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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Two days before he died, the author of 1984 left a will saying that he wanted no biography written. Like most novelists, he wanted his work judged for and by itself. This is ironic, since few novels reflect the author's progress through life-and the stormy political climate of his times-as clearly as George Orwell's 1984. Most Orwell scholars see the life as a logical "road to 1984." Knowing about Orwell's life, therefore, will help you know the novel.
Orwell began life with the name Eric Blair. He was born in India in 1903, the son of what he called a "lower-upper-middle class" family. For the author, this was an important distinction. The term meant that he came from the same social background as the landed gentry but was set apart by the fact that his family had very little money. His father worked for the British government in India, where he could live well on less money. Like most British officials, he sent the family back to England to spare them the hardships of the heat and of the monsoon season.
Growing up in Henley-on-Thames, west of London, Eric knew by the time he was four or five that he wanted to be a writer. Like his character Winston Smith in 1984, he thought of himself as an outsider and a rebel. He told one childhood friend: "You are noticed more if you are standing on your head than if you are right side up."
At eight, he was packed off to boarding school at St. Cyprian's, where he was more of an outsider than ever, as a lone scholarship student among wealthy children. The schoolmaster and his wife used kicks and caresses to keep the boys in line. This was Eric's first taste of dictatorship, of being helpless under the rule of an absolute power. Orwell transfers these feelings to Winston, who in 1984 finds himself trapped in a harsh totalitarian system.
In an essay called "Such, Such were the Days," Orwell writes about being beaten for wetting his bed. The masters were quick to point out, whenever he got into trouble, that he was a "charity" student. They found him difficult and unresponsive. Like most lonely children, Eric consoled himself by making up stories in his head, and holding imaginary conversations with himself.
Later Orwell wrote that during his first twenty-five years he was writing, and living, a continuing story in his head. He began as a Robin Hood-like figure, starring in imaginary adventures. Later he became the careful observer, trying to describe what was going on around him as accurately as possible. This seems very like Winston in 1984- a man who commits crimes in his head while outwardly obeying Party orders. At Eton, a prestigious public school (equivalent to U.S. private or prep schools), Blair wrote some verse and worked on school magazines. Once again a scholarship student, he remained an outsider. In the years immediately following World War I, he was part of the antinomian movement at Eton, committed to overturning current standards and belief. Although he was against religion, Blair was confirmed in the Anglican Church, or Church of England, along with the rest of his classmates. Later he would be married and buried in Anglican ceremonies.
When his classmates went on to Oxford or Cambridge, Eric was faced with a decision. He could not afford to go to a university and his grades kept him from winning any more scholarships. He may have been sick of studying. And so he decided to join the Indian Imperial Police, a British force assigned to keep order in British dependencies. This pleased his father, who had rejoined the family in England. With the blessings of the family, Eric went out to Burma for a five-year hitch.
Later he wrote of this experience, "In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people...." Life must have been difficult for an aspiring writer, who was employed to keep order in a foreign country in the name of the British empire. Eric hated the police and everything they stood for; he often hated the people he was supposed to help, and he hated the things he was called upon to do in the name of his country. He felt isolated, lonely and deserted. You'll see how he uses this sense of guilt and isolation in portraying Winston Smith, who feels guilty about working for the ruling Party.