It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
– George Orwell, first line of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
On this date, George Orwell’s novel of a dystopian future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published. The novel’s all-seeing leader, known as “Big Brother,” has become a universal symbol for intrusive government and oppressive bureaucracy.
George Orwell was the nom de plume of Eric Blair, who was born in India. The son of a British civil servant, Orwell attended school in London and won a scholarship to the elite prep school Eton, where most students came from wealthy upper-class backgrounds, unlike Orwell. Having no prospect of gaining a university scholarship and his family’s means being insufficient to pay his tuition, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police and went to work in Burma in 1922. He resigned and returned to England in 1928 having grown to hate imperialism (as shown by his first novel Burmese Days, published in 1934, and by such essays as “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”).
Orwell adopted his pen name in 1933, while writing for the New Adelphi. He chose a pen name that stressed his deep, lifelong affection for the English tradition and countryside: George is the patron saint of England (and George V was monarch at the time), while the River Orwell in Suffolk was one of his most beloved English sites.
Choosing to immerse himself in the experiences of the urban poor, Orwell went to Paris, where he worked menial jobs, and later spent time in England as a tramp. He wrote Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933, based on his observation of the poorer classes, and in 1937 his Road to Wigan Pier documented the life of the unemployed in northern England.
Orwell became increasingly left wing in his views, although he never committed himself to any specific political party. He went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to fight with the Republicans, but later fled as communism gained an upper hand in the struggle on the left. His barnyard fable, Animal Farm (1945), shows how the noble ideals of egalitarian economies can easily be distorted. The book brought him his first taste of critical and financial success. Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, brought him lasting fame with its grim vision of a future where all citizens are watched constantly and language is twisted to aid in oppression.
Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46 from tuberculosis, which he had probably contracted during the period described in Down and Out in Paris and London. He was in and out of hospitals for the last three years of his life. Having requested burial in accordance with the Anglican rite, he was interred in All Saints’ Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire with the simple epitaph: Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th 1903, died January 21st 1950.