“One of the things Orwell bequeathed us was the adjective ‘Orwellian’…. It is a frightening word, generally applied to a society organized to crush and dehumanize the individual, sometimes signifying the alienation of that individual if he dares to rebel” (Lewis 13). George Orwell, the pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair, depicted the importance of the individual in society and the danger of too much community in his literature. Through his personal experiences, however, he explored the ideas of socialism and was torn between the individual and community ideals. In his literature and his past, Orwell spoke against movements that remove the individual, but still emphasized the importance of community. Thus, he advocated a need for balance between the two concepts.
In 1922, Orwell began working as the assistant superintendent of police in Myaungmya, Burma, and this is where his hatred toward imperialism and its tyrannical rule over the underdogs in society developed. He felt guilty torturing and flogging unwilling subjects. The community had taken too much power over the individual, and the imperialist society commanded Orwell to enforce this injustice: “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny…with another part I thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are normal by-products of imperialism” (qtd. in Lewis 41). Obviously, imperialism had affected Orwell to the point where he developed animosity towards the Burmese. As a policeman doing “the dirty work of the Empire” (qtd. in Lewis 41), Orwell acquired a hatred for imperialism, a belief that is focused on dominion over other individuals.
Orwell later moved on to Spain where he joined the Partido Obrero de Unificacin Marxista (POUM), or the Workers’ Party for Marxist Unity, and began his belief in socialism. When he arrived in Barcelona, he noticed an almost complete elimination of the social class structure: “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Everyone called everyone else Comrade and Thou…. In outward appearance, the wealthy had practically ceased to exist…. In some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for” (qtd. in Lewis 55). He enjoyed the idea that everybody was equal, but he still showed resentment towards it. His inner conflict between these two ideas and his experiences as a member in the Spanish Civil War caused him to choose a median between the community ideals which he saw and the individual ideals which he missed: “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in socialism, which I never did before” (qtd. in Chen).
With the start of World War II, George Orwell began his fight against Nazism, fascism, and communism. In the eyes of many, communism became interchangeable with socialism, and he criticized writers of his time that were in support of Stalin and his “socialist” movement: “Why should writers be attracted by a form of Socialism that makes mental honesty impossible” (qtd. in Lewis 76)? In an attempt to pacify the radical communist movements and change imperialism, he spoke of a third method to reform the British Empire—a middle ground that would create a socialist community in Britain. John Newsinger wrote, “He had a call for a new socialist movement that would reject both Communist-style revolution and Labour Party reformism in favour of a third way to socialism, a third way that he continued to call revolutionary but that was adapted to modern conditions” (qtd. in Chen). Through this, one can see that Orwell wanted to avoid such movements as communism, which attempted to obtain control over the individual, and yet he had a need to preserve the community through socialism. With communism, Nazism, fascism, and imperialism rising during Orwell’s lifetime, he had concern for the elimination of the individual. He therefore wrote critical and sardonic literary works, including his most famous novel entitled 1984.
As a critic of Stalin and his followers during World War II, Orwell wrote the satirical novel entitled 1984, portraying what society would turn out to be in 1984 if people followed Stalin’s movement in Russia. The society is ruled by “Big Brother,” whose description is unmistakably meant to represent Stalin himself. There is almost a complete elimination of privacy through the “telescreens,” which can be used to monitor the actions and speech of any individual in the vicinity. Also, any actions that hint towards rebellion against or even a slight distaste for the Party or Big Brother can cause someone to be tortured and eliminated from the society. At one point, the main character, Winston Smith, realizes that the Party can also control one’s mind. After being discovered for rebellious actions, Smith is sent to the Ministry of Love, where they torture him solely to make him agree with the Party. At this point, they have finally ingrained in him the idea that two plus two equals five, showing their dominion over his mind: “‘They can’t get inside you,’ she had said. But they could get inside you. ‘What happens to you here is forever,’ O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could not recover. Something was killed in your breast; burnt out, cauterized out” (1984 239). The Party tries to conquer people’s minds in order to take control and create a society where everyone believes the same principles. Rather than killing those who do not follow, the Party manipulates them: “He realized that the party was not going to kill him, because if they did, freedom would have triumphed, because Winston Smith would have died a free man with his beliefs intact” (Teck). Through these ideas, Orwell creates a “negative utopia” to satire Stalin’s ideal society and what he thinks it will cause: the complete loss of freedom, individual thought, and privacy. He uses Winston as the “last person alive capable of free thought against The Party” (Williams), and shows the dangers of Stalin’s movement by contrasting Winston with his society. The disadvantages of Orwell’s society can be seen by its motto: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (1984 7). Clearly, Orwell depicts that it is dangerous to eliminate the individual from the community.
In much of his life, George Orwell documented his experiences as well as his thoughts in non-fiction essays, many of which show the community pressing down on the individual too violently. In one such essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell gives an account of one of his experiences as a policeman in Burma. A tame elephant escapes from its master and creates havoc in the city. After its rampage is over, Orwell spotted the elephant: “I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him…. At that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow” (“Shooting an Elephant” 7). He then looks back to see a crowd of people waiting in excitement for the elephant to be shot. With the pressure of this crowd, Orwell feels a need to shoot the elephant: “They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in hands I was momentarily worth watching” (“Shooting an Elephant” 7-8). After admitting that he does not want to shoot the elephant, the pressure of the crowd overbears him. He shoots the elephant, describing in vivid detail the agonizing death it suffered, and in the end says, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (“Shooting an Elephant” 12). This essay clearly shows how the pressures of the community forced him to commit an act that he feels to be immoral. Orwell is pressured by the community and highlights the evil that results.
Another essay emerging from his experiences with the Burmese, entitled “A Hanging,” shows Orwell’s opinion that the individual is necessary in the community. He portrays his emotions as a witness to and the partial cause of the hanging of a Hindu prisoner. In the story, Orwell writes of his realization that it is wrong for a community to take another man’s life. One of the most powerful passages is after he sees the prisoner sidestep a puddle: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw a mystery, the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive…. His brain still reasoned—even about puddles” (qtd. in Lewis 41).
Although to Orwell the individual is important in society, he asserts in “Reflections on Gandhi” that an equal community is important as well. He mentions Gandhi’s belief that close friendships and love are not beneficial because the favoring of an individual can interfere with the needs of a community:
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because ‘friends react to one another’ and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person…. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. (“Reflections on Gandhi” 98)
Love gets in the way of communities ideals because people no longer treat each other as equals. This emphasis on the necessity of equality shows Orwell’s realization that community is important as well as the individual.
Orwell’s firm belief of a balance between the community and the individual can be seen throughout his life and his works. Aspects of socialism were apparent in his emphasis on the need for equality in a community, and yet he wrote powerfully about the danger of having too little individuality and not enough community. Orwell constantly struggled between these two ideas, and throughout his life he fought for a socialist society in Britain to represent his belief in the need of both community and the individual. He wrote powerfully and blatantly to illustrate the concept of balance between the affects of community and the individual.
Chen, Anna. George Orwell a Literary Trotskyist? 2 Oct. 2000. K1 Internet Publishing. 13 Dec. 2000 .
Lewis, Peter. George Orwell: The Road to 1984. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1961.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. Ed. Sonia Orwell. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1950. 3-12.
Orwell, George. “Reflections on Gandhi.” Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. Ed. Sonia Orwell. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1950. 93-103.
Teck, Yee. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Personal Freedom. 2 Oct. 2000. K1 Internet Publishing. 13 Dec. 2000 .
Williams, Rhodri. Orwell’s Political Messages in Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and Nineteen Eighty-Four. 2 Oct. 2000. K1 Internet Publishing. 13 Dec. 2000 .