George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Whose Orwell?

December 9, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Why is Orwell a figure subject to so many different interpretations and appropriations? What are these different images/faces of him? Why does it even matter that both contrary and complementary groups determine to claim Orwell as their own?

In his comprehensive study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, John Rodden grapples with the process of making and claiming George Orwell. He first sets a foundation by laying out key terms for readers, such as reputation and reputation-history. Reputation is “the estimation in which a person or thing is commonly held,” it is “an act of cognition on the part of the Other. It is gained variously through perception of one’s power, wealth, achievement, or character” (Rodden 54). Reputation-history is the bridge between cultural history, literary biography, and literary and historical sociology (Rodden 7). The significance of a man’s literary reputation has as much to do with one’s own biography and personality tendencies as with the society and historical circumstances. Rodden introduces his exploration of four different portraits of Orwell: The Rebel, The Common Man, The Prophet, and the Saint. He also notes that no image of Orwell captures all of him (Rodden 5) and that still many other images pervade the literary dialogue.

The term “Orwellian”
To truly understand the conflict over Orwell and his philosophy, it is necessary to first look at uses of the term Orwellian. As Rodden points out, using the term “Orwellian” is one of the most prevalent ways in which intellectual groups attempt to take ownership of Orwell’s ideas. Significantly, the term Orwellian itself has been debased in a way that Orwell would certainly have criticized. In certain contexts, Orwellian refers to writing that is characteristic of Orwell’s clear prose. Alternatively, many writers use Orwellian to refer to the types of linguistic perversions that Orwell criticized in Nineteen Eighty Four. At some points, writers have even referred to Orwell as a big brother figure. Rodden says:

“Orwell” has become classic blackwhite, possessed of two mutually contradictory meanings. Not only does it signify a virtuous white in which socialists and neoconservatives alike so ardently seek to drape themselves; it also evokes the evil black of “1984,” in which adversaries so resourcefully attempt to envelop one another. (32-33)

The fact that Orwell’s name itself has been the object of such distortion complicates any attempt to understand Orwell’s reputation, because his name has all but lost its referent.

As Rodden puts it, “We construct the Orwells we need” (355). This has largely proven true for conflicting political philosophies over the years. To help understand Orwell’s reputation, Rodden has separated views of Orwell into four “images.” An analysis of each image is below:

Orwell the Rebel
The image of Orwell as a Rebel was the first face to emerge, in the early 1950s, after The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937. As Eric Blair transformed into George Orwell, many noted that his first inclination was to react against. Arthur Koestler said in 1960, “George was a  rebel..a rebel is a rebel, he is against; and he was against everything that stank in society, everything which was tripe and cabbage and decay and putrefaction, in himself and in society, and there was no compromise…for George, social injustice was physical pain, it smelt” (Rodden 103). Orwell’s social consciousness against the injustices of the current society marks him as a rebel. Pritchett, the New Statesman’s editor, also called George a rebel (in his obituary) and further linked him to John the Baptist. The image of John the Baptist returning from the wilderness (eating wild honey and grasshoppers) and rebelling against all that is material, prideful, sexually immoral, and sinful parallels the image of Orwell returning from Mandalay, Burma and Spain and rebelling against imperialism, the pukka sahib culture, and imperialism. Both John the Baptist and Orwell can be seen as “saintly rebels” who stand against falsehood, privilege and hypocrisy (Rodden 111).

Within the Rebel image, the group splits into two sides: Orwell as a strong, manly, successful, true rebel versus Orwell the weak, neurotic failure, victim, false rebel. Those who paint Orwell as the false rebel point to the many instances in Orwell’s novels where his main characters, Flory, Comstock, Bowling, and Smith become “losers” to society. They succumb to the very society that they all criticize. On the other hand, those fighting to hold on to Orwell as a true rebel because of the fact that he was able to think for himself and reject what he disagreed on–i.e. the empire, commoditized success and fame as a writer (Rodden 114). Many of these competing terms demonstrate the complexity behind Orwell’s reputation, even coming from within the same umbrella of “rebellion.” One interesting thing is that Rodden opined, “to admire another’s rebellion is to participate in it in some way, to be something of a rebel oneself” (120). Those who identify Orwell as an independent individualist are able to live vicariously through Orwell’s stands against whatever issue is at hand.

Rodden then explores four different case studies that contribute to the making of the Rebel image. The first is Orwell as Don Quixote. The parallels are drawn not only between physical similarities but also character traits. Don Quixote is a mythical knight who is chivalrous and persevering, embarking on a quest, a “rebel’s progress” (Rodden 124). Similarly, Orwell embarks on a mission to face unpleasant facts, to expose the nasty truths of the world. Furthermore, to Bernard Crick, Don Quixote corresponds to Orwell the writer and Sancho Panza (the fat little squire) as Orwell the man; thus ensues a battle between the soul (desires to be a saint and hero) and body (desires for comfort, safety, privilege). In this case study, Orwell is also presented as both a Man of Action and a Fated Victim, man of action relating Quixote’s battles and Orwell’s “duel against lies” using the “English language as his weapon” (Rodden 129) versus Quixote’s defeats to the giants and windmills and Orwell’s premature death and presentation of Winston Smith as a last human being who ultimately submits (thus fated to fail) to the love of Big Brother.

The second case study explores more of Orwell’s personal habits, as he is coined a “permanent outsider” to every group (Rodden 134). Nobody, not even his closest friends, knew the range or variety of his friends until Orwell passed away. Julian Symons, a close friend of Orwell’s since 1944, didn’t even know the name of Orwell’s first wife’s name (Eileen) until she died. The segmentation of Orwell’s friendly relations and his subsequent distance was attributed to three reasons: protection, temperament, and native anthropology. Orwell’s privacy and isolation allowed him to separate his upper-middle-class world with his lower class one (as detailed in Wigan Pier on page 127) and also play different roles as he went in and out among different groups/classes of people. This aspect helped put Orwell in a position of rebellion–never giving himself wholly up to any single person.

The third case study delves into the process and history of the Orwell biography. Orwell is noted as a rebel who resists his “would be biographers” (Rodden 142).  In his will, Orwell said he didn’t want a biography. In this command alone Orwell was able to evade public understanding and resist the consequence of self-invasion by potential biographers. Rodden notes that “biography may be seen as the literary invasion of the self, the peeling away of layer upon layer of a (sometimes) carefully constructed identity–an identity which an autobiographical writer has labored hard to build” (145). The mere decision to not write his own biography and to refuse others the right to do see is the ultimate silence, the ultimate rebellion.

The final case study is George Woodcock’s Orwell Always Fighting Against Something and the Anarchists’ Orwell. Woodcock describes in 1933 Orwell as “always the odd man out–the maverick writer defying fashion in the name of plain speaking, the radical rebel who never fitted in with any left-wing movement” (Rodden 155). Thus the anarchists’ claim Orwell because of his courage to criticize communism, for his respect of freedom and human dignity as a natural born right, his belief that a centralized state is evil, and the corruptive capabilities of power (Rodden 157). Importantly, Rodden states that Woodcock’s Orwell may be still different from the anarchist’s Orwell…the significance is that even among people with the same roots, a person still possesses different comprehensions and reputations from the person next to them.

Orwell the Common Man

Upon his death, there was a movement in England to classify Orwell as a common man who wrote from that perspective in an effort to uphold those ideals. In many of his works from Wigan Pier to 1984, Orwell clearly focuses on the common man, so the association does seem natural, though not necessarily correct. In many ways, I would contend Orwell did not fit well in any one group, and he is most vividly defined by what he is not, which in turn did contribute to this “common man” argument.

Orwell himself defines the common man as someone who was not part of the intelligentsia. While Orwell could clearly hold his ground to just about any individual intellectually, he is clearly not a member of this group, especially given differences in political views that were exemplified in the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s. Orwell was not at home with the intelligentsia, and based on his definitions, by not being part of the intelligentsia, he is left to be a common man. However, I do think this term has been twisted to a much different meaning today. In Orwell’s mind, a common man was not necessarily a factory worker; rather, a factory worker was a sort of common man. Common manhood is a broad swathe of individuals that can include workers, miners, and even some thinkers.

Still while not at home with the intelligentsia, Orwell does not fit particularly well with most common men either, something that is clear as he visits miners in the North in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell is not Raymond Williams, but he is also not the typical middle class Englishmen. He is best defined by what he is not.

This is especially true when looking at his political views. He seems to hold some views that are nationalist yet others that are anti-imperialist. He opposes activism yet at times endorses war. It often feels as if the individual best equipped to debate Orwell is Orwell himself. However, we can again define him politically, to a degree at least, but what he is not. Orwell is certainly no communist. The Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, underwent a smear propaganda campaign against him over works they deemed negative, classifying his work as “garbage.” He also forgoed licensing revenue to help spread his anti-communist message to those oppressed peoples. Internally, he even turned over a list of 35 individuals he suspected of being communist to the British government, though at times the list seemed to focus on personal conflict more than political persuasion. Orwell politically is best defined as being anti-communist.

Is Orwell a common man? I would argue not in the way the term common man is applied today. To be frank, I think Orwell would despise the term because there is significant implied condescension. There is a suggestion that the intelligentsia is superior to others as those people are merely common. If anything, I think Orwell would argue the opposite. The British coal miner who goes to work day after day without complaining is the hero not the Leftist Intellectual, writing manuscripts to topple the government.

Orwell the “Prophet”

Unlike his other faces, I think it is safe to say that this feature of his multifaceted character is closely affiliated solely to his last and most famous novel, 1984. The idea of George Orwell being a prophet did not pop up until the publication of the novel in 1949, evidence that this theory is influenced quite heavily by its appearance.

Did he intend to be somewhat of a prophet himself? That’s a difficult question. We cannot tell for sure, for he dies promptly after the book was published. However it is noted that in his press release for the novel, he writes “the moral is, don’t let it happen, it depends on you”, which to some extent shows a self-consciousness as a writer who wrote somewhat of a prophetic piece of literature.

As we discussed in class, when many people read 1994, we tend not to look at it as a craft of pure literature, like how we would devour and indulge our minds when reading The Old Man and the Sea, or Beloved, but more of a “literal prediction”. A caution sign even. John Rodden dubs the world of the novel a “satirical dystopia”.
So we get that people think Orwell was a prophet. But exactly what kind of prophet was he? Rodden identifies that there are four different images within the prophet. They are 1. The cautionary prophet, 2. The false prophet, 3. The fallible prophet, and 4. The doomsday prophet. These images all have different viewpoints and thus have different conclusions.
–    The Cautionary Prophet
The notion of Orwell as the cautionary prophet was coined by Anglo-American critics reviewing 1984. Most critics agreed that it was indeed a satirical warning to the present. Both the righties and the lefties were for the idea that he was anti-totalitarianism, but of course they were completely torn as to which school Orwell belonged to. Claims ranged from disappointed ex-socialist, cautionary socialist, naïve anti-communist. The book itself was interpreted in ways convenient to suit each perspective.
–    The Failed Prophet
Now, this one is interesting. Advocated by psychoanalytic and Marxist critics, what they basically say is that Orwell is a psychopath and the whole book is a fantasy of his sorry mind. To them, the world depicted in 1984 was no prediction. It was a  projection of his psychopathic inner world. An author that lost faith in socialism, a world projecting his own psychological state. This image was most likely developed because he died soon after the book was published. The fact that he said the book “wouldn’t be so gloomy if I hadn’t been so ill” didn’t exactly help him escape these allegations.
These first two dimensions were conceived by a literary audience, a group of people who knew who he was, what kind of a writer he is, and has probably read his other book. The latter two come from a more ill-educated, less informed audience.

–    The Fallible Prophet

The fallible prophet, which sounds very similar to the failed prophet, was coined by Apocalypticans and religious millennialists. Yes, the cult people. And scientists I guess. Situated far from the literary sphere, the public treated Orwell solely as the author of 1984, as most Americans probably still do today. They treated 1984 as a forecast, focusing on futuristic inventions and sociopolitical images. Basically, they were like “this didn’t come true, nor did this, and oh, what a failure!” these claims were seldom connected with postwar England or Orwell’s political history. It was all about 1984 and how it predicted the future. Although, if you take a step away and think about it, I wouldn’t exactly consider him as a fallible predictor. The TV, security cameras everywhere, three major economic spheres in the world; give or take a few decades, and I think he was pretty accurate in predicting the future.

–    The Doomsday Prophet

As the world inched towards 1984, there was an increasing buzz about the book as the countdown proceeded. 1984 sold in the millions. The doomsday prophet. Much like how there’s probably going to be a lot of discovery channel episodes on how the Mayans say that the world is going to end in 2012, the idea of Orwell being the doomsday prophet accelerated as 1984 inched nearer. And, consequently, the idea quickly lost its momentum when people realized that 1984, wasn’t going to be like 1984.

The last two interpretations of Orwell may not have much critical significance, but it does lead us to a curious point. Orwell as the Media prophet. Or as critics like to put it, “Profit” Orwell.

The screen adaptations made by NBC and BBC and countless other productions were a sensation. Needless to say, the audience of these shows most likely did not know of Orwell, nor were they likely to have ever read the book. For many people, for the mass public, the image of Orwell was constituted solely of the screen adaptations of his one novel. As his book became more and more famous, the image of Orwell = 1984, was amplified to maximum volume.

St. George Orwell

The last image that Rodden presents of Orwell is that of St. George Orwell. Notably, Orwell himself would have been very opposed to this characterization. In addition to the fact that he was a staunch atheist, Orwell objected to the idea of sainthood. Writing about Ghandi, Orwell said, “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection….[S]ainthood is a thing which human beings must avoid” (327).

Despite these hypothetical objections, Orwell’s ‘canonization’ began soon after his death. In an obituary in the New Statesman, V.S. Pritchett repeatedly referred to Orwell as a saint who had been martyred by his trials among the poor. Pritchett’s description was mirrored by many of his contemporaries – Orwell was almost universally memorialized for his piety to socialist causes. Orwell’s writing in books like Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia was put forth as evidence of his authenticity and devotion to socialist causes. Taking into account Orwell’s atheism, Rodden refers to this image as Orwell the “secular saint” (337).

The other important characterization of Orwell the saint that Rodden discusses is one based on St. George of England. Conservative commentators, including Norman Podhoretz embraced this image of Orwell. Podhoretz and his ilk focused on Orwell’s nationalism as well as his pro-violence approach. Neoconservatives cast Orwell as the patron saint of England, slaying the dragons of communism.  St. George was also an image that was applied to Orwell by his detractors. Several Orwell critics, including D.A.N. Jones and Tom Nairn, referred to St. George the ultra-nationalist derisively.

These conflicting images of St. Orwell provided the basis of competition between the left and the right to claim Orwell. Each movement tried to cast Orwell as their patron saint. As a class, we seemed to come to an agreement that this competition in itself undermines Orwell’s true philosophy. Although Orwell was ostensibly a leftist, his writings rail against abuses of power no matter the political philosophy that justified those abuses. Orwell would not have wanted any political ideology to co-opt his writing (and his name) as a political shorthand.


Rodden, John. The Politics of Literary Reputation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.




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