This will undoubtedly be the most intimidating of the three Orwell reviews to write; to do so, I have to give my thoughts on two of the most discussed novels of the 20th century in Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four.
This slate of books starts on the verge of the Second World War. In fact, Coming up for Air (1939), is infused with the dread of the upcoming and heavily foreseen conflict. The novel follows the protagonist, George Bowling, on a truancy from his day job as an insurance salesman that he undertakes in order to visit the town he grew up in, the fictional Lower Binfield, which sits on the Thames and seems to be somewhere in Wiltshire or Berkshire. Coming Up For Air is the only work of fiction that Orwell ever penned in the first person. I actually found this distracting at first, reading a work of Orwell’s in which he was trying to sound like someone other than himself. While reading many writers such a thing would pose no difficulty; with so strong a voice as Orwell’s I worried that I would not be able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the novel. Thankfully, these fears proved ungrounded.
The book is Orwell’s clearest nod to the Thomas Hardy/DH Lawrence pining for pre-WWI England train of English literature that he clearly felt close to. In comparing Bowling’s life as a child in the idyllic Lower Binfield to life in the London suburbs, and later even in Lower Binfield itself, in the era immediately before the onset of WWII, Orwell is trying to communicate how existentially awful the 1930’s must have been to live through. He completely succeeds in this. The clearest representation of the horrors of the era are represented by the bomb that falls on the town as a result of a military training error. Although a house is completely blown to bits and at least one person killed, the townsfolk do not seem particularly taken aback by the incident. It feels like something that has been coming for some time, like the war itself.
Bowling is reasonably likeable as a character, if a little weak-minded. Like most of Orwell’s protagonists, George Bowling is a simplified version of a particular aspect of Orwell himself, in this instance the author’s love of English country life and general existence in the British Isles before the Congress of Vienna’s century long pax came crashing to a machine gun ridden halt. Bowling wishes his life were more like it was when he was a child, when his major concern was the rather large fish in a pond nearby his house (which upon his return, has been symbolically drained to become the grounds of some sort of strange commune). Bowling finds nothing for himself upon his return to Lower Binfield, and after he misses getting blow up by the bomb he does the only thing left for him to do: go home and face his wife, who assumes that George has been away the previous few days having an affair with another woman.
When the conflict with Hitler finally did arrive, Orwell was eager to join the war effort. Unfortunately by this time, his lungs were in such a state that he was refused. So he retreated to his home and began work on a large quantity of articles and essays, including Inside the Whale (1940). Around this time, he began writing for a number of periodicals, including the New Statesman and Tribune, while trying to find some indirect way of helping the battle against Hitler. Finally, in the summer of 1941, Orwell got work on the BBC’s Eastern Service, where programmes intended to fight a propaganda war against Germany in India were made. He would leave the BBC’s employ two years later to work on his next novel, Animal Farm (1945).
Despite its eventual phenomenal success, Orwell had great difficulty in finding someone to publish Animal Farm. Orwell completed the book in late ’43, but had to wait almost two full years to see it in print. One of the big problems was the war itself. After the Nazis invaded the USSR, the Soviets became re-allied with the western powers against Hitler – thus anything overtly anti-Soviet, such as Animal Farm with its allusion to Stalin and his regime, became intemerata. It passed through the hands of three publishers, several of whom had in the past published works of Orwell’s such as Victor Gollancz, before Secker and Warburg chose to purchase the work. They also subsequently published Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949). Despite Fredrick Warburg deciding to publish Orwell’s last two novels on mostly political grounds, it turned out to be an incredibly shrewd business decision – Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four ended up selling more copies than any other two books by the same author in the 20th century.
Running through the plot of Animal Farm seems superfluous, so I intent to keep my focus on the political aspects of the work, in particular some of the criticisms the book faced in its early years. TS Eliot, who was one of the publishers who refused to print the novel, said that the fable was so obviously an allegory of what had occurred in the Soviet Union, and Napoleon so obviously a stand-in for Stalin, that the book ended up being a specific critique of one country as opposed to a jeremiad against authoritarianism on the whole. Although Manor Farm is clearly analogous to the Soviet Union, and the tiff between Napoleon and Snowball clearly a direct reference to the one between Stalin and Trotsky, I think Eliot’s critique an unfair one. Animal Farm unquestionably does operate as a more general warning about the means and ways in which totalitarianism is established and is more than a simple complaint against Stalinism (not that such a complaint made during the time the book was written would not have had value simply on its own account). The fact that it has lasted as long as it has, long past the demise of the USSR itself, is the best demonstration of this.
Following the war, Orwell’s health got steadily worse. In the late spring of 1946, he went to live on the Scottish island of Jura, commuting on occasion to London for work. After the success of Animal Farm (with the onset of the Cold War, anti-Stalinism was back in fashion once again), Orwell was much in demand as a journalist, after years of toiling in relative obscurity. It was a well-earned fame that Orwell was mostly too ill to truly enjoy. His trips to London became less and less frequent and he spent most of his time in Scotland, writing what was to become his final novel.
I hadn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four since I was in my early twenties, and what most struck me upon reading it again is its persistence. Every conversation, every detail slaps you in the face with the unthinkable and yet totally realised world of Airstrip One. It is a nightmare that Orwell throws us into right from the start, but one that at the same time is completely imaginable, at every point and on every page. Orwell puts such attention into the little details as usual: the way that camaraderie, the supposed point of socialism, has been completely ripped apart, as children are encouraged to spy on and then report on their parents. People lie to each other about what their stocks of razor blades are, wanting to hoard any and all conveniences they are ever lucky enough to have in surplus.
One of the more strangely appalling things about the world of Ingsoc is the lack of any opposition, the total absence of any countervailing concepts. It is often tempting to think that a world stripped of everything we don’t care for would be a better one, but Nineteen Eighty Four should certainly make one challenge such assumptions. The truth is, the world needs opposition; it needs people to disagree just to function. It brings to the fore the essence of liberalism: the need to stick up for the right of those you disagree with to be heard. This has always been one of the crucial differences between liberalism and socialism, a split on the left, and one that it is always good to be reminded of now and again.
Another theme in Orwell’s final work is the linking of the puritanical side of Oceania with the fear and loathing of sex and the body reflected in most authoritarian regimes throughout history. Big Brother’s world particularly reminded me of the Middle Ages in Europe, when Catholicism ruled the continent. Reading it this time round, the book crystallised for me the secular idea that humanity itself and its future is worth living and fighting for on their own merits, without the need for a father figure deity. For Big Brother is a god if he is anything, and Oceania is not a secular state but very much a theocracy – much like North Korea is today. One bit of the novel beautifully summarises this sentiment. It is near the end, when Winston is being held within the Ministry of Love. He asks O’Brien if Big Brother exists. O’Brien replies that of course Big Brother exists. No, Winston asks, does Big Brother exist like I exist? You do not exist, O’Brien says back. Doublethink is religious in nature – it could not work otherwise.
I particularly love the Appendix at the very end of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is little remarked upon how upbeat it is, particularly coming as it does at the end of one of the most harrowing sequences in the history of literature. The appendix is about Newspeak and its structure. However, it is not written by Orwell in his own voice, or even in the voice of one of the novel’s characters, but rather as someone from the future speaking about 1984 and the story of Winston Smith as if it was in the past. In other words, from an historical perspective in which the party has been conquered and Big Brother’s myth slain, freedom of thought restored. It is a wonderful way for Orwell to have brought to a close his much too short literary career; even with failing lungs, about to bring him to his death before his fiftieth birthday, an optimist, as ever.