Study Guide to 1984 by George Orwell
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Study Guide to 1984 by George Orwell

Intelligent Education

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Study Guide to 1984 by George Orwell

Intelligent Education

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A comprehensive study guide offering in-depth explanation, essay, and test prep for George Orwell's 1984, considered to be a classic novel.

As a novel of the twentieth-century, it was among the first of many in the popular dystopian fiction genre. Moreover, 1984 focuses on the effects of an over involved government and the importance of freedom of expression. This Bright Notes Study Guide explores the context and history of George Orwell's classic work, helping students to thoroughly explore the reasons it has stood the literary test of time. Each Bright Notes Study Guide contains:

- Introductions to the Author and the Work

- Character Summaries

- Plot Guides

- Section and Chapter Overviews

- Test Essay and Study Q&As

The Bright Notes Study Guide series offers an in-depth tour of more than 275 classic works of literature, exploring characters, critical commentary, historical background, plots, and themes. This set of study guides encourages readers to dig deeper in their understanding by including essay questions and answers as well as topics for further research.

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In 1943, the year of Europe’s greatest self-destruction and for Western civilization possibly the most hopeless year of this century, George Orwell published an essay called “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” In that essay, there appears a poem dedicated to an anonymous soldier of the war, a war (1936-39) in which Orwell himself served as a volunteer. Orwell had seen the soldier who was the subject of his poem, and whose name he never did learn, in 1936 soon after he had come to Spain to be a soldier in the revolutionary militia.
The poem is not a great one; Orwell was not primarily a poet. But the last stanza is of some significance for a consideration of the man George Orwell as well as his work. Orwell addresses this unknown soldier, who stands for all ordinary soldiers who fought in this destructive Civil War in Spain:
But the thing that I saw in your face No power can disinherit: No bomb that ever burst, Shatters the crystal spirit.
“No bomb that ever burst, shatters the crystal spirit.” The line is typical of Orwell. It could stand as an epigraph or slogan, though he himself was skeptical of slogans, for George Orwell’s own life and what he stood for, or thought he stood for: the dignity of man, the inviolability of the human spirit, and each man’s right to spiritual privacy. Man has, in the language of the American Declaration of Independence, “certain inalienable rights,” and it is the inalienability of these rights which Orwell affirmed in all his works, whether they are novels, as is 1984, or political satires, such as Animal Farm, or individual essays on literary, political, and social matters, or books such as Burmese Days or Homage to Catalonia, which might best be called “political autobiographies.” Consequently, it is something of a paradox that Orwell’s deservedly great reputation today rests primarily on 1984, a work which seems to contain the deepest pessimism about man’s nature. But the two views of Orwell, as a pessimist about man’s capacity for the total enslavement of his fellows, and as an optimist and affirmer of the human spirit, can be reconciled by study of his biography and of the body of his writings, especially as they bear on that biography.
1984 is a dark work, at least on the surface, and there seems little of affirmation about it. It has given words and phrases to the English language: Thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Big Brother, the Two Minutes’ Hate, the Proles, the Thought Police. But these, all of which are concepts characterizing the nightmare world of 1984, require further explanation than that provided in the novel and that explanation may be found in large measure in the biography of George Orwell. While works such as 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London may stand alone and be read without reference to biographical material, a consideration of that material casts additional light on their meaning. It is to that biography that we now turn.
Orwell was born Eric Hugh Blair in 1903 in Motihari, Bengal, an area in eastern India only about three hundred miles from Burma, where Orwell was to serve twenty years later as a British civil servant. He was the only son of a subordinate British civil servant; his father, serving in the British Raj (government) of India, worked in the Customs and Excise department the government. Apparently Orwell’s father was reserved and distant with his children. Orwell had a sister about five years old than he, and another five years younger, but he was never very close to his sisters either. Indeed, by his own account his attitude toward his immediate family was largely negative (except for his relationship with his mother). This attitude is revealed in what Orwell said about his early childhood in his famous essay “Such, Such Were the Joys . . .” which deals with his unhappy career at an English preparatory school. As a salaried official without an independent income, Orwell’s father does not seem to have been well off financially. This poverty was to haunt our novelist, causing him to dwell almost obsessively on matters of social class and social distinction. Indeed, Orwell was on one occasion to describe the social class into which he was born as “lower upper-middle,” perhaps with a touch of irony at such attempts at precise classification.
In 1911, at a very early age, Orwell was sent back to England to begin his education. These were the last quiet years of the pre-World War I era, when the imperial power of England was unquestioned and when it was necessary to have a constant supply of young men who, learning the art and science of ruling in England, would come out to India, Burma, and other far reaches of the British Empire to staff the government offices. And such a career - his father’s - seems at this point to have been Orwell’s destiny. Thus, the lengthy enforced separation from his family - there was certainly not enough money for the boy to make visits back to India - followed a quite usual pattern among the English upper and middle classes. The educational system which was based on a rather rigid class structure had narrow but clearly defined goals based on a philosophy of education which had been developing in England at least since the sixteenth century. This system was to have a profound effect on George Orwell, much of whose writing was to become either a commentary on or a criticism of it.
The preparatory school he attended beginning at age eight was located on the southern coast of England; it is the school to which he referred, though not by its actual name, in the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys . . .” This essay is a biting, indeed a bitter attack on the kind of education which was respected among certain social classes in Great Britain; and although Orwell disguised the name of the school by calling it “Crossgates” the essay has still never been legally published in England because of the possibility of a libel suit involving the good name of the school. Orwell was to be a boarding student at the school for five years, from 1911 through 1916.
Orwell’s parents seem to have been less well-to-do than the parents of most of the other students at “Crossgates.” Orwell relates in his essay that by indirect means he gradually came to realize that Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, the Headmaster and Headmistress of the school (nicknamed by the boys respectively Sim and Bingo) had taken on young George, or Eric, as he was then called, as a sort of investment, at reduced tuition and boarding fees. However, as he saw the case, they did this not out of concern for his welfare, but rather because they thought he was bright and expected that with proper instruction he would win valuable scholarships to some of the great public schools, such as Eton, Winchester, or Wellington. This achievement would in turn help to add luster to the school’s name and, as it was a private institution run in some measure for profit, attract more and wealthier students to it. The boy did not disappoint them in this respect, because he won scholarships both to Eton, which he ultimately attended and which is one of the most famous as well as one of the oldest public schools in England, and to Wellington.
But there were a number of things about the preparatory school which he detested, and which, from his own account, were to scar him psychologically. Thus, even the title of his essay is a bitterly ironic one. In his Songs of Innocence, the eighteenth-century poet William Blake has a poem called “The Ecchoing Green,” the middle stanza of which paints a picture of the idealized innocence and joyfulness of childhood:
Old John, with white hair, Does laugh away care, Sitting under the oak, Among the old folk. They laugh at our play, And soon they all say: “Such, such were the joys When we all, girls and boys, In our youth time were seen On the Ecchoing Green.”
But for the young Eric Blair, there were to be no idyllic times at Crossgates. He was rudely awakened by the stern regimen of the school. Beatings were commonplace. He recounts in the essay that soon after he arrived, at age eight, he was beaten by the Headmaster, Sim, for wetting his bed. He initially made light of the beating, though it was with a bone-handled riding crop; however, Sim overheard him tell his fellow students outside the room that “It didn’t hurt,” and he was immediately beaten again. This time the Headmaster used such force that he broke the handle of the riding crop while beating him to the point where he collapsed “into a chair, weakly snivelling.”
This beating marked the start of an educational process which was to instill in the young Eric Blair an awful conviction of worthlessness, guilt, and weakness, which by his own account, he was not able to overcome for years. “This was,” he wrote in “Such, Such Were the Joys . . .,” “the great abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good . . . it brought home to me for the first time the harshness of the environment into which I had been flung.” He did not add, though he might have, that the real or fancied maltreatment at Crossgates was not only to scar him psychologically, but to develop in him certain characteristic interests, to intensify his preoccupation with certain themes, such as the effect of prolonged punishment on the human spirit, the relative importance of heredity and environment, the possibility of brainwashing (especially important in 1984), and the oppression, as he saw it, so often visited on the defenseless, whether they were the poor of India or Burma, or the unassertive English boarding-school student such as he fancied himself to be at this time. At Crossgates, the boy was beaten for being a chronic bed-wetter - something which he literally could not help - and underwent the usual “fagging” [hazing] at the hands of the older boys. What he especially resented was the favoritism which he believed he saw in the treatment meted out by the Headmaster: the boys whose parents were wealthy and titled were treated with much more consideration than were the poorer boys who were attending the school at reduced tuition rates.
The formal curriculum had the classical bias usual at such a school; the students started Latin at age eight, Greek at age ten. But much of the learning in the classical languages was to Eric Blair the dullest kind of rote learning. He was, as a scholarship student, being prepared to take a competitive examination at age twelve or thirteen - an examination which would determine his entire future. For if he was successful in it, he would win a scholarship to a public school; if he failed, he would undoubtedly become, as the Headmaster frequently told him, “a little office boy at forty pounds a year.” The studies emphasized anything which might contribute to his passing the examination, but he felt that while the system may have been efficient in that it achieved its objective, it could not truly be called education.
Though Bingo and Sim frequently reminded him of how much they had done for him, a scholarship boy who was “living on their bounty,” he was not grateful. Instead, he said in “Such, Such Were the Joys...” “I hated both of them. I could not control my subjective feelings, and I could not control them from myself.” This point in Orwell’s biography may be important for the light it casts on the ambivalent way in which Winston Smith, the oppressed little man representative of much in his society in 1984, regards Big Brother, For the young Eric Blair, the authorities of his preparatory school, especially Sim and Bingo, stood in the same relationship to him as did Big Brother to Winston Smith; indeed the latter situation may well have been suggested by the former. The lack of privacy in the living quarters of the school, the oppression with the encouragement of Sim and Bingo, of the weaker boys by the stronger, the spying, especially in search of heterodox behavior or sexual misdemeanors among the boys, the “squalor and neglect... the W. C. [water closet, or lavatory] and dirty-handkerchief side of life,” as Orwell called it-all these were to appear in his writing, though changed and magnified. The worst thing about Crossgates, then, in Orwell’s view was that it violated his integrity, and attempted to deny to him the sole possession of that corner of his mind or consciousness which was, or should have been, forever and inalienably his. This theme, too, of the ultimate blasphemy of the violation of sovereign personality, reappears in 1984.
In fairness to the proprietors of Crossgates, it must be said that Orwell’s view of the school and the influence it was to have on his life and thought was highly subjective (as he himself stated in his essay about this period of his life.) Christopher Hollis, a friend and contemporary of George Orwell at Eton and the author of a biographical-critical study of him refers to the Crossgates episode in more balanced terms, as though the school was not objectively quite as bad as Orwell painted it - though some of the abuses which Orwell mentioned no doubt did in fact exist. But the important point is not the objective reality of the school, but the effect which it had on Orwell during a key phase in his development. He had a sense of inferiority and failure which haunted him. In a world made for the strong, he was convinced that he was doomed not to succeed, because in any case, in the terms of the rigid social code drummed into him at Crossgates, “success was measured not by what you did but by what you were.” Even after he had won his two excellent scholarships, to Eton and to Wellington, he felt that Sim and Bingo and the school rejected him. He was not in good health, having defective bronchial tubes and a minor lesion on one lung which, it may be, helped to occasion his untimely death at age forty-seven. But beyond any physical deficiencies, real or imagined, was the awful sense of failure and of the bonds of class and birth. “In a world where the prime necessities were money, titled relatives, athleticism, tailor-made clothes, neatly brushed hair, a charming smile, I was no good.” Such were his words about himself at the time he left Crossgates forever.
By his proficiency at Crossgates in the study of Latin and Greek, under the urgings (and beatings) of Sim and Bingo, Orwell won a scholarship which would maintain him at Eton for a complete education, provided his scholastic performance was satisfactory. Thus, in 1917, when Orwell was fourteen years old, he matriculated at Eton. In the public schools the students were given much more freedom to manage their own affairs that was the case at the preparatory schools, and as Orwell himself said in “Such, Such Were the Joys . . .,” he became an idler where his studies were concerned. After the years of cramming in Latin and Greek, he did only enough at Eton to maintain a class standing that would permit him to retain his scholarship, and no more. But he read widely, and even at this point in his life he impressed those around him as being an intellectual. To Cyril Connolly one of his acquaintances at Eton, he proved by the force of his example “that there existed an alternative to character, Intelligence.” His reading included Shaw, Samuel Butler, and others who might be described as the great questioners of Victorian life, and whose practice reinforced Orwell’s own tendency to ask embarrassing questions about society.
While Orwell said that he was not well liked by the other boys at Eton, in part because of his poverty, this does not seem to be true. Christopher Hollis, two years ahead of him at Eton and therefore roughly his contemporary in the school, says that Orwell was regarded as something of a leader of the other boys, and also that in an environment in which beatings were a part of the system, he was in fact beaten rather less than the others. But Orwell’s final judgment on Eton, published in an article in the Observer, “For Ever Eton,” on August 1, 1948, described the school as offering “a tolerant and civilized atmosphere which gives each boy a fair chance of developing his individuality.”
Orwell graduated from Eton at age eighteen, and rather unexpectedly, was to spend the next five years (1922-27) in Burma as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police. For a young man graduating from a public school like Eton, the normal next step would have been entrance to Oxford or Cambridge for three years of further study and a University degree. And apparently Orwell could have had this, for Eton provided scholarships for some of its students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend a University. Though the circumstances are somewhat obscure, Orwell, according to Christopher Hollis, was persuaded by one of his teachers at Eton that he ought to bypass the University route. “You’ve had enough of education. Take a job abroad and see something of the world,” his teacher allegedly told him, and though Orwell was rather to regret this decision later, he entered the service of the British Government as a civil servant in Burma.
He apparently was a good officer, for he did have the habit of command. But he became increasingly disillusioned with his job, and ceased to believe in the beneficial effects of imperialism, even British imperialism. He felt that all Europeans, as he said in his essay “Marrakech,” are essentially fooling the peoples under colonial domination, and he developed, during his five years in the British service, a tremendous amount of guilt at his supposedly privileged position. This guilt feeling simply reinforced the feeling of general “worthlessness” which had been built up during his preparatory school years. His experience in Burma is perhaps best illustrated in the famous essay “Shooting an Elephant,” written a number of years after the fact, in which his performance of his duty as a police officer in Moulmein, Lower Burma, becomes the occasion for a graphic comment on what he saw as the essential self-imprisonment of all who served the cause of the British Government in its imperial domains.
Feeling stifled, therefore, by his job Orwell came home on leave in 1927 and never returned to Burma, instead resigning from the service. The Burmese experience was very valuable to him is his formation as an artist and a thinker, but torture to him as a man because of his sensitivity to what he thought of as the shortcomings of imperialism. Out of his Burmese experience was to come his first novel, Burmese Days, published in 1934, seven years after his return from Burma. As is the case in every Orwell novel, there is one character in Burmese Days who has many of the qualities of Orwell himself, and with whom Orwell consciously or unconsciously identified. That character is named Flory-also a civil servant in the British Raj in Burma who deteriorates under the influence of the system. But Orwell himself, fearing that the system would ruin him both ethically and emotionally if he remained a part of it, left the service, while Flory stayed in it until it indirectly at least brought about his death.
From 1927 until 1933 Orwell led what must have been an unprecedented life for a young man of his ability and education. Explanations of his motivation for leading this life are still vague; perhaps the truth will never be known. But out of these years of great poverty and deprivation came, in 1933, his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, a most graphic and subjective study of...

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