Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide


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Orwell | Biography


Early Life and Education

George Orwell is the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, who was born on June 25, 1903, to British parents in Bengal, India. His mother separated from her husband, a poorly paid civil servant, shortly after their son was born. Blair's mother took him and his older sister, Marjorie, back to England, where Blair was educated. In 1911 he began boarding school in Sussex, attending on scholarship. In 1917 Blair went to Eton, one of Britain's premier secondary boarding schools, also on scholarship. His poverty relative to the other students in these environments introduced him to the class divisions that would inform his politics and his writing. While at Eton, Blair read Jack London's People of the Abyss (1903), a firsthand account of the writer's experiences living in the slums of London's East End. London's work later inspired Blair to conduct similar research on poverty in Paris and London, the result of which was the 1933 memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.

Life in Burma and in European Poverty

After Eton, Blair opted to serve in Burma (now Myanmar) with the Indian Imperial Police instead of attending university. His experiences in Burma inspired his lifelong opposition to imperialism, later reflected in his novel Burmese Days (1934) and in his 1936 essay "Shooting an Elephant." In 1928 Blair resigned from his post and returned to England. Upon his return he lived for a while among the lower classes in London's East End. He then went to live for a time among the poor in Paris. The promise of a job in London led to his return to England. A long delay in the start of the promised employment left Orwell impoverished, and he lived among London's homeless people. His experiences of poverty in both cities gave rise to his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). The conditions described in this book, which straddles the line between fact and fiction, are so bleak that Blair adopted the pen name George Orwell (after the River Orwell in East Anglia, England) to distance himself and his family from them. The change in name corresponded to a profound shift in Orwell's lifestyle, which changed from his being a pillar of the British imperial establishment to a literary and political rebel.

Fighter for the Left and Advocate for Economic Justice

Orwell's fierce opposition to the oppression of the working poor and the destitute formed the basis of his book The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which chronicles the desperate lives of miners in northern England during the Great Depression. Orwell's experiences with the working classes led him to embrace the concept of economic equality for all. In the 1930s he dabbled in socialism, which in turn led him to travel to Spain in December 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). He joined the forces of the Republican government, backed by the United States and the Soviet Union, in opposition to Francisco Franco's fascist regime. A fascist ruler is a dictator who suppresses opposition through a centralized government.

Though Orwell was fighting on the Republican side, he joined the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM)—or in English, Workers' Party of Marxist Unification—to do so. The POUM was a revolutionary leftist communist party. (The Soviet and Spanish communist parties were also against fascism but disagreed politically with the POUM and the anarchists about revolution.) After Orwell was wounded in battle by a fascist sniper, the communist forces in Spain, supported by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, accused Orwell of betraying the antifascist cause. Further, the Republicans began arresting members of the POUM, and Orwell had to flee the country. This experience left him with an ongoing aversion to Stalin's brand of communism.

Orwell spent part of World War II (1939–45) as a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which further fed his distaste for totalitarian regimes. His experiences in Spain and as a BBC reporter influenced the political leanings that are evident in his two best-known works: Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). Both texts offer scathing criticism of the ways the socialist and communist ideals of equality were warped by totalitarian regimes.

Death and Legacy

After suffering ill health for much of his life, Orwell died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950, in London, England. The legacy of his wit and masterful use of language, his keen observing eye, his unwavering commitment to issues of economic equality, and his independence and clarity of thought cannot be underestimated. His writing is still widely studied and remains relevant today. Terms he coined in 1984, such as double-think and thought police, have permeated contemporary discourse. In fact, much of today's dystopian literature can be described as Orwellian, a term that encapsulates the totalitarian future he described in 1984.

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