George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Motihari, India. The Blair¹s were relatively prosperous civil servants, working in India on behalf of the British Empire. Blair would later describe his family¹s socioeconomic status as “lower-upper middle class,” on comment on the extraordinary degree to which British citizens in India depended on the Empire for their livelihood; though the Blair were able to live quite comfortably in India, they had none of the physical assets or independent investments that would have been enjoyed by their class in England proper. Despite this factor, Ida Blair moved back to England in 1904 with Eric and his older sister Marjorie so that they could be brought up in a more traditional Christian environment.
In England, Blair entered the public school system and was admitted to Eton College in 1917. For most students of this era, Eton led directly to higher education at a university, often Oxford or Cambridge. Blair shunned further formal schooling, and after leaving Eton in 1921, returned to India in 1922 to join the Indian Imperial Police. This work gave Blair his first real experiences with the poor and downtrodden whom he would later champion, and unhappy with the his position as the “hand of the oppressor,” Blair resigned from the police force in 1927, returning to England that same year.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
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Upon return to England, Blair lived in the East End district of London, which was filled with paupers and the destitute, whom he saw as the spiritual kin of the Burmese peasants he had encountered as a policeman. In 1928, Blair moved to Paris to become a writer, where he again lived among the poor, and was eventually forced to abandon his writing temporarily and become a dishwasher.
He returned to England the next year (1929), and lived as a tramp before finding work as a teacher at a private school. This position gave Blair time to write, and his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, was published in 1933, under the pseudonym George Orwell. The publication of this first work, which was an account of his years living among the poor of Paris and London, marks the beginning of a more stable period for Orwell, in which he taught, opened a bookshop, and continued to write. His first fictional work, Burmese Days, appeared in 1934.
The next few years saw a steady stream of activity for Orwell, who produced A Clergyman¹s Daughter in 1935 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936. During this period he also met Eileen Maud O¹Shaughnessy, whom he married on June 9, 1936. That same year Orwell received a grant from the Left Book Club to produce a work dealing with the conditions of the poor, which resulted in the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier. In December of 1936, Orwell decided to enlist in the POAM, the Socialist military party in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.
Attracted by the vision of a society without class distinction, Orwell fought for socialism in Spain, but was wounded in the neck and forced to return to England in 1938. His account of his experiences in Spain was published as Homage to Catalonia that same year. Upon his return to England, however, Orwell fell ill with tuberculosis, which he neglected. In 1941, Orwell went to work for the BBC as a broadcaster for India, a post which he resigned to become the literary editor for The Tribune.
This position was equally short-lived, however, as Orwell resigned in 1945 to begin work on Animal Farm. Orwell¹s family life experienced significant upheaval during this period, marked by the adoption of a son, Richard, in 1944, and by the death of his wife Eileen during an operation in 1945. Soon after Eileen¹s death, Animal Farm was published, and Orwell become “famous overnight”. In reaction to the sudden glare of fame, Orwell moved to the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland, with aggravated his tuberculosis considerably. While at Jura, Orwell wrote his last novel and perhaps most famous novel, 1984, and married Sonia Bromwell. In 1949 Orwell returned to England, but his tuberculosis was by that time painfully advanced. He eventually succumbed to the disease, dying on January 21, 1950. Summary of 1984
Part I sets up the misery of Winston’s world before he outwardly expresses any sort of rebellion.
Winston Smith is living in London, the chief city of Airstrip One (formerly known as England), in the superstate of Oceania. It is‹he thinks‹1984.
Oceania is a totalitarian state dominated by the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism) and ruled by an ominous organization known simply as the Party. Oceania and the two other world superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia, are involved in a continuous war over the remaining world, and constantly shifting alliances. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the war is largely an illusion, and that the three superstates maintain this illusion for their mutual benefit. It serves their shared purpose of holding onto absolute power over their respective peoples. Much of the warfare, in fact, is inflicted by these governments upon their own citizens.
Oceanic society is hierarchical and oligarchic. At the bottom‹where the vast majority of the population lies‹are the “proles” or proletariat, the working classes who are uneducated and largely left alone by the government except when it is necessary to tap into mass patriotism or political participation. Above the proles is the Outer Party, less privileged members of the Party who spend their time keeping the wheels of the Party machine well-oiled and running smoothly.
These people are systematically brainwashed from a young age and are kept under constant surveillance by ubiquitous “telescreens” (which can receive and transmit visual and aural impulses simultaneously) and the ominous Thought Police. Above the Outer Party are the Inner Party members, who enjoy the fruits of power and production, and whose sole aim is to perpetuate power for the Party, forever. At the very top of the pyramid is Big Brother, the embodiment of the Party, a “face” and glorified persona which it is easier to love than an abstract collective organization.
On this April day, Winston has left the Ministry of Truth, where he works in the Records Department, to take his lunch break at home, because he wishes to write in his diary‹a compromising activity and a compromising possession to begin with. Yet, despite his fears, he is overwhelmed with the need to impose some sanity upon his world. Winston is a rebel at heart, a heretic who does not subscribe to Party doctrines or beliefs.
After reflecting on the day’s events, notably the event which inspired him to begin the diary on this day, Winston is startled by a knock on the door. Could it be the Thought Police already?
Fortunately, it is only his neighbor Mrs. Parsons, asking him to help her unclog her kitchen sink drain. He does, and after being briefly tormented by her children‹dangerous little demons already brainwashed by the Party and certain to turn on their parents one day‹he returns to his flat.
Winston’s diary and his dreams and memories of the past are all testament to his need to anchor himself in the past, believing it to be more sane than the world he lives in now. The description of his dreams and memories gradually unfolds the developments which have led to the current world order.
Winston’s job at the fraudulently-named Ministry of Truth involves the daily rewriting of history: he corrects “errors” and “misprints” in past articles in order to make the Party appear infallible and constant‹always correct in its predictions, always at war with one enemy. Currently the enemy is Eurasia, and it follows (according to the Party) that it has always been Eurasia, though Winston knows this to be untrue.
Despite his horror at the Party’s destruction of the past, Winston enjoys his part in it, taking pleasure in using his imagination in rewriting Big Brother’s speeches and such.
It becomes apparent, through a painstaking unfolding of detail, that the standards of living in Oceania are barely tolerable. For the majority of the population, goods are scarce, and everything is ugly and tastes horrible. Depressed, Winston wonders if the past were better. Once upon a time, did people enjoy marriage, was sex pleasurable, were there enough goods to go around? He recalls his own dismal marriage to Katharine, a frigid woman so inculcated with Party doctrine that she hates sex but insists upon it once a week as “our duty to the Party.”
Winston feels that the only hope lies in the proles if they wake up one day and realize that they are not living the kind of life they could be. But will they wake up?
Tormented by memories and searching for answers, Winston walks aimlessly through a prole area. He tries to talk to an old man about the past, but can’t seem to get anywhere. Eventually, he finds himself in front of the antique shop where he had bought the diary. He enters, starts to chat with Mr. Charrington (the proprietor), and wanders through the quaint antiques. He buys a beautiful glass paperweight. Mr. Charrington talks to him some more and shows him an upstairs room furnished with old furniture. There is no telescreen in this room, amazing Winston, and inspiring him to consider renting this room as a hiding place‹though he immediately dismisses the idea as lunacy. Still, enchanted, he resolves to come back sometime.
Upon leaving the shop, he is startled to see a girl with dark hair who works in his Ministry. There is no reason for her to be in this area, and he deduces she must have been following him. Terrified, he hurries home and tries to write in his diary, but cannot.
The second part of the book traces hopeful events.
It opens with a startling encounter with the girl with dark hair. They pass one another in a corridor. She trips and falls on her injured arm; Winston helps her up. As he does, she slips him a note. He is surprised but tries not to show it. When he finally reads it, he is astonished to see that it says, “I love you.”
Knocked for a loop, but forgetting all his previous fear and hatred of her, Winston tries to figure out how they can meet. After a few days, they finally manage to exchange some words in the canteen, and meet later that evening in Victory Square (once, apparently, Trafalgar Square). There, the girl discreetly gives him directions to a meeting place where they will rendezvous on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday afternoon rolls around, and Winston and the girl, Julia, meet out in the countryside. He is surprised and delighted to find that she detests the Party and goes out of her way to be as “corrupt” as possible. They spend a pleasant time together, and make love.
Winston and Julia start to meet clandestinely in the streets to “talk by instalments,” as Julia calls it; private meetings are rare and difficult to coordinate. But they do manage once more that month. They talk as much as they can and get to know one another’s personalities and histories.
Finally, the pressures and troubles of arranging meetings induce them to take the risky step of renting Mr. Charrington’s upstairs room. In this room, they start to act like a married couple‹Julia puts on makeup and plans to get a dress, so she can feel like a woman, while Winston enjoys the sensation of privacy and the novelty of being able to lie in bed with your loved one and talk as much (or as little) as you want about whatever you wish. As time passes, they grow closer and talk about escaping together, though they know it is impossible.
At about this time, O’Brien‹an Inner Party member for whom Winston feels an inexplicable reverence, and some sort of bond‹suddenly makes an overture, presenting Winston with his address. This seems to be a sign. Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s flat together. There they are inducted into the Brotherhood, a legendary underground anti-Party organization founded by Emmanuel Goldstein, a former Party member. O’Brien gives them instructions and details on what to expect and what not to expect.
Here Hate Week intervenes. Months and weeks of preparation are nothing to the flurry the Ministry of Truth is cast into when suddenly, at the climax of Hate Week, it is made known that Oceania is at war with Eastasia rather than Eurasia. Winston and Julia and all their co-workers are thrown into a 90-hour-stretch of correcting old newspapers, since it must be made to appear that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
Winston has received the book, the bible of the Brotherhood written by Emmanuel Goldstein, but has not had time to read it until his work at the Ministry finally finishes. All workers are given the rest of the day off, and he and Julia head separately for their upstairs room.
There Winston reads a good deal about what he already knows. Julia comes in, and after they make love he settles down to read the book to her. She falls asleep, and shortly after he realizes this, he closes the book and goes to sleep too.
When they awaken, the old-fashioned clock says 8:30, but various hints indicate that it is 8:30 a.m., not p.m. as Winston and Julia suppose. They stand together, looking out at the world, feeling how beautiful it is, feeling hopeful that the future will be all right even though they will not live to see it.
Suddenly they hear a voice and jump apart. There has been a telescreen in the room, behind a picture hanging over the bed. Winston and Julia have been caught. Helpless, they are taken away by the Thought Police, their momentary glimpse of happiness shattered.
Part III recounts the downfall of Winston and Julia.
After being held in a common prison for a while, Winston is transferred to the Ministry of Love. He sits in his cell, starving, thirsty, tortured by fear, waiting for he does not know what. As he waits, people come in and out, including Ampleforth, the poet from his department, and Parsons, who has been denounced by his seven-year-old daughter. Other people he does not know come in, and through them he hears about “Room 101,” which seems to terrify everyone. He thinks longingly of being smuggled a razor blade by the Brotherhood, though he knows he probably wouldn’t use it.
At last the door opens and, to his utter shock, Winston sees O’Brien come in. His assumption is that O’Brien has been captured; but it turns out that O’Brien was never a member of the Brotherhood, and that the whole thing had been a trap.
Winston is tortured and interrogated for a seemingly endless time. Somehow he feels that O’Brien is behind it all, directing the entire process with a twisted kind of love. Finally, he finds himself alone with O’Brien, who tells him he is insane and that they are to work together to cure him. Winston’s discussions with O’Brien dwell on the nature of the past and reality and reveal much about the Party’s approach to those concepts.
They also uncover a good deal in O’Brien’s personality, which is a puzzling and intricate one. Perhaps most importantly, the discussions finally answer Winston’s former question, “WHY?” The Party, O’Brien explains with a lunatic intensity, seeks absolute power, for power’s own sake. This is why it does what it does, and its quest will shape the world into an even more nightmarish one than it already is.
Winston cannot argue; every time he does, he is faced with an obstinate logical fallacy, a completely different system of reasoning which runs counter to all reason. His final attempt to argue with O’Brien ends in O’Brien showing Winston himself in the mirror. Winston is beyond horrified to see that he has turned into a sickly, disgusting sack of bones, beaten into a new face.
After this, Winston submits to his re-education. He is no longer beaten; he is fed at regular intervals; he is allowed to sleep (though the lights, of course, never go out). He seems to be making “progress,” but underneath he is still holding onto the last remaining kernel of himself and his humanity: his love for Julia.
This comes out when, in the midst of a dream, Winston cries aloud, “Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia!”
This thought crime is his undoing. He is taken to Room 101, where he is threatened with the possibility of being eaten alive by rats. Insane with panic and terror, he screams that they should do it to Julia, not him. Physically he is saved by this betrayal; but it has wiped away the last trace of his humanity and his ability to hold himself up with any sort of pride.
The end of the book finds Winston a shell of a man, completely succumbed to the Party. He and Julia no longer love each other; after Room 101, this is impossible for both of them. He is essentially waiting for his death. As he sits in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, musing distractedly (but never rebelliously) on the wreck of his life, word comes over the telescreen that Oceania has won a major victory against Eurasia (with which it is back at war) and that she now has complete control over Africa. Winston is just as triumphantly excited as everyone else, and he gazes up at the portrait of Big Brother with new understanding. At last, he loves Big Brother.
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