The Unique Characters of 1984 and Animal Farm and Burmese Days
George Orwell, an alias of Eric Arthur Blair, is know for the books 1984 and Animal Farm. In both of these, as well as in most of his others, he seems to delight in using vivid and wholly believable characters, easily believable because of their obvious and tragic faults. Another similarity seems to be the consistent use of irony, a stylistic choice which plays big in Burmese Days
and in several other works. Also, Blair enjoyed placing his characters in situations and settings that were out-of-the- ordinary, constantly reversing or switching roles. It is a mark of talent that he is able to use all of these so effectively, making us believe the unbelievable and accept the incredible at the same time that he makes us emphasize with the characters and see similarities between them and ourselves, long after they were written.
Blair's penchant for extremely well-done characters, entirely believable and understandable, is shown by both his major works as well as his lesser known first fiction piece, Burmese Days. In 1984, the main focus of the story is Winston Smith
, an Normal Party member living in the year 1984 except for his dislike of all that the Party stands for and distrust of its message. Of course, these qualities, questioning of authority and subtle disloyalty to unfair persecutors, are considered good by the public today. In the book however, these abilities were destroyed, smothered, and obliterated through careful means, and anyone having them was branded insane, dangerous, and antisocial. Thus, the author creates an immediate bond between us and the suffering main character by showing a little person vs. Big Brother (Blair being the first person to use the word). "The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed, even if he had never set pen to paper, the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime could not be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they ware bound to get you" (Orwell 166).
This passage, particularly the final sentence, slowly builds up the reader's bond with Winston. He is being persecuted for being innocent, for thinking, and this persecution makes him seem all the more likable. The final, and perhaps most interesting part of Winston's development in 1984 is near the end of the novel. The character, who has been anti-Party all along, is given drugs and mental therapy and changes his tune drastically. "O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exiled from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won victory over himself. He loved Big Brother" (Orwell 245).
This final sentence signals a horrific change in Winston's persona one that each and every single one of us would make if tasked with the trials he went through. The final betrayal, inevitable and unavoidable, of everything we care about to save ourselves. Blair showed us the best and worst of people in 1984, the good ending up as evil as the rest, and the evil becoming indistinguishable from ourselves.
In Animal Farm
, Blair achieves much the same effect. By using animals to represent human beings, he forces us to see ourselves without our self-imposed superiority and delusional sense of indifference to the animals (Reilly 88). The animals in the book display a cross-section of the world as a whole, with strong workers as Boxer the horse the naive and persecuted genius in Snowball, and the dominating egotistical role of Napoleon. The final words of this book also say it best: "No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which" (Orwell 128). In this closing paragraph, Orwell reveals the pigs, the smartest and cruelest of the animal bunch, as what they really are: no better or worse than the men they had become.
One is led to like and then pity the main character in Burmese Days, who is a white man that insists he is no better than the Indians which are widely and severely brutalized and forced into slavery. For this, he is considered to us a good man, but to the society he lived in an awful and strange one. And in the end, after making a somewhat pathetic attempt to help an Indian friend and losing a lovely but horribly ignorant girlfriend, he kills his dog then himself, opting for the easy way out of his troubles. "She crouched down and whined for forgiveness. It hurt him to hear it. "Come on old girl! Dear old Flo! Master wouldn't hurt you. Come here!" She crawled very slowly to his feet, flat on her belly, whining, her head down as though afraid to look at him. When she was a yard away he fired, blowing her skull to fragments" (Orwell 226).
The line "Master wouldn't hurt you." shows all the pain, the lies, the suffering we must go through and really brings home the point- we are not infallible, we are not perfect, we tend to destroy that which we love the most (Thomas 131).
In all of his works, Blair makes good use of irony, invoking it any way he can find it seems. Of course, both the characters actions and the setting of the stories are themselves ironic, but they are separate from the tragic irony the permeates his works. Blair seems to be fond of making situations as ironic as possible. In his book, evil usually wins and good perishes or becomes indistinguishable from the evil, entirely smashing expectations. In 1984 especially, every person and object and idea in the fictional world seems to have a manifestation in our own (Thomas 98). The Thought Police and Big Brother are similar to the CIA/NSA/FBI, and the telescreens seem a oddly recognizable mix of camera and TV. The female referred to in the passages is the main character's love, also a secret Party-hater, but ignorant and unconcerned about truth and other such abstract concepts. "Often she was able to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her" (Orwell 185). Another example is "Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every pictures has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered" (Orwell 163).
These terrible quotes seem to be a parallel to our own world of translations and interpretations and reissuings and transformations. Indeed, the incredible similarities between the made-up Oceania of 1984 and our own, current, "real" 1997 seen shocking.
Another example of irony is that of the comparison between the fat, pink pigs and the human race in Animal Farm. The names of characters, too, seem ironic, with Napoleon being an obvious connection. And the use of "comrade" in both 1984 and Animal Farm in place of the word "friend" suggests a subtle distinction between a true friend, nonexistent, and the almost-pal "comrade". "The Seven Commandments: Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. No animal shall wear clothes. No animal shall sleep in a bad. No animal shall drink alcohol. No animal shall kill any other. All animals are equal" (Orwell 33).
These rules of Animal Farm are an unsettling twist on the ten commandments, as well as the Constitution. When the pigs break every one of them, they rewrite them to please, being the smartest of all the inhabitants. Other animals, most of them illiterate, are satisfied by the pigs' explanations and excuses, while the pigs walk on two legs, become greedy and fat, drink and produce liquor, sleep in beds, and other sacrilegious human behaviors. And the last Commandment- "All animals are equal", becomes the now infamous and ingenious line "All animals are equal...but some are more equal than others."
A further example of irony in Animal Farm is the contrast between the animal's rousing songs, the first of which stood for the unity and friendship of the animals, the other of which was created by Napoleon for self-serving and egotistical purposes.
Soon or late the day is coming, Tyrant Man shall be o'erthrown
And the fruitful field of England shall be trod by beasts alone.
Rings shall vanish from our noses, and the harness from our back,
Bit and spur shall rust forever, cruel whips no more shall crack.
Riches more than mind can picture, wheat and barley, oats and hay,
Clover, beans, and magel-wurzels, shall be ours upon that day.
For that day we all must labor, though we die before it break,
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys, all must toil for freedom's sake (Orwell 23).
Thou are the giver of all that creatures love,
Full belly twice a day, clean straw to roll upon,
Every beast great or small, sleeps at peace in his stall,
Thou watchest over all,
Had I grown a suckling-pig, ere he had ever grown as big,
Even as a pint bottle or rolling pin,
He should have learned to be, faithful and true to thee,
Yes, his first squeak should be
"Comrade Napoleon!" (Orwell 91).
Notice the patriotic sound of the first song, the all for one and one for all feel, with the second being a clear "Ode to Napoleon" forced upon the other animals as a bow to their dominating and self-appointed lead and his hog associates.
Blair used setting to create a distance from reality while making the fiction seem similar enough to be believable (Lee 109). By creating or placing characters in different states, such as in the future or replaced by animals, the author underlines and emphasizes the points he is trying to make by transferring certain characteristics into the situation and changing, almost beyond recognition, the surrounding circumstances, names, and other features (Lee 113).
As shown in 1984, the core human natures and political philosophies are still in place, but the world is quite different from the world Blair knew. "They were the homes of the four ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided: the Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news; the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with War; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; an the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty" (Orwell 8).
Of course, none of these organizations are part of any government that I know of, and Newspeak is not a language (at least not an official one). But the four ironic Ministries, named in direct opposite to what they did, are similar to some our current agencies and bureaus. And Newspeak merely a composite language, created and described by George Orwell as a language with which it is quite near impossible to communicate any unorthodox or rebellious opinions, indeed a language in which most abstract concepts simply cease to exist (Orwell 255).
Again from 1984: "One day a chocolate ration was issued. There had been no such issue for weeks or months past. He remembered quite clearly that precious little morsel of chocolate. It was a two-ounce slab (they still talked about ounces in those days)..."
Chocolate and ounces, rations and issues make the commonplace slightly surreal and connect the imaginary with the existing.
A final example of unsettling setting is in Animal Farm, obviously an impossible creation (or is it?) with it's speaking and very intelligent animals, some able to read and write and convince the others to help overthrown the evil human dictators. "No sentimentality, comrade!" cried Snowball, from whose wounds the blood was still dripping. "War is war. The only good human being is a dead one."
"I have no wish to take life, not even human life," repeated Boxer, and his eyes were full of tears (Orwell 49).
Sound familiar? Replace the words "human being" in Snowball's quote with any number of ethnic or racial names, and you can begin to see the subtle but saddening parallels from Animal Farm to our own twisted world (Edward 74). Boxer, the hardworking but innocent horse, truly wishes he didn't have to behave like such an "animal" and kill another being, if only a mere human. There is more humanity in many of the four-legged friends in Animal Farm than in many of our two-legged ones.
Eric Arthur Blair was an effective writer, using irony, character, and setting effectively and twisting them to be applicable to almost any time period, including this one. The universal message of his books, and his honest but somewhat depressing plot devices and conclusions may not make for the most enjoyable reading. But they are definitely thought-provoking and make us think about the foundations on which we as a species rest--government, religion, et cetera--and wonder about our nature and place in the scheme of things (Lee 77). And his works certainly cause a one to wonder if we or our world are any better that the tragically flawed persons and places presented. Hopefully, 1984 will never become reality, and we will continue to question authority, to think for ourselves, and to act in contrast to the pigs.
Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell, lived a fascinating life and traveled throughout the world. He based much of his works on his ideas, political and philosophical, and on his travels and experiences.
For instance, the novel Burmese Days occurs within Burma, birthplace and homeland of Blair, where he discovered the terrible treatment of the native Indians. The book also contains links to his life through the eyes of the main character, a while sympathetic man probably based upon Orwell himself, known for his kindness to the natives in India (Reilly 108).
Another character direct from Blair's life in the same book is a self-centered and selfish soldier, who Blair possibly based upon some of his fellow Imperial Indian Army men, Blair had joined the service, wanting to travel more, and wasn't pleased with the whole experience (Reilly 109).
Animal Farm contained some no-so-obvious connections to Blair's life. The characters are variously based upon composite personalities of country stereotypes, Russia through an Englishman's eyes and vice versa (Reilly 118).
Also, Eric's beliefs were similar to those of the martyr pigs, and he seemed to display himself most through Snowball, an intelligent but impractical pig, and through Major, who told the pigs of a better life and of the oppression they should resist.
However, 1984, Blair's final work and published shortly before he died, seem to most "give away" Orwell (Lee 33). In that work, Orwell discusses his thinly veiled philosophy: that we are all alone (epistemic loneliness), and that human nature is to kill each other and ourselves, destroy everything we care about, and generally be pretty poor examples.
Eric must have been depressed writing the novel, seeing the misery we were putting our world through, and viewing the disguises of politics and religion as they gave us false hopes and crushed individuality. His fight against the oppressive Franco in the POUM is paralleled in Winston's flee from the likewise oppressive Party and their restrictive ideologies (Reilly 122).
1984 also contains Blair's ideas on religion and politics, basically that they were just illusions at best, responsible for much death and destruction as well as the constant regression we face as a world. Angered at anyone who dismissed his books as impossible or "nice little novel", and equally as distraught by the massive amount of organizations, groups, militias, countries and people who proudly proclaimed vindication and support by Blair by confusing and misinterpreting his message, the author was willing to pass up a substantial offer by the Book of the Month Club to publish 1984, in favor of finding a publisher who would send it out complete and unedited. The Club rethought their original offer, having previously threatened to take out the section about the Underground Brotherhood manual as well as the Guide to Newspeak at the end, and the book was published in it's original form.
Eric Arthur Blair drew upon a wide variety of people he met and places he visited in creating his books. The ideas and quotes from his made-up characters are uniquely Orwell, and the settings of his earlier nonfiction works are completely drawn from his life as a dishwasher, bum, and poor writer. Although he may not have found all of his characters in his life, many were inspired by normal people who interested the author and attempted to portray them accurately.
Works Cited and Consulted
Lee, Robert A. Orwell's Fiction. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
Orwell, George. 1984. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1949.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1946.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1934.
Thomas, Edward. Orwell. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1965.