Orwell and '1984'


  • Photo by Julien Gong Min

It shouldn’t come as a surprise in the fallout of the recent NSA leaks that sales of George Orwell’s novel “1984” have reportedly spiked on Amazon.com during the last few days.

But the rush to embrace Orwell’s dystopian vision might be a little misdirected. Some of what Orwell warned us about has materialized. But what was Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell’s real name) experiencing when he wrote what many scholars believe is one of the most important novels of the 20th century? Was he only looking forward or was he looking inward, too?

Most literary critics suggest that "1984" was Orwell’s response to the mix of fascism and Soviet-style communism that Western Europe was confronting prior to WWII.

But Orwell was also facing some serious issues as he wrote "1984." Orwell’s wife died suddenly in 1947, undergoing a hysterectomy, and his own health was failing. Orwell coped with multiple respiratory ailments, according to an article published by researcher John Ross in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. Orwell contracted dengue fever while in Burma. He spent time in a sanitarium following a diagnosis of tuberculosis, and he was literally racing to complete the work before he succumbed to the illness.

The book was published in 1949, just months before his death in 1950. Ross writes that Orwell told friends that the book's bleak outlook was partly a result of his sickness, and he even used some of the symptoms of TB, such as wasting, to describe the appearance of his lead character.

There’s no question that Orwell was stirred by the political changes of the time, which is also evident in his non-fiction work. But for all its brilliance, "1984" exposes some of the writer’s deterioration at a time when treatment for respiratory infections was limited. Given what he was coping with, it’s hard to imagine how Orwell could be optimistic about anything.