George Orwell has recently shot back into prominence after 1984 sold out on Amazon, but what of the man, and what lessons can we learn from him in 2017?
“Big Brother is watching you.”
What seemed such an outrageous proposition in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—that everyone is under constant surveillance—when it was published back in 1949 is perhaps not as outrageous now in 2017. These days, the cyber world keeps pretty good tabs on us, even down to what brand of toilet paper we buy at the supermarket or the fruit we select.
Fortunately, things aren’t as bad (yet) as they are in the oppressive society of Oceania where individualism is banned and Big Brother is even watching you when you go to the bathroom. The Oceanian government is totalitarianism at work—every single aspect of people’s lives is watched and controlled. People are consumed with fear; everyone is miserable.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, decides to keep a diary—an act of subversion in Oceania. He falls in love with Julia, but they are betrayed. What happens next is chilling.
Room 101 alone still gives me the screaming horrors!
Here’s the thing. Orwell was a master at scene-setting. Consider the lead-up to the Room 101 scene, where Winston meets others arrested by the Thought Police. The “enormous wreck of a woman” who vomits on the floor; the man denounced by his seven-year-old daughter who defecates in the open pan beside him. The picture is gross, the smells pungently real, the despair palpable.
And it gets far worse; Room 101 is a bespoke torture room. Whatever your worst nightmare, your greatest phobia, Room 101 will surpass it.
There’s the man who pleads with the Thought Police:
“You can take the whole lot of them [his wife and three children] and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand by and watch it. But not Room 101!”
This is Orwell’s brilliance as a writer. The scenes are harrowing. You shrivel up inside just reading some of them.
“Dystopian” is the word most often used to describe the novel. The opposite of “utopian,” it means a wretched place marked by repression, oppression, and hardship.
Orwell’s other dystopian novel is Animal Farm (1945), a thinly veiled attack on communism where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Animal Farm begins with a revolt by the animals against their owner, farmer Mr. Jones, after which, one pig—Napoleon—quickly becomes the leader of the new society they have created. His greed and hunger for power soon render him no better than the so-called tyrant they displaced.
Orwell’s use of allegory to comment on the deficiencies of communism was an inspired approach. The ideals may be admirable, but the reality is deeply flawed.
George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was born in 1903 in India. The son of an English civil servant, he was schooled in England and afterwards worked as a policeman in colonial Burma. He soon realized that the Burmese profoundly resented British imperial rule. This sowed the seeds for his lifelong commitment to social justice.
Orwell lived through World War II and the Spanish Civil War, watching the rise of dictators Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, all of whom rode roughshod over their own people, suppressing their rights and individual senses of identity.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was a kind of clarion call to the world to beware of such tyrannical governments.
Interestingly, Orwell’s very name is now used as an adjective—“Orwellian”—to describe a tyrannical or anti-libertarian situation, but it’s more complex than that. American writer Noah Tavlin defines “Orwellian” as “deceptive or manipulative use of language.” He’s right.
In the book, Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, a government department that evades the truth; it reinterprets history and writes propaganda. The Ministry of Peace is actually the armed forces. The language has been commandeered to suit the overriding political ideology. This is Orwell’s message—language has colossal power and isn’t always used for the good of humanity.
Orwell was passionate about human rights.
An early work, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), details the squalor and poverty endured by coal miners in northern England and questions a society in which inequality is entrenched. He then comments extensively on the dire political situation in Spain during that country’s civil war (in which he himself fought against Franco’s forces) in Homage to Catalonia (1938). He worked as a journalist, editor, reviewer, and wrote fiction and nonfiction. His principles pervade all his works.
In a 1946 essay he wrote:
“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after … No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
He died in 1950. He remains in 2017.