George Orwell’s contributions to the field of anthropology are related to his opinions on individual freedom in relation to the state. Through both his writings and his many exploits, Orwell stressed the importance of each person’s individuality over the threat of authority. He reached adulthood at a time when fascism and communism were both making gains against liberal democracy throughout Europe. Orwell was squarely on the side of the common person and the right to self-determination. In his books, his main characters consistently stood for intellectual freedom in the face of state authority.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25,1903 in Motihari, India. He was the son of Richard Walmesley Blair, a British civil servant. His mother, Ida Limouzin, was a native Londoner who had moved to India to work as a schoolmistress. Richard and Ida were married on June 15, 1897, despite a 17-year age difference. Orwell’s older sister, Marjorie Francis Blair, was born on April 21, 1898. Shortly after Orwell’s birth, an outbreak of the plague struck their home district and Ida prevailed upon her husband to take the family back to England.
Richard Blair traveled back to India the following year to resume tending his opium fields. Ida set to raising nine-year-old Marjorie and little Eric, with the help of a series of nursemaids, in the small market town of Henley-on-Thames. During this time Eric was sick with bronchitis and confined to bed for five days. This type of illness would become too common as he was to have problems with his lungs throughout his life. In the summer of 1907, Richard returned from India on leave. This reconciliation of Eric’s parents soon produced his younger sister, Avril Norah, on April 6, 1908. Richard was back in India when his youngest daughter was born, and he spent the next four years in Bengal until his retirement in January, 1912. At the age of 55, he returned to the family home in Henley for good. Young Eric finally had a male presence in his house, but unfortunately, the elder Blair was not the loving, sentimental type.
Orwell’s school years were not happy ones. He first attended St. Cyprian’s school from age eight until thirteen, and then took the entrance examination to attend Eton College; however, his score was fourteenth at a school that only accepted twelve per class. He would have to wait until two dropped out, so he attended Wellington College. This school had a military focus, particularly during the Great War of 1914-1918. This atmosphere hardly suited young Eric, and at the first chance he took his spot at Eton.
After his graduation, he applied for a position with the Indian Imperial Police Force. His scores placed him seventh out of twenty-nine candidates, and when asked for his preference of station, he listed Burma.
In January, 1936 he traveled to the north of England to study and write on the lives of coal miners. His experiences there culminated in the novel The Road to Wigan Pier. He spent three months among the poor, dirty men and their families. He lived in their smelly, beetle-infested homes, sharing a small bedroom with three other men. He attended meetings of communists and followers of Oswald Mosley. Orwell was distraught to see the high level of support both these groups could muster in the region. He felt that during the 1930s, England and the other democracies of Europe were asleep at the wheel.
It was during the summer of 1936 that Orwell found his opportunity to put all of his socialist-leaning fervor into concrete action. In Spain, a civil war had begun as a result of an army-led coup against the left-wing government. Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany sided with the rebels, organizing the return of General Francisco Franco and his Moroccan Army of Africa to aid in the fight against the socialists. Before long, a stalemate developed between the Fascists aligned with Franco and Hitler, and the leftist Republicans, supported by the Communists including Soviet Russia.
Orwell went to Barcelona and spent roughly a year there, fighting as a militiaman aligned with the Communists, but not as a member of their army.
Orwell was wounded by a shot through the neck, the bullet nearly hitting his carotid artery. After a short recovery in a field hospital, he decided there was nothing more he could do to help the Republican cause while he was in Spain. His experiences there ranged from periods of trench warfare to being targeted by the Communists who saw him as a potential “Trotskyite” and therefore an enemy of the cause. Orwell’s novel Homage to Catalonia is his memoir of not only his experiences there but also his declaration of undying loyalty to the socialist cause over totalitarianism, whether it leans to the left or to the right. The bitter rivalry between the Stalinist Communists and the leftist socialists led to actual jailing, torture, and murders of the other by each group. The loss of a good friend under these circumstances pushed Orwell permanently into the socialist camp. Going forward, he would not sympathize with the Communists under any conditions, not even during the Second World War.
At this time, Orwell continued to have the chronic lung problems that would prove to be his ultimate downfall. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, he continued to be quite a prolific author. He began to write pieces for the BBC, review many novels, submit essays related to the war, and keep up his wartime diary.
In 1945, Orwell completed Animal Farm, thought by many to be his finest work. In it, barnyard animals are increasingly exploited and disenfranchised after their revolution against their human master succeeds on a small farm. The main character, Napoleon (a pig), symbolizes Joseph Stalin and the rulers of the Soviet Union. The classic slogan, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” describes how the totalitarian leaders justify their positions in the farm’s leadership. The elite should not be expected to do any work; their intelligence is too valuable to the well-being of the farm. The book succeeded, in part, because Orwell used a barnyard fable and animal characters to describe a contemporary, vital issue: the battle between freedom and self-determination against the all-powerful, undemocratic state. As Napoleon and the ruling pigs continue to exploit the other stronger, less intelligent animals in order to run the farm, the leaders also change the history of the revolution itself. Events that all the animals have witnessed are later declared to have never happened. The fact that no animal even challenges the rewriting of facts is clearly the warning that Orwell has for us citizens. The citizens of all nations must be on guard against this kind of revisionist history.
In many people’s opinion however, Orwell’s greatest contribution was his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a terrifying, futuristic novel describing life under total state control. Each individual’s actions, language, and even thoughts are scrutinized by all-knowing Big Brother—the state. Omnipresent telescreens view each person’s every moment, other citizens may denounce one another for alleged violations, and the Thought Police are at every corner. The world is ruled by three large nation-states. The country of Oceania is in a perpetual state of war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. The enemy is sometimes one or the other, making it necessary to eliminate or justify the current state of alliances depending on the proper enemy. The story’s main character, Winston Smith—Smith as in Everyman—labors in the Ministry of Truth, literally rewriting history.
As far as predicting conditions in the year 1984, Orwell was quite accurate in his description of life in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Eurasia in the novel). China also (similar to Eastasia in the novel) was under a totalitarian system. Citizens of those nations were spied on by secret police and could not freely criticize government policies or expect an improved standard of living. Consumer goods were of poor quality, in short supply, and travel was severely restricted. In Orwell’s native Britain (Oceania in the novel), however, the political reality was still one rooted in parliamentary democracy.
But Orwell was not attempting to predict what the political future would be in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was warning against a potential political future. Orwell challenged us as a democratic citizenry and he implored us to ward off the loss of individual liberty at the expense of government control.
By the time Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell was a very sick man. Hospitalized in the fall of 1949, he was to suffer for months until the end. He died on January 21,1950 at the age of 46 of complications from tuberculosis. Orwell had lived a short but full life. He had traveled extensively, been a soldier, been married twice, and lived his convictions throughout it all.
- Bloom, H. (1999). George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Modern critical interpretations. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
- Bowker, G. (2003). Inside George Orwell, A biography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Stansky, P. (1983). On Nineteen Eighty-Four. Stanford, CA: Stanford Alumni Association.