Big Brother is still watching

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Wanda Opalinska looks at the enduring appeal of George Orwell's writing a century after his birth

George Orwell is most familiar to English students as the author of Animal Farm. His book made a somewhat surprising entry into the O-level English literature syllabus in 1954, at the height of the Cold War. One of two highly-politicised books by Orwell to make its way into the classroom (the other being Nineteen Eighty-Four) Animal Farm triumphed over wartime paper shortages and reluctant publishers to reach an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

Both books have entered the lexicon of popular culture, a reminder of Orwell's relevance to our own debates about the role of the media and mass communication. Despite their popularity, the critical history of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four has been problematic. On publication, both books were immediately misinterpreted by the political right and left as anti-socialist tracts. Orwell was forced to clarify his reasons for writing Animal Farm - his exposure of the "Soviet myth" - arguing that: "nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country."

Similarly, the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) saw Orwell publicly refuting assumptions that Ingsoc was an attack on English socialism, rather than on totalitarianism.

The popularity of Animal Farm as a set text on the English literature syllabus is understandable - it's a landmark in political writing. The book provides scope for interdisciplinary teaching and its apparent simplicity makes the text accessible to able and less able students. Although few teaching resources are available for Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four, specific editions of the text bridge this gap. The Longman Literature series edition of Animal Farm, edited by Trevor Millum, provides a clear introduction to the work, as well as a comprehensive programme of activities, giving Year 9 students and above a clear and thoughtful overview of the book's themes. The English Media Centre's Animal Farm workbook (currently out of print but should be available online from November 1 at, also provides a detailed analysis of the book's genre, language and style without losing sight of Orwell's political intentions.

The Halas and Batchelor animated version of Animal Farm is a more questionable resource. Condemned by one critic as a "wilful misrepresentation" of Orwell's intention, the cartoon differs from the book in several important ways, notably by providing a happy ending. The film also downplays and confuses the book's political context: the figure of Old Major resembles Winston Churchill, rather than Marx or Lenin.

Orwell's essays are often overlooked in discussions of his style and techniques, but provide a useful comparison with the detached narrative stance evident in Animal Farm. A close reading of A Hanging (1931) exposes the techniques Orwell uses to bring the reader round to his point of view: his use of a deceptively "transparent" tone to hide emotive details (the condemned man's side-stepping of a puddle on the way to the gallows, for instance), and the subtle use of rhetorical devices, such as antithesis, to convince the reader, in an apparently detached report, of the inhumanity of the essay's central event.

Orwell's concern with the use and misuse of language is central to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell's Newspeak, and its ability to make thoughts not approved of by the party "literally unthinkable", is anticipated in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, which reminds us of the way in which euphemisms such as "pacification" (or the modern terms "friendly fire" and "collateral damage") can be used to disguise the reality of the events they describe.

More ambitious Year 12 classes could examine Orwell's comments on style in the same essay. Orwell's guidelines for writing prose, the need to choose words carefully for their meaning rather than "tacking" them together "like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house", for instance, could teach students to think of themselves as writers with their own responsibilities to language.

Nineteen Eighty-Four entered the examination system later than Animal Farm, appearing as an A-level text in the mid 1960s. The novel's vision of mass culture or "prolefeed" - "rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology" invites comparisons with the tabloid press and today's celebrity culture. Over the course of a fortnight students can compare the differing news stories represented in tabloid and broadsheet daily papers and how celebrity magazines such as Now and Heat treat events in the same period. Essays such as The Art of Donald McGill (1942) and Boys Weeklies (1940) provide a contrast to this, demonstrating a more benign view of contemporary mass culture.

Orwell's concern with the role of the media has its parallels in today's debates over "spin" and "news management". Squealer's role in Animal Farm and the activities of the Ministry of Truth find their counterparts in today's spin doctors, press briefings and public relations exercises. The media's presentation of the recent war in Iraq and the extensive coverage of its aftermath acts as an accessible case study for students - albeit one that requires sensitive handling. Students studying Nineteen Eighty-Four can be given a series of acts or a briefing on a news story or Government campaign and asked, as workers at the ministry, to rewrite events to support an opposing viewpoint, in the form of a press release, newspaper article or news report, and choose suitable images or "footage" to reinforce their message.

What the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm would make of television programmes such as Big Brother and Room 101 we can only guess.

However, if his statement in Why I Write that: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude" is anything to go by, there is probably some soil spinning in an Oxfordshire churchyard.

Further resourcesIn addition to Michael Radford's film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (starring John Hurt and Richard Burton), Nigel Keane's controversial BBC adaptation of the novel is available from the British Film Institute at

George Orwell: A Life

By Bernard Crick

Penguin pound;12.99

Orwell: The Life

By DJ Taylor

Chatto amp; Windus


George Orwell

By Gordon Bowker

Little Brown pound;20

George Orwell's Essays

Penguin pound;9.99

Selected Essays

By George Orwell, John Carey (introduction)

Everyman pound;20

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