"He felt as though he were wandering in the forests of the sea bottom, lost in a monstrous world where he himself was the monster. He was alone. The past was dead, the future was unimaginable. What certainty had he that a single human creature now living was on his side?" -- FROM "1984"
George Orwell lay dying, hounded by doubts.
He had just completed his final, most ambitious undertaking--a portrait of the ultimate totalitarian state. But "I am not pleased with the book," he wrote to his publisher. Its creation had been painful, stalled by the tuberculosis that was eating at his lungs. Its plot was minimal, dialogue slim, exposition prodigious, ideas uncomfortable, its hero a nervous weakling who dies in defeat. Its title was "1984."
But then he had never been confident of his talent. In fact, despondency had driven him to use the pseudonym Orwell instead of his real name, Eric Arthur Blair. Nor, after 16 years, a dozen books and 700 essays and newspaper articles--during which there was "not one day in which I did not feel like I was idling"--had he found the vast audience he so much desired. He was facing his last chance when 25,000 copies of "1984" were published in June 1949.
Six months later Orwell was dead in a London hospital at the age of 46. And "1984" was already transforming the modern consciousness. Within a year, more than 400,000 copies were sold in Britain and the United States alone. V.S. Pritchett declared it as good as anything Swift had written; The Times Literary Supplement gave it a rave. In America, Lionel Trilling called it "momentous" and Mark Schorer in The New York Times Book Review extolled "a great work of kinetic art."
It depicts a society in which the least dissent is intolerable. Telescreens watch citizens from their walls; the wrong expression may be a "facecrime"; sexual desire, because incorrigible, is subversive and virtually forbidden, except for the huge, dumb underclass called "proles." History is continuously rewritten to accord with the edicts of the dictator, Big Brother. Permanent war keeps the populace subservient (through mass rituals such as the "Two Minutes Hate") and makes prosperity (hence leisure, hence thought) impossible. The state language, Newspeak ("very bad" is "doubleplusungood"), sheds more words every year in an attempt to make wrong thinking ("thoughtcrime") literally unthinkable. And the best minds master "doublethink," a cerebral contortion allowing one "to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them." All of it set in a hellish urban wrack of shattered glass and moldering stone.
Orwell's timid, nostalgic protagonist, Winston Smith, nagged by an "ancestral memory" of freedom, becomes an accidental revolutionary in an affair with a coworker. Convinced that "if there is hope, it lies in the proles" and their animal energy, he goes looking for rebellion and finds interrogation, torture and death. Yet his doomed and pathetic persistence becomes a powerful emblem of optimism in a vision that is otherwise unremittingly bleak.
Many U.S. reviewers praised it for mistaken reasons. The Wall Street Journal chose to hail it as essentially an anti-Communist tract. Time, Life and several papers found it variously an attack on Britain's Labour Party, a denunciation of English socialism and a firm prediction of what life would become without vigorous free-enterprise capitalism. Orwell was appalled enough to dictate a press release explaining that "1984" was a "parody" applicable to "a totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colours," left or right. And although the book's political system, "Ingsoc," denoted English socialism, "in the U.S.A. the phrase 'Americanism' or 'hundred per cent Americanism' is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish."
In 34 years, sales have rarely slowed. The New American Library mass-market paperback edition, past its 65th printing, now totals 9,976,000 copies in print and orders are expected to triple by the end of the year. NAL has also released a first printing of 150,000 trade paperback versions and will issue a special commemorative edition next year.
The book remains required reading in schools and the word "Orwellian" is enshrined in dictionaries. But the man himself is now virtually unknown outside literary circles.
In his prime, Eric Arthur Blair was a lank and gangling 6-feet-3, with a grim, wind-fissured Scottish face, hair that topped his head like a thatched beret, and an infrequent laugh that was more a reluctant cough. A wearer of shabby, ill-fitting tweeds, a smoker of hand-rolled cigarettes, an avid and reputedly inept carpenter, he was a lover of animals (his goat was Muriel, his dog Marx, his chickens legion), but intensely private, even secretive with humans.
He was offended by bourgeois pretention (he once removed his jacket in a favorite restaurant and when the waiter reminded him of the dress code, Orwell called him a "bloody fascist" and never went there again) yet deeply nostalgic for a prewar idyll of solid burghers and sturdy rural yeomen. Virtually all of his novels depict privileged protagonists who forsake their comforts to commune with the poor; yet he was contemptuous of literary dilettante-slummers "for either pretending to be proletarians or indulging in public orgies of self-hatred because they were not proletarians."
He had close friends, including Pritchett and Arthur Koestler, and he married twice. Yet at bottom, he was a solitary man consumed by his art. Koestler once remarked, after Orwell had ruthlessly panned one of his plays, "his integrity could be inhuman." Women found him attractive, but aloof and abstracted. After his first wife died in surgery, he proposed to a number of women on only the briefest acquaintance and in the most oddly perfunctory form, as if finding a mate were like buying a cow. The prospects were not flattered. "Curiously obtuse and insensitive," said one demurring candidate; "a man's man," said another. (He would not marry again until 1949, three months before his death, when he wed the esteemed literary editor and noted beauty Sonia Brownell in a hospital bedside ceremony.)
He had no programmatic politics, although he was intensely interested in the possibilities of socialism and once proposed a vast redistribution of income and nationalization of the land, mines, rails, banks and the English accent. But he remained chronically skeptical of dogma or zealotry. "The mere words Socialism and Communism," he once wrote, "draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England."
"Gulliver's Travels" meant more to him than any other book he had read--contributing directly to the creation of "Animal Farm," his satirical fable about the Soviet revolution--and his impassioned outrage is often compared to Swift's. (Bertrand Russell disagreed: "Orwell hated the enemies of those whom he loved, whereas Swift could only love (and that faintly) the enemies of those whom he hated.") But like that of Swift, his disgust often turned inward. Pritchett described him as "tall and bony, the face lined with pain, eyes that stared out of their caves, he looked far away over one's head, as if seeking more discomfort and new indignations."
That urge, some biographers believe, led him to emperil his dangerously feeble lungs by choosing to live in a primitive cottage on the dank and forlorn Scottish isle of Jura. He "went native in his own country," Pritchett joked. But it wasn't funny: "I think he was a man who did very badly want to suffer." He had ample opportunity: His life, like his greatest work, seems one long struggle against a succession of tyrannies.
He was born in Bengal in 1903, the son of a bureaucrat in the Indian civil service, but returned with his mother to England immediately. Except for brief visits, his father remained there until Eric was 9--by which time the withdrawn and mistrustful boy had entered St. Cyprian's preparatory school, where he was whipped for bed-wetting and developed "a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness" and "the profound conviction that I was no good." He was good enough to get a scholarship to Eton; but when his indifferent performance there destroyed any chance of a university scholarship, in 1922 he went to India as a policeman in Lower Burma.
The experience provided material for several later masterworks of reportage ("Shooting an Elephant," "A Hanging" and other essays of the '30s) and an acrid novel indicting the raj mentality, "Burmese Days" (1934). But if his contempt for apologists was strong (he would call Kipling a "gutter patriot"), so was his admiration for British order and technology. The ambivalence left him "stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible."
After five years, he felt "an immense weight of guilt I had to expiate" and a compulsion "to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed." In 1928 he moved to Paris, living in self-enforced squalor among the poor and writing fiction (he destroyed it all), then returned to England to do the same. The result was his first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London," which he considered so inept that it needed a pseudonym: He chose "Orwell" after an English river; "George" for its typicality.
After several publishers rejected it, he abandoned the manuscript at a friend's home in London. But the friend found an agent who found a publisher, the book came out in 1933, and "Orwell" entered the public consciousness. During the early '30s, supporting himself by odd jobs and temporary teaching positions, he wrote two novels--"A Clergyman's Daughter" and "Keep the Aspidistra Flying"--whose protagonists paralleled in satirical form his own attempts to wallow voyeuristically in poverty. Orwell, meanwhile, chose to live in a 300-year-old cottage and celebrated his wedding in 1936 to Eileen O'Shaughnessy at a local pub.
Six months later, he went to fight Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, disdaining the literarily fashionable International Brigade for a small, dissident Marxist unit. He alternated between horror and tedium; mailed home notes hastily scrawled on envelopes or toilet paper (they became "Homage to Catalonia," his book on the war); was shot through the throat; and with Eileen, who had joined him there, became a fugitive when his unit was blamed by the Communist press--falsely, Orwell believed--for a massacre in Barcelona. Anger at that "propaganda" was the genesis of "Animal Farm."
Once back in England, he disavowed his novels ("purple passages, decorative adjectives and humbug generally") and pledged that "every line of serious work" would be "written against totalitarianism." But "Homage" (1938) was too critical of Communism to suit the editorial mood in Britain: When he finally found a publisher, the book sold only 683 copies in six months. Orwell knew he needed a way of "turning political writing into an art," and the next year produced "Coming Up for Air," a novel juxtaposing the vapid materialism of industrial society with the values of prewar rural life.
As World War II approached, Orwell feared Britain's involvement (by mobilizing "a capitalist-imperialist government against Fascism . . . one is simply letting fascism in by the back door"), but joined the BBC's propaganda unit and wrote patriotic wartime pamphlets. He quit in 1943 to become literary editor for the Tribune, where his columns and reviews appeared until 1945--the year of "Animal Farm," Orwell's crushingly satirical allegory about how the Russian Revolution subverted its own goals.
Again, he was rebuffed by publishers. Stalin was fighting Hitler, and the time was wrong for an anti-Soviet book. Even T.S. Eliot--the editor with whom Orwell had worked on the BBC and who praised the book highly--was afraid he was not satisfied that "this is the thing that needs saying right now." ("If liberty means anything at all," Orwell later wrote, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.") But again he was finally published, to unexpected success: a first printing of 4,500 copies was sold out in two weeks. In part, that success was owed to the simple prose which has kept the book a high-school staple in America.
But even in his most sophisticated work, Orwell insisted that "good prose is like a window"--the quality he urged in his indispensable essay "Politics and the English Language," and which he admired in his favorite writers: Swift, Dickens and Conrad. The least pretension or superfluity pained him, and he rewrote all of his books twice--some passages as many as 10 times--resulting in a seemingly effortless aptness of trope: his ridicule of Dickens' placid ideal of the Victorian family "constantly multiplying like a bed of oysters"; or his disdain for a writer in whom "an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink."
Meanwhile, he had adopted and become obsessively devoted to a son named Richard (even burning the name of the natural father off the adoption papers with a cigarette) and happy family life seemed possible. But while he was in Germany as a correspondent for The Observer, Eileen died during a hysterectomy. After his brief hunt for another wife, he and Richard moved to Jura, where he wrote "1984" and remained even after his lung problem was diagnosed as tuberculosis in 1947. The effort so weakened him that he did the final revisions lying on a sofa.
Just as "Animal Farm" had been influenced by H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau," Orwell's last novel drew on many contemporary sources: the stricken tone of Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," sociology from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" and elements of G.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday," among others--including passages from his own essays, especially "Politics and the English Language." But out of it he created a world so hypnotically desolate, so terrifying in its extrapolated resemblance to our own, that four decades later the nation quavers uneasily on the threshhold of the eponymous year.
Indeed, "1984" seems freshly urgent in our era of encroaching computer domination and mass manipulative potential. "If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind," Winston asks, "and if the mind itself is controllable--what then?"
What then? The question hovers over an age besotted with complacency like a challenge unmet. "It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved," Orwell wrote in 1944. "But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, 'It will always be like this.' "
For more on Orwell's life, see: "George Orwell: A Life" by Bernard Crick (Little, Brown, 1980); "George Orwell: The Road to 1984" by Peter Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); and "George Orwell and the Origins of 1984" by William Steinhoff (University of Michigan Press, 1975).