The Man Behind 1984

People are reading George Orwell again. Not that they ever stopped reading him, but now his works are hitting the bestseller lists, thanks largely to the kind of language we are hearing from members of the new Trump administration. And language, particularly English language as used by politicians, was Orwell’s preoccupation.

Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. The son of a British civil servant, he was born in India but, at age 8 was sent off to a British boarding school. He published his first work, a poem, at age 11. However, too poor to afford a university education, Orwell entered military service at age 19, and served in Burma for five years. It was not, however, the life he wanted, and so he quit.

He struggled as a writer, working a number of menial jobs until finally publishing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which depicted the life of the working poor. To avoid embarrassing his family, he took the pen name of George Orwell. Incredibly, the book was a success, and he was compelled to use the pseudonym for the remainder of his life.

Next for Orwell came the novel Burmese Days, which criticized British colonialism. Suddenly, Orwell became an outspoken voice for political reform. He solidified this position when he travelled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. He fought in a militia against the Fascists of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and nearly died of his wounds. From this point in his life onward, Orwell struggled with health problems, including tuberculosis.

He became a correspondent for the BBC, largely delivering propagandist broadcasts to India and other far-flung British colonial holdings during World War II. Orwell hated spreading propaganda though, and eventually quit to become the literary editor of a socialist newspaper. However, although he identified with socialism as a political theory, Orwell was highly critical of the Soviet Union. His highly influential satirical novel, Animal Farm, published in 1945, tells the story of pigs who take over a farm. Napoleon, the pig leader and bully, was patterned after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Squealer, who served as the farm’s chief propagandist, was based on Leon Trotsky. The novel was both controversial, and groundbreaking.

Animal Farm made George Orwell world famous, but his best was yet to come. In 1946, Orwell published an essay criticizing what he saw as the misuse of English by politicians for their own agendas. Politics and the English Language  argues that crowding words and thoughts in speeches and propaganda are ways to confuse and trick the public, with the result that “…political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

The observations made in his essay took the form of prescient fiction in Orwell’s most powerful, and successful, work yet – 1984. The novel is set in a bleak dystopia run by an oppressive totalitarian state which discourages independent reason and thought. Doublethink, Orwell’s term in the novel for the mind-controlling use of language by the authoritarian rulers, is an extension of his theories of where political language was headed. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

Truth, Orwell warned us, could be crushed. If the powers of a state can regulate your beliefs and alter the way you perceive reality, then they will rule without challenge. This why English language terms such as alternative facts and post truth alarm so many people today. Words matter.

Orwell never saw the effect 1984, or Nineteen Eighty-Four as it was known when first published, would have on political thought and public discourse. He died of tuberculosis less than a year after the novel’s publication. It became a best seller again, in 1984, and again this week. It is a remarkable legacy for a former dishwasher from India.

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This article, The Man Behind 1984, first appeared on English Language Blog.