Gordon Bowker is the author of "George Orwell," a biography of the writer, and has written articles for the the Daily Beast, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.
With “alternative facts” airing on the evening news and ominous warnings of “American carnage” issuing from the White House, it’s no surprise that the author George Orwell has been the subject of recent essays across American publishing, from the Huffington Post to the New York Times. Orwell’s classic novel on totalitarianism and surveillance, “1984,” has again become a bestseller thanks to the strange affairs afoot in Washington, with its publisher rushing to print fresh copies to meet demand. As we reconsider Orwell’s work, however, it’s worth reevaluating what we know about the man himself, around whom many misconceptions and legends have grown up over the years.
In a 2013 essay for the conservative Catholic publication Crisis Magazine, Sean Fitzpatrick wrote that the most frightening thing about Orwell’s “1984” is “how many aspects of our democratic nation resemble his dystopian nightmare.” Fitzpatrick described many features of contemporary politics (such as the Affordable Care Act and the war on terror) as signals of the advancement of “the ideologies of big government.” Other writers often equate Orwell’s dystopias with government overreach: “Maybe, ‘liberals’ today will rediscover their roots and reignite a deep suspicion of a large, all-powerful government,” Charles Hurt wrote in an Orwell-centric Washington Times column this month.
Yet Orwellianism isn’t just about big government; it’s about authoritarianism coupled with lies. Newspeak, as Orwell described it in “1984,” is language that means the exact opposite of what it says. Contemporary examples include the labeling of news organizations as “fake news” and falsehoods as “alternative facts.” “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it,” one of Orwell’s characters says.
Moreover, Orwell did not see oppression issuing strictly from governments. In “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” Gordon Comstock’s landlady spies on him, making him feel a loss of privacy and liberty. In the autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys, ” Orwell writes that in boarding school, he suspected that a spy had been set on him by his headmaster and depicted the environment as institutionally oppressive. An equivalent today might be mass surveillance via social media: Facebook logging your purchases, Skype eavesdropping on your calls and the ubiquitous mobile phone camera’s all-seeing eye. A surveillance society can have many Big Brothers and Sisters watching us, rather than just a single all-powerful one.
Orwell’s work contained strong skepticism of religion. In “A Clergyman’s Daughter,” he has a Satanic priest reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward . In “Animal Farm,” faith is represented cynically as “lies put about by Moses, the tame Raven,” about a supposed animal paradise. “Even in Animal Farm,” John Rossi and John Rodden wrote in a 2016 Commonweal Magazine retrospective on its author, “Orwell found time to express his hostility to religion.” A 2011 article by Robert Gray in the Spectator titled “Orwell vs God” noted that “though he might acknowledge the necessity of religion in theory,” Orwell’s general attitude toward faith was one of “unblinking hostility.” He once said that he did not subscribe to “doctrines which no one seriously believes in,” such as “the immortality of the soul.”
Yet Orwell retained a lasting affection for the Anglican Church, choosing to be married and buried, per instructions in his will, “according to the rites of the Church of England.” And he maintained a religious imagination, especially during his final days. In a last letter from his hospital bed, Orwell asked a friend whether an advertisement he’d found in a newspaper might be blasphemous. Another friend, who visited him just before he died, found him reading the first volume of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” raising the possibility that he was preparing himself for some kind of afterlife.
In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell recommended keeping prose simple, positing that “good prose is like a window pane” in its clarity. Indeed, Orwell has been noted for this quality in his writing. In a 2006 NPR article, for instance, author Lawrence Wright claimed that “Orwell wasn’t interested in decorative writing, but his straightforward, declarative style has a snap in it that few other writers have ever approached.”
It was not always so. In his early novel “Burmese Days,” for example, we find the following: “In the borders beside the path swaths of English flowers — phlox and larkspur, hollyhock and petunia — not yet slain by the sun, rioted in vast size and richness. The petunias were huge, like trees almost. There was no lawn, but instead a shrubbery of native trees and bushes — gold mohur trees like vast umbrellas of blood-red bloom, frangipanis with creamy, stalkless flowers, purple bougainvillea, scarlet hibiscus and the pink Chinese rose, bilious-green crotons, feathery fronds of tamarind. The clash of colours hurt one’s eyes in the glare. A nearly naked mali, watering-can in hand, was moving in the jungle of flowers like some large nectar-sucking bird.” And he raved to his girlfriend Brenda Salkeld in 1933 about “my dear ‘Ulysses,’ my greatest discovery since I discovered Villon,” referring to James Joyce’s labyrinthine novel.
It was only when he turned to political writing in 1936, after living with unemployed miners in Wigan, in northern England, and fighting in Spain, that he decided that, for honesty’s sake, he must write prose that was transparent — devoid of jargon, misleading metaphors, foreign words and phrases, and cliches.
One 2014 biography of Orwell declared him a “social realist” and “secular saint”; a Guardian article by John Carey insisted that “Orwell was a truth-teller whose courage and sense of social justice made him a secular saint”; and Geoffrey Wheatcroft once wrote in the Independent that “the secular saint of our time par excellence was George Orwell.” As a progressive in politics, he wanted the kind of egalitarian society he’d glimpsed in Barcelona in 1936, where, he wrote in his book “Homage to Catalonia,” “human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
Orwell was a socialist, but he was also a realist. He thought that in 1940, after the British defeat at Dunkirk, Britain was on the brink of revolution. Instead, the moment passed, and at the end of the war he threw his support behind the Labour Party, whose policy was one of sober gradualism rather than violent revolution.
In other ways, he was an outright traditionalist: His attitude toward women and gay people was boorish and retrograde. Orwell’s friend and contemporary Stephen Spender noted that ‘‘Orwell was very misogynist . . . a strange sort of eccentric man full of strange ideas and strange prejudices. One was that he thought that women were extremely inferior and stupid. . . . He really rather despised women.” Orwell also opposed modern urban sprawl and machine technology. And most of his fiction, as well as his nonfiction, reveals a yen for Edwardian England, though stripped of some of its cruelties and inequalities.
Orwell’s roommate Rayner Heppenstall once described the author as having moods “of sadistic exaltation,” during which he would become violent in arguments. Others have located sadism in Orwell’s books, especially “1984,” which includes a torture scene. Given Orwell’s remarks on his own history (for example, he once described in an article how, as a boy, he cut a wasp in half out of curiosity; and in the essay “Shooting an Elephant” wrote that as a police officer in Burma he took great pleasure in imagining sticking a bayonet into the guts of a Buddhist priest), one might reasonably suspect he had a violent streak.
Yet Orwell belonged for a time to the pacifistic Independent Labour Party, deplored the sadism of communists in Spain and felt uneasy with gratuitous violence in media. He disparaged what he called “the Yank Mags ” (“There is the frankest appeal to sadism,” he wrote of these magazines in his essay “Boys’ Weeklies, ” “scenes in which the Nazis tie bombs to women’s backs and fling them off heights to watch them blown to pieces in mid-air, others in which they tie naked girls together by their hair and prod them with knives to make them dance, etc.”) and American films like “High Sierra,” which he felt encouraged and glorified cruelty and violence, as did novels such as James Hadley Chase’s “No Orchids for Miss Blandish.” Reviewing “High Sierra” in the literary magazine Time and Tide, Orwell dismissively wrote, “For anyone who wants the ne plus ultra of sadism, bully worship, gun play, socks on the jaw and gangster atmosphere generally, this film is the goods.”
Orwell might have had a temper and some morbid curiosities, but he certainly did not approve of inflicting suffering on others without reason.