite their claims of morality, many ideological groups imposed their order through violence and censorship.
Blair wrote with a sense of wry humor, almost as a defense against his own disappointment. His opinions were unflinchingly honest. He believed that while people were so capable of progress, they were still susceptible to the dangers of totalitarianism.
Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell: Novels, Memoirs, Poetry, Essays, Book Reviews & Articles: 1984, Animal Farm, down and out in Paris and London, Prophecies of Fascism… Frankfurt am Main, e-artnow, 2019.
Orwell, George | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu/george-orwell/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
Woodcock, George. “George Orwell.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 Mar. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell.