|George Orwell and the theme
An independent-minded personality
Born Eric Blair in India in 1903, Orwell was the son
of a minor colonial official. As a small child, he was
taken to England by his mother, and was educated
at Eton. He could not stand the lack
of privacy, the humiliating punishments, the pressure
to conform to the values of the English public school
tradition, such as the development of «character», a
spirit of competition and a rigid adherence to
discipline, and to the prevailing moral code. At Eton
he began to develop an independent-minded
personality, indifference to accepted values, and
professed atheism and socialism.
On leaving school he passed the India Office
examinations for the Indian Imperial Police, opting to
serve in Burma, where he remained from 1922 to
1927. In 1927 he went on leave and decided not to
Back in London, he spent short periods
living in common lodging-houses in the East End,
seeking the company of down-and-outs. In this way
he directly experienced poverty and learned how
institutions for the poorworked. After a period
in Paris where he worked as a dishwasher in a hotel,
he decided to begin publishing his works with the
pseudonym of George Orwell. He chose ‘Orwell’ because it was
the name of a river he was
Down and Out in Paris
and London (1933) was his
first non-fiction narrative in
which he described his
experience among the poor; it
was followed by Burmese
Days (1934), a book based on his experiences in the
colonial service. In 1936 he married Eileen
O’Shaughnessy who shared his
interests in literature and socialism. In the same year
Orwell was commissioned by a left-wing publisher to
investigate conditions among the miners, factory
workers and unemployed in the industrial North,
where he stayed for two months. His report, The Road
to Wigan Pier, was published in 1937.
In December 1936 Orwell went to Catalonia with
his wife to report on the Spanish Civil War. In
Homage to Catalonia (1938) he was to recall this experience as
the time of his true conversion to socialism and the
ideals of brotherhood and equality. Back to England
the Orwells adopted an infant child . They both had a poor health.
An influential voice of the 20th century
When the Second World War broke out, Orwell
moved to London and, in 1941, he joined the BBC,
broadcasting cultural and political programmes to
India. In 1943 he resigned and became literary editor
of ‘Tribune’, an influential socialist weekly. He also
began writing Animal Farm, which was published in
1945, just when the Iron Curtain was beginning to fall
on Eastern Europe, and it made Orwell
internationally known and
financially secure. Orwell’s
last book, Nineteen Eighty-
Four was his most
original novel; it was
published in 1949 and soon
became a best-seller. Orwell
died of tuberculosis the
The artist’s development
Orwell had a deep understanding of the English
character, of its tolerance, its dislike of abstract
theories and insistence on common sense and fair
play. On the other hand, his various experiences
abroad contributed to his unusual ability to see his
country from the outside and to judge its strengths
and weaknesses. he was receptive to new ideas and
impressions. Orwell’s life and work were marked by
the unresolved conflict between his middle-class
background and education and his emotional
identification with the working class.
In his essay Inside the Whale (1940), Orwell tried to
define the role of the writer considering the literature
of the 1920s and 1930s. Whereas the writers of the
Twenties had concerned themselves with language
and form to express a tragic, post-war pessimism,
those of the Thirties had valued social purpose and
content over form, and had left-wing sympathies. His
desire to inform, to reveal facts and draw conclusions
from them, led him to believe that writing interpreted
reality and therefore served a useful social function.
This explains why his most successful novels express
political themes. However, Orwell believed that the
writer should be independent.
Orwell was a prolific book-reviewer, critic, political
journalist and pamphleteer in the tradition of Swift
and Defoe. Indebted to Dickens in the choice of social themes and the use of realistic
and factual language, he conveyed a vision of human
fraternity and of the misery caused by poverty and
deprivation. He insisted on tolerance, justice and
decency in human relationships, and warned against
the increasing artificiality of urban civilisation. Above
all he presented a devastating critique of
totalitarianism, warning against the violation of liberty
and helping his readers to recognise tyranny in all its
Structure and plot
The novel describes a future England,
no longer the head of an Empire, but an outpost of
Oceania, a vast totalitarian system including North
America, South Africa, and Australia. The country is
ruled by the Party, which is led by a figure called Big
Brother. The work is divided into three parts: Part
One introduces the main character, Winston Smith, in
the context of a regimented, oppressive world; Part
Two describes his love for Julia, and the temporary
happiness their relationship brings to both; Part
Three deals with Winston’s imprisonment and torture
by the Thought Police, and the final loss of his
AUTHORS AND TEXTS
An anti-utopian novel Orwell combined various genres and styles in an original way,
blending documentary realism and an acute eye for detail with parody and satire. The tone of the
book becomes increasingly pessimistic, violent and even sadistic in the last part, where Orwell
presents Winston’s final defeat.
Set in a grotesque, squalid and menacing London, Nineteen Eighty-Four is an anti-utopian novel.
While a utopia is an ideal or perfect community some writers have described to embody their
ideals, anti-utopias show possible future societies that are anything but ideal and that ridicule
existing conditions of society. Orwell presents a frightening picture of the future as being under the
constant control of “Big Brother.” There is no privacy because there are monitors called
telescreens watching every step people take; love is forbidden but there is the Two
Minutes Hate and the country is in a perpetual state of war. The Party has absolute control of the
press, communication and propaganda; language, history and thought are controlled in the
interests of the state through the gradual introduction of Newspeak, the official language whose
lexis is so limited that people find it impossible to express their own ideas. Any form of rebellion
against the rules is punished with prison, torture and liquidation. The novel does not offer
consolation but reveals the author’s acute sense of history and his sympathy with the millions of
people persecuted and murdered in the name of the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century.
Nineteen Eighty-Four conveys a sense of loss, a
feeling that beauty and truth, and all the finer
emotions and values, belong to the past. This is
symbolised by the protagonist, Winston Smith, the
last man to believe in humane values in a totalitarian
suggests his symbolic value; Winston evokes
Churchill’s patriotic appeals for “blood, sweat and
tears” during the Second World War. Winston is
middle-aged and physically weak; he experiences
alienation from society and feels a desire for spiritual
and moral integrity. He works at the Ministry of
Truth where he alters the records of the past to fit
current Party policy. In private he writes on the
creamy paper of an old diary in an attempt to
maintain sanity in a disorienting world. In the first
two parts of the novel it is likely that Winston and
the narrator are one, and that he expresses Orwell’s
Big Brother is watching you
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Part I, Chapter 1
1. Do you think the question of privacy is a pressing one in contemporary society? Can you provide any
This extract gives an insight into life in London, the capital of Oceania, a totalitarian state where men
have lost control of their inner being. The only person who tries to resist indoctrination is the protagonist
of the book, Winston Smith.
Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street
little eddies7 of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was
shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters
that were plastered everywhere. The black-moustached face gazed down from every
commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER
IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own.
Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully8 in the wind, alternately
covering and uncovering the single word ingsoc. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed
down9 between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle10, and darted away again
with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping11 into people’s windows. The patrols
did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.
Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron
and the over-fulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted
simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would
be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal
plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of
knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what
system, the Thought Police plugged in12 on any individual wire was guesswork13. It was even
conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your
wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in
the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every
Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even
a back can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered
vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste – this
was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of
Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London
had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting14 nineteenth-century
houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber15, their windows patched with cardboard
and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging16 in all directions? And the
bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the
heaps of rubble17; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had
sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings18 like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he
could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux19,
occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.
The Ministry of Truth - Minitrue, in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other
object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete21, soaring
up22, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible
to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
AUTHORS AND TEXTS
2. Gather information about the social and political organisation of Oceania as regards security and
control, people’s private lives, language, politics.
3. Note down the details the passage gives you about the protagonist. Consider his name, physical
appearance, clothes, mood, job.
4. Discuss the symbolic meaning of the elements concerning Winston Smith’s description.
1. His name Winston: who may have inspired Orwell in the choice of such a name?
2. His surname Smith: how would you explain the choice of such a common British
3. His age and appearance: do they correspond to the traditional features of the «hero»?
4. His memories: can he remember anything about his past?
5. Analyse the presence of Big Brother in the extract.
1. Through what device is it conveyed? What does this method remind you of?
2. Big Brother is also the parody of a historical figure. Single out the details of his description
and try to guess who he is.
6. Orwell created a disturbing vision of the city of the future. What features of the life in such a city
particularly strike you?
7. Analyse the three slogans of the Party.
1. What kind of words does Orwell employ?
2. How does this affect the meaning of each slogan?
8. What does Orwell attack and at the same time warn against in the passage?
READING and SPEAKING