Orwell, George (Eric Arthur Blair)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Orwell, George (Eric Arthur Blair)

Orwell, George (Eric Arthur Blair) (1903-1950) English novelist, essayist, and polemist

A scion of the British Empire, George Orwell, like his predecessor RUDYARD KIPLING, knew the burden of the imperialist servant. Born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India, Orwell was the only son of a British narcotics officer in the Indian Civil Service. He and his sisters Avril and Margaret came of age in Eastbourne, England, in boarding schools where they incurred bias and sneers for their poverty. A reduced-fees pupil at St. Cyprian's School, Orwell suffered canings for minor infractions by a headmaster prejudiced against the children of civil servants in the empire. In 1949, shortly before Orwell's death, he wrote an antischool essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” in which he satirized the academy under the name Crossgates and reprised his “sense of desolate loneliness” (Orwell 1970, 5). The text makes grim humor of his admiration for Cain and Jezebel in the Old Testament and of “Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate” (37) in the New Testament, all participants in the crucifixion of Christ in the early years of the Roman Empire. To escape unhappiness, Orwell read Indian FABLES, the poems and stories of Kipling, and the SATIRES of Jonathan Swift.

In his teens, Orwell developed an anti-intellectual, apolitical mindset. He hated adulation of money and position, contempt for the laboring poor, and xenophobia toward outsiders born in the colonies. In the same essay, he tried to make sense of the imperialist's primacy: “How could the rich, the strong, the elegant, the fashionable, the powerful, be in the wrong? It was their world and the rules they made for it must be the right ones” (36). He concluded that he was inherently conflicted: “Always at the centre of my heart the inner self seemed to be awake, pointing out the difference between the moral obligation and the psychological fact” (36).

At age 24, Orwell entered the Indian Imperial Police at Moulmain in Lower Burma, but he quit his post out of disgust at the imperialist model. In an essay on British colonies in Asia, he commented that “the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it” (274). With a “dirty hands” paradigm, he explained how colonialists undermined the humanity of subject peoples as surely as the subjects' attitude toward racism, opportunism, and despotism sapped the morale of civil servants.

The Tottering Empire

During the decline of the British Empire between the world wars, Orwell, in the mode of the Polish- British novelist JOSEPH OONRAD, satirized the position of the colonial outsider in Southeast Asia in the novel Burmese Days (1934). In a contrived dialectic, the timber merchant Flory insults proper Englishmen as abusers and despots steeped in Indian blood: “British prestige, the white man's

burden, the pukka sahib sans peur et sans reproche [the true gentleman without fear and without blame]—you know. Such a relief to be out of the stink of it” (Orwell 2004, 37). In the “Kipling- haunted Club” (65), Flory calls alcohol “the cement of empire” (35) and describes secret rebellion as a hidden poison menacing the health of the British sahib. Flory compounds the outrage with a pun: “Pox Britannica, doctor, Pox Britannica is its proper name” (41), a suggestion that the British invade other countries like an epidemic.

During World War II, Orwell turned from pacifist fiction to essays for BBC overseas radio and for the London Tribune, Manchester Evening News, New Leader, Observer, and Partisan Review. One treatise, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941), charges the British with “world-famed hypocrisy—their double-faced attitude toward the Empire” (Orwell 1961, 251), with a veneer of patriotism covering any doubts about the morality of colonizing third-world nations. In summer 1946, his personal essay “Why I Write,” explained his scorn for imperialism. In reference to patriotic sloganeering during two global wars, in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941) he bristled, “The English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they turn round and say that war is wicked?” (Orwell 2005, 19).

From Journalism to Dystopianism

Immediately after World War II, Orwell, like GRAHAM GREENE, focused on the collapse of imperialism and the invasion of literature by politics. He satirized Nazi fascism and Russian totalitarianism in Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1946), a dystopian beast FABLE that established Orwell's place as a moral force promoting the dismantling of empire. The allegory casts pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, ducks, and a goat, donkey, and raven to act out a chronology of European history: the overthrow of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, the last Romanov emperor, in 1917; the rise of the Communist Party; and the alliance on August 23, 1939, of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin with the master race theorist Adolf Hitler. In chapter 7, the narrative outlines the plotting of demagoguery, terrorism, and public slaughter to quell opposition: “When [the sheep] had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napoleon demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess” (Orwell 1946, 83). As the barnyard haven gravitates toward a police state, the conniving pigs subdue the rest of the livestock with insidious lacklogic: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” (123). In a final twist, Orwell describes how the dominant, goose-stepping pigs and cunning humans are so similar that they have become identical. An animated film of Animal Farm features the voices of Kelsey Grammer and Ian Holm, among others.

As Orwell sank toward death from tuberculosis and the after-effects of a sniper's bullet to the throat while fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, he completed Nineteen Eighty- four (1949), a darker PROPHECY of world absolutism originally titled The Last Man in Europe. The action, a reminder of the Stalinist purges that featured in the anti-Soviet verse of ANNA AKHMATOVA and YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO, features unending war waged by the people of Oceania against Eastasia, a symbolic name for the British colonies on the Pacific Rim. At Airstrip One, a repressive state monitored by telescreens, Londoners have no choice but to admire war planes and a group of Asian prisoners of war or to suffer vaporization into “unpersons” (Orwell 1983, 38). Beyond London, ongoing international clashes unify and robotize the citizenry into jingo-spewing sycophants. Supporting the expanding empire, science and technology generate more vicious weaponry as well as methods of thought coercion to rid potential rebels of objectivity. At his job, protagonist Winston Smith sits, alone and dehumanized, in a cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, where clerks rewrite truth as “doublespeak” to substantiate the predictions of state propagandists (42). Under torture, Smith proclaims Orwell's view on the longevity of tyranny: “It is impossible to found a civilization on fear and hatred and cruelty. It would never endure… . It would have no vitality. It would disintegrate. It would commit suicide” (221). A film version, shot in London in 1984, features John Hurt as the protagonist and Richard Burton as O'Brien, his nemesis.

The Dying Empire

Shooting an Elephant (1950), Orwell's posthumous collection of essays, bears the name of his most pungent anti-imperialist entry, written in 1936. It has since become a standard literary riposte to imperialism. A skillful polemist who learned in his 20s the cost of colonialism, he destroyed the myth of British protection of the weak. From his police work, he knew of the empire's civil rights infractions in caging prisoners and lashing their bare backsides with bamboo. In “Shooting an Elephant,” he writes of the seething anti-British hatred that boils over with betel juice spit on white women's dresses and with the Burmese mockery of European police officers. Recalling his street patrol at age 23, he asserts in the second paragraph, “Imperialism was an evil thing” and remarks that colonial civil servants “[see] the dirty work of Empire at close quarters” (Orwell 1950, 236). While experiencing the decline of British hegemony and forecasting even worse empires to replace it, he longs to strike back with a bayonet against his tormentors. The paradox of sympathy mixed with spite captures his untenable position as a colonial lawman.

Orwell's portrait of a male elephant gone “must” introduces mixed gender imagery by comparing it to a cow. Because a mob of 2,000 expects him to shoot the rampager, Orwell realizes that the nonwhite majority controls him with their collective will, even though he is the only white male and the only armed person on the scene. He shoots three times with a rifle, causing the animal to fall to earth like a tree or boulder. With sober regret for its protracted death, he acknowledges that the white executioner “wears a mask and his face grows to fit it” (239). The female qualities of the elephant become a subtextual image of the widowed Queen Victoria in her last days: “He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old … he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him” (240). Like the empire on its last legs, the elephant manages to reach up for a final trumpet. The last sentence, explaining Orwell's face-saving method of animal extermination, manages to end on the word fool.


Ingle, Stephen. “The Anti-Imperialism of George Orwell.” In Literature and the Political Imagination, edited by John Horton and Andrea Baumeister, New York: Routledge, 1996.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Signet, 1946. . Burmese Days. Fairfield, Iowa: 1st World

Publishing, 2004.

----- . A Collection of Essays. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest Books, 1970.

----- . My Country Right or Left 1940-1943: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Boston: David R. Godine, 2000.

------- . 1984. New York: Signet, 1983.

------- . The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage.

Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest Books, 1961.

----- . Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

------- . Why I Write. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Woodcock, George. The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell. Toronto: Black Rose Books, 2005.