Excepting Animal Farm, most critics view George Orwell’s fictions as aesthetically flawed creations, the work of a political thinker whose artistry was subordinate to his intensely didactic, partisan passions. This reaction to Orwell’s novels was generally promoted posthumously, since his fiction in the 1930’s was often ignored by the larger reading public and panned by those reviewers who did pick up one of his books. The early academic critics—up to the late 1960’s—were often Orwell’s personal friends or acquaintances, who tended to see his early novels as conventionally realistic and strongly autobiographical. Even his masterpieces, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were viewed as formally undistinguished, however powerful their message. It was not until the second generation of critics began looking at Orwell’s fiction that a more balanced assessment was possible.
Orwell’s first published novel, Burmese Days, concerns the life of John Flory, an English policeman in Burma during the early 1920’s. The plot is fairly straightforward. After a lengthy introduction to Flory’s personality and daily life, Orwell dramatizes him as a man blemished with a physical stigma, a birthmark, and puzzled by moral dilemma—how to deal with the increasingly rebellious natives, to whom he is secretly sympathetic but against whom he must wield the club of imperialistic authority. In the middle of this dilemma, Elizabeth arrives, a young English woman who is fresh faced but decidedly a traditional “burra memsahib.” Flory attempts to win both her heart and mind—much to the dismay of his Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May—and succeeds in doing neither, even though he manages to half succeed in proposing marriage during an earthquake. With a mind too closed to anything not properly British, and a heart only to be won by someone very English, Elizabeth forgets Flory’s attentions with the arrival of Verrall, an English military policeman, who will in turn reject her after his billet is completed. A humble Flory waits for Elizabeth, and after Verrall has left takes her to church services, confident that he has outlasted his rival. Unfortunately, Flory is humiliated by Ma Hla May, is repulsed yet again by Elizabeth, and, in a mood of despair, commits suicide, killing both his dog and himself.
In such a world, Flory is emphatically not meant to be a sympathetic character, but rather a victim of the very political order he has sworn to uphold. In effect, Orwell has laid a trap for the unwary reader. Too close an identification with Flory, too intense a desire to have him succeed in marrying Elizabeth—an unholy alliance of imperialistic Englishwoman and revolutionary, thinking pariah—will prevent the reader from recognizing the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the British presence in Burma.
Coming Up for Air
Orwell’s fourth published novel, Coming Up for Air, was written in Marrakesh, Morocco, shortly after the author had recovered from yet another bout with tubercular lesions of the lungs. Although the novel sold moderately well for the time (a first printing of two thousand copies and a second printing of one thousand), many critics were vaguely condescending toward the hero, George Bowling, a middle-class insurance salesman who longs for the golden country of the past while simultaneously dreading the horrors of a second world war, then only months away. Many of the themes more fully developed in Nineteen Eighty-Four find their initial expression in Orwell’s last conventional novel, set before the outbreak of the devastation that the next six years would bring.
Coming Up for Air is set in London during the late 1930’s; Orwell employs a first-personnarrative to describe the life of George Bowling, a middle-aged, middle-class...
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salesman, whose first set of false teeth marks a major milestone in his life. Musing in front of a mirror while he prepares for work one morning, George’s mind wanders back to the past, the golden England of thirty years earlier when he was growing up. As he goes about his day, disgusted with all the evidence of modern life in front of him—the casual brutalities, the tasteless food, the bombers overhead—George forms a plan to return to Lower Binfield, his childhood home, and, by extension, the simple life he had once led. Unfortunately, his return only confirms the all-pervasive slovenliness of the modern world: Lower Binfield has been swallowed by a sprawling suburb, his adolescent sweetheart has become a frowsy old married woman (she is all of two years older than he), and the fishing hole (once filled with huge finny dreams) has been emptied of water and filled with trash. Shocked and completely disenchanted, Bowling makes plans to get at least a relaxing few days from the trip when a bomber accidentally drops a bomb close by, killing and wounding several people. In thorough disgust, Bowling packs, leaves, and returns home to face his wife, who has somehow found out where he has gone, although his motives for going will be forever incomprehensible to her.
A plot summary of the novel fails to do justice to the subtle tonal shifts and complicated psychological changes Orwell employs in presenting his portrait of the average man waiting for the Apocalypse. Orwell uses the ancient theme of the double (or doppelgänger) to illustrate the self-fragmentation of European man prior to the outbreak of the war. George Bowling is divided into two “selves.” Tubby is the outwardly fat, insensitive insurance tout who is able to function successfully in a fast-paced, competitive world that would eat up less hardened personalities, but his character can survive only at the cost of any sort of satisfying inner life. Georgie, on the other hand, would be lost in the modern rat race and so is protected by Tubby; nevertheless, Georgie can give expression to the memories, the sensitivities, the love for natural pleasures that Tubby (and George Bowling) would have to forgo to remain functional. Thus, George Bowling devised a strategy for living both materially successfully and psychologically well in the modern world, doing so by splitting his identity into Tubby and Georgie. Coming Up for Air details the ongoing dialogue between these two “selves”—a conversation that reflects the strains of modern living as well as any other novelist has done in the twentieth century.
Furthermore, Orwell has modified the literary conventions of the doppelgänger to suit his own needs. Whereas the death of one-half of the double usually means the destruction, ultimately, of both, Orwell has Tubby live on after Georgie is symbolically destroyed by the bombing plane. The tonal change at this point, rather like the tonal change in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) with the death of Kid Sampson, shows the reader the world that Orwell envisioned between 1938 and 1939, one horrible enough to prevent total escape even by death. It is, however, typically Orwellian that however horrible human bondage can make the cultural world, nature, of which humankind is a part, has enough ebullient energy to wait out any social mess—a wait without immediate hope, without idols, but also without hopeless despair. George Bowling leaves Lower Binfield, returning to his scold of a wife, Hilda; to the everlasting round of bills, worries, war clouds on the horizon, and a death-in-life without Georgie—but, as the novel’s epigraph states, “He’s dead, but he won’t lie down.”
Animal Farm is one of those rare books before which critics lay down their pens. As a self-contained “fairy story,” the book can be read and understood by children not old enough to pronounce most of the words in an average junior high school history text. As a political satire, Animal Farm can be highly appreciated by those who actually lived through the terrible days of World War II. As an allegory concerned with the limitations and abuses of political power, the novel has been pored over eagerly by several generations of readers.
The novel is built around historical events in the Soviet Union from before the October Revolution to the end of World War II; it does this by using the frame of reference of animals in a farmyard, the Manor Farm, owned by a Mr. Jones. Drunk most of the time and, like Czar Nicholas II of Russia in the second decade of the twentieth century, out of touch with the governed, Jones neglects his farm (allegorically representing the Soviet Union, or by extension, almost any oppressed country), causing much discontent and resentment among his animals. One day, after Jones does his nightly rounds, Major, an imposing pig (Vladimir Ilich Lenin), tells the other animals of a dream he has had concerning theories about the way they have been living. Animals have been exploited by Mr. Jones and humankind generally, but Major has dreamed of a time when they will throw over their yokes and live free, sharing equally both the profits and the hazards of their work. Major teaches the animals the words to a song, “Beasts of England” (The Internationale), and tells them to look to the future and the betterment of all animals; three days later he dies.
The smartest of the animals, the pigs, are aroused by his speech and by the song; they secretly learn to read and write, developing a philosophical system called animalism (Communism, Bolshevism) whose principles are taught to all the animals. When Jones forgets one day to feed them (as Russians starved near the end of their involvement in World War I), the animals revolt spontaneously, driving out Jones, his wife (Russian nobility), and Moses, the raven (the Russian Orthodox Church). The animals rejoice, feeling a sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps, and set about to build a new life.
The pigs, however, by taking on the responsibility of organization, also take over certain decision-making processes—as well as all the milk and apples; in fact, Orwell has himself stated that the first sign of corruption, the taking of the cow’s milk, led to the inevitable destruction of everything else. Two pigs in particular, Snowball (Leon Trotsky) and Napoleon (Joseph Stalin), argue constantly, while a third, Squealer (Pravda, Tass) appears more than happy to endorse any course of action with his adroit use of language and his physical habit of skipping from side to side as he speaks. After changing the name from Manor Farm to Animal Farm, the pigs paint on the side of the barn the seven commandments of animalism, the most important being: “All animals are equal.” Meanwhile, Napoleon has been privately raising puppies born on the farm after the overthrow of Jones, puppies that develop into savage attack dogs (secret police, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, or NKVD); with these, he will one day drive off the farm all of his personal enemies, especially the brilliant theoretician Snowball. Also soon to be lost to Animal Farm is Mollie (the bourgeoisie), who shows up at Pilkingtons (the West, England).
At this point, the work becomes more difficult, the pigs assume practical control, and the arguments become more intense. Even though Benjamin, the donkey (Tolstoyan intellectuals), remains cynical about the supposed heaven on earth, Boxer, the horse (the peasantry), vows to work harder; nevertheless, the animals continue to lose their spirit and cohesiveness until attacked by Farmer Jones, who tries to regain the Farm. Because of Snowball’s brilliant strategy, Jones is driven off in what is thereafter called the Battle of the Cowshed (the Civil War).
Following the victory celebration, Snowball and Napoleon move toward a decisive parting: The former wants to move full speed ahead with the building of the windmill (permanent revolution), while the latter thinks the most important task immediately ahead is the increase in food production (develop socialism in Russia first). After much debate and just before what could be an affirmative vote for Snowball’s policies, Napoleon unleashes his secretly kept dogs on his rival, chasing him out of Animal Farm forever. Henceforth, the unchallenged leader abolishes Sunday meetings, increasingly changes rules at will, and even announces that the building of the windmill was his idea.
The animals continue to work hard, still believing that they are working for themselves. The changes Napoleon institutes, however, are so at variance with the initial rules of Animal Farm, and life gets to be so much drudgery, that no one has the memory to recall the ideals of the past, nor the energy to change the present—even if memories were sound.
Very soon, life at Animal Farm seems indistinguishable from the life the animals led at Manor Farm. Orwell is not so much ultimately pessimistic as he is realistically moral: Institutionalized hierarchy begets privilege, which begets corruption of power. The first mistake of the animals was to give over their right to decide who got the milk and apples. Lord Action’s famous statement could not be more appropriate: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell’s most famous work. As a fantasy set in the future, the novel has terrified readers for more than thirty years—frightened them into facing the prospect of the ultimate tyranny: mind control. As a parody of conditions in postwar England, it is, as Anthony Burgess argues in his novel 1985 (1978), a droll, rather Swiftean exaggeration of then current trends straining the social and political fabric of British culture. As a critique of the way in which human beings construct their social reality, the novel has so affected the modern world that much of its language (like that of its predecessor, Animal Farm) has entered into the everyday language of English-speaking peoples everywhere: “doublethink,” “newspeak,” “thoughtcrime,” and “Big Brother.” Bernard Crick has argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four is intimately related to Animal Farm and that both works convey Orwell’s most important message: Liberty means telling people what they do not want to hear. If the vehicle for the telling gets corrupted, then the message itself will always be corrupted, garbled; finally, the very thoughts that led to the utterances in the first place will be shackled, constrained not only from the outside but also from the inside. To think clearly, to speak openly and precisely, was a heritage Englishmen received from their glorious past; it was a legacy so easily lost that it needed to be guarded fiercely, lest those who promulgated ideologies of right or left took away what had been won with such difficulty. That was where the danger lay, with those who practiced the “smelly little orthodoxies” that are still “contending for our souls.”
The story begins with a man named Winston Smith, who is hurrying home on a cold, windy April day as the clocks are striking thirteen. With this ominous beginning, the reader is quickly plunged into a gritty, decaying world where the political order so dominates everyday life that independent thought is a crime, love is forbidden, and language seems to say the opposite of what one has normally come to expect. As Winston’s daily life unfolds, the reader quickly learns that the whole world has been divided into three geographical areas: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. All are engaged in perpetual warfare with one or both of the others, not for territorial or religious reasons but primarily for social control. At some point, atomic warfare had made total war unthinkable, yet it suits the political leaders of Oceania (the same is also true of the other two political areas) to keep the population in a general state of anxiety about foreign attack. Under the guise of national concern, Oceania’s leaders keep the population under their collective thumb through the use of propaganda (from the Ministry of Truth), through outright, brutally applied force (from the Ministry of Love), through eternally short rations (Ministry of Plenty), and through the waging of perpetual war (Ministry of Peace). The ruling elite, called the Inner Party, make up only 2 percent of the population; the Outer Party, the next 13 percent. The remainder, some 85 percent of the population, make up the oppressed masses; those in this group are called Proles.
Winston, a member of the Outer Party, has been disturbed by strange thoughts of late, and one day he purchases a small, bound volume of blank paper, a diary in which he can record his most private thoughts without being observed by the omnipresent telescreen manned by members of the Thought Police. In his diary, he records his first thought: “Down with Big Brother!” To compound such a heinous thoughtcrime, he begins a liaison with a pretty young woman, a member of the Anti-Sex League, named Julia. After their affair has progressed for some time, they are contacted by a man named O’Brien, who enlists their aid in combating Big Brother by joining a group called the Brotherhood. O’Brien gives Winston a book, written by a man named Emannuel Goldstein, called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Having made love to Julia in a room rented from an old Prole (secretly a member of the Thought Police), Winston begins reading to her from Goldstein’s book, actually anexposition of the theory that Orwell has used to construct Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Although Winston is fascinated, Julia, a rebel from the waist down only, falls asleep, and, after a while, so does Winston. They awake many hours later, are captured by the Thought Police, who apparently knew of their hideaway from the first, and are taken to rooms in the Ministry of Love. There, they find that O’Brien is in reality a member of the Thought Police; he alternately tortures and debates with Winston, trying to convince him that he must love Big Brother.
When torture fails, Winston is taken to Room 101, where he will be subjected to that which he fears most—in his case, rats. He gives in, begs them to “do it to Julia,” and is ultimately convinced that he loves Big Brother. The novel ends as Winston, having exchanged mutual conversations of betrayal with Julia, sits at the Chestnut Café drinking Victory Gin, completely brainwashed and committed to Big Brother.
Much has been said about the ultimate pessimism of Nineteen Eighty-Four being related to Orwell’s fatal illness, which he fought unsuccessfully during the composition of the novel. If, however, one thinks of Orwell’s fiction less in biographical terms and more in relation to artistic intention, then such a conclusion could be subject to argument. Although the novel ends with Winston in what Northrop Frye called the sixth level of irony, unrelieved bondage, one should draw a distinction, as Orwell does in his other writings (most notably in the essay “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”), between humans’ actions as cultural beings and their activities as creatures of planet Earth, natural beings.
As political creatures, humans and their purely cultural institutions could, Orwell believes, develop a world such as the one portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This would be impossible, however, for humans as biological residents of the planet Earth. Humankind never displays hubris more graphically than does O’Brien in his speech about the party’s supposed control of nature. In Orwell’s view, human beings will never fully control nature, because they are only a part of what they wish to control. The great chestnut tree blossoming over Winston and his degeneration as a free being is Orwell’s symbol indicating that the natural world can outlast humankind’s cultural and political aberrations. “The planting of a tree,” says Orwell, “if [it] takes rootwill far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.” If there is hope for Oceania in the Proles, perhaps it is because they are instinctively closer to the natural world symbolized by the chestnut tree. Nevertheless, whether one thinks there is any hope for the people of that world or not, their existence has served as a warning to the larger world: The price of the right to tell people what they do not want to hear is never too high to pay.