Since the mid-1940’s, George Orwell has been considered one of the world’s premier essayists. Combining reportage, the polemical essay, fictional techniques, and refracted autobiographical detail, his works defy precise generic definition. Orwell’s numerous nonfiction works have been compiled in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell (1968), edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
Although George Orwell is widely recognized as one of the best essayists of the twentieth century, his reputation as a novelist rests almost entirely on two works: the political allegory Animal Farm and the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have been translated into so many other languages and have been read so widely that the adjective “Orwellian” has international currency—synonymous, as Bernard Crick has put it, with the “ghastly political future.” Indeed, Jeffrey Meyers has asserted that Orwell, the writer of essays, political tracts, and fiction, “is more widely read than perhaps any other serious writer of the twentieth-century.”
By the time Orwell came to write his major novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), his ideas had darkened into a sinister vision of the future. Within this novel England has become a totalitarian society in which every aspect of the lives of its citizens is controlled by the state and even the possibility of independent thought has been destroyed. Much of this oppression has been accomplished through the manipulation of language. A perverted and truncated form of English has been engineered, known as “Newspeak.” The purpose of Newspeak is to make impossible any mode of thought that deviates from the official ideology of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. Undesirable words such as “justice,” “morality,” “religion,” and “democracy” have simply been eliminated from the vocabulary. New words have been invented, and existing words have been stripped of secondary meanings. The range of thought has thus been diminished, and ambiguity of expression—and therefore of thought—is no longer possible. Because Newspeak has not yet been fully established, cruder forms of enforcing orthodoxy are still necessary. This is achieved by the Thought Police, who root out all signs of “thoughtcrime.”
In the nightmare society that Orwell envisioned, no one can ever contradict the ruling party’s version of current or historical events. The party controls all records; the past, as recorded in newspapers, books, photographs, and films, is simply rewritten or remade (“rectified” in Newspeak) when this is considered necessary. For example, when economic output under a three-year plan does not match past forecasts (which is always the case), back issues of newspapers referring to earlier forecasts are simply altered. There is no need for overt censorship. Rather than suppress new information, the past is altered to conform with it. By this continuous process of alteration, every government prediction, every statistic, is made to seem correct. Whenever there is an obvious contradiction between the party’s current version of an event and what was formerly declared to be the truth, party members engage in the practice of “doublethink.” This is a Newspeak term that denotes the ability to hold two contradictory things in mind without acknowledging the contradiction—to forget a fact when necessary, to remember it again if necessary, and then to forget it once more when it is no longer required. If a heretical thought presents itself, party members are conditioned to blank it out instinctively in a process called “crimestop” in Newspeak.
As a prediction of the future, the vision of Nineteen Eighty- Four has not come true, but as a description of the thought processes of the totalitarian mind and those who fall subject to it, it is an unparalleled model. It shows the ultimate form of censorship: the manipulation of the mind so as to remove the very notion of an objective truth. In contrast, Orwell’s own life and work stand as a testament to the preservation of truth and honesty in political life and writing.
Bloom, Harold, ed. George Orwell. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This compilation includes thirteen articles from leading critics and scholars, which deal for the most part with major themes and well-known novels. A short bibliography and chronology are included.
Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. An important full-scale effort, considering all phases of Orwell’s career. The first biography to benefit from unlimited rights of quotation from Orwell’s works held under copyright. Based upon extensive use of the writer’s archives and other manuscript sources as well as numerous publications.
Davison, Peter. George Orwell: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. This book follows the course of Orwell’s career as a writer. Although it does contain background chapters explaining his origins, it is chiefly concerned with his literary influences and relationships, including those with his publishers and editors.
Gardner, Averil. George Orwell. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This interesting summary treatment of Orwell’s career and literary contributions takes note of areas where interpretive controversies have arisen. The chronology and the annotated selected bibliography are also useful.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Biography emphasizes Orwell’s criticism of Nazism and Stalinism—philosophies he never softened his view of in order to sell books. Hitchens says Orwell’s analysis of those two governmental systems applies in the early twenty-first century.
Holderness, Graham, Bryan Loughrey, and Nahem Yousaf, eds. George Orwell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Essays on Orwell’s novels; his use of allegory; his politics; his handling of form, character, and theme; and his view of England. Includes a bibliography.