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An independent-minded personality

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George Orwell and the theme

of anti-utopia


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


First-hand experiences

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

fond of.

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

following year.

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.

Social themes

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

intellectual integrity.

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.

Winston Smith

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

age. Smith

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.


G. Orwell
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

movement scrutinized.

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:





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?



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