Orwell –  a dystopian writer or a socio-realist?

Down and Out in Paris and London” was the first book Orwell ever wrote and therefore it demands some special attention. He wrote it in 1933.

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Who was George Orwell? He was born Eric Arthur Blair 110 years ago, on June 25th 1903. He died on January 21st, 1950, some 46 years later. To me, Orwell has always been an important touchstone, a true pleasure to read since he is different in as much as he combines some traits I find important for any writers: will for social and political justice, very clear language, intelligence, sharp observation, wit and accuracy in the depiction of social realities.

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I’ve read him ever since I was little and funnily enough, at school, we read 1984, just in the year of 1984, when I was 13. Yes, it did make a huge impact on me. I cannot say anything else. We discussed the book. We wrote essays on it. We saw the movie 1984. It was a blatant attack against totalitarianism. That much was clear. And for a classroom with a lot of rebellious hormones flying around, Orwell was just right in showing us what society would be if we allowed ourselves to be let astray. Everyone in class including the teacher was sure that there would never be any similar surrounding, that everything depicted in the book, was pretty much a dark pessimistic fantasy, way out, and that basically this was a dystopia which would never happen.

Now about 30 years later, I am not so sure anymore. I find that Orwell had the unusual talent of absorbing very slight historical tendencies and thinking them till the bitter end and turning it into fiction. Orwell’s fiction is never just fiction. It is a moral signpost that says “Don’t go there. It might happen if you don’t watch out.” On the other hand, he wrote a lot about what happened in real life. He was in no way a writer in his ivory tower. He was pretty much connected and set in the real life of his time and confronted with real-life problems. “His work is marked by clarity, intelligence and wit, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism.” That’s what Wikipedia says, and I solidly agree with that.

Orwell. The dystopian writer, the social critic

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There are many books by George Orwell, well worthwhile reading which are hard to come by because of course, 1984 and Animal Farm are the evergreens and the bestsellers that cannot be surpassed.

Retracing his steps, we find that he was basically a middle upper lower middle class son, who was born in India, grew up in Burma, living a privileged life within a well bred family. But as he grew older, and after having returned to Europe, he seemed to have been a wandering spirit. He tried out multiple ways in order to live, he had something inside him, a search of something else, a weariness of everyday life about him. Something that made him seek out adventures. He led an unusual life. Orwell wrote his first book with the title “Down and out in Paris and London” (1933) which I would like to recommend today with all my heart.

In a nutshell, it is a desolate depiction of what the social reality for poor people, for people out of a regular existence, jobless, homeless, sometimes vagabonds and basically impoverished people must have been like. The daily search to get by on a minimum of money is shown with a pinch of salt. It is not someone who is crying into his bowl of water-soup at the workhouse. There is nothing that resembles rage or an accusation against the state or the state of things in there. It just shows the reality of what things were like. Without commenting as much on it. That is Orwell’s English side. And this is what made me have goose pimples all over when I first read the book at 20. It was hair-raising. The cruelty and the sometimes really very harsh if not brutal realities are depicted in a very formal and sometimes offhand manner. It is something hard to digest at first. But that way, the reader gets to the bottom of things, to the places where Orwell leads him, to the darkest corners in pre-war Paris and pre-war London. The reader must ask himself what made Orwell endure all of this. He wanted to be a first-hand narrator. He did not want to narrate the hell of others, of vagabonds, he first wanted to endure it so he could write his books with a totally different stance. Today, we might call him an investigative journalist. Yes, but Orwell was more than that. He was a critic in his way not to criticize anything but depicting every cruel detail of what happens to poor people and what happens if you get to the point where you lose your job, you home and your social framework. Something which in the nineteen-thirties must have been something not so easy to endure.

Another very good book by Orwell is “Burmese Days” where Orwell actually lets us in on the secrets of his upbringing in the colonies. It is an eye opener. Truly recommended.

All in all, I can only recommend George Orwell again and again. I know, that 1984 is a must read for many classes (at school as well at university) but it rightly is so. As well as Animal Farm has become a total classic. However, Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as Burmese Days and his collected Essays should find more readers, the way I see it.

Orwell was a bright man, with a vision.

Ending this post, I would like to point out that in fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Orwell is a more than a modern classic, he is a post-modern writer, someone to foresee something sinister that was about to happen. Let’s us all see to it that we can make this dystopia stop before Big Brother and the thought police become reality.

I wonder what Orwell would write if he was alive today.

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