Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
George Orwell (1903-50), born Eric Arthur Blair, is one of the most important writers of the first half of the twentieth century, and his essays and novels have continued to influence many journalists and writers since his death. The term ‘Orwellian’ has entered the dictionary, and many terms he coined or popularised – from ‘Cold War’ to ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘thought police’ – have become well-known.
But what are George Orwell’s best works – that is, best novels, essays, and works of non-fiction? Below we select ten of his greatest works from across his career.
1. Down and Out in Paris and London.
This was George Orwell’s first published book-length work, in 1933. It’s a memoir of Orwell’s time spent living and sleeping rough in London (spending much time amongst vagrants and people on the fringes of society) as well as washing dishes and living a life of near-destitution in Paris. The book was designed to reveal the hidden squalor of working-class (and even lower-class) life to middle-class readers, much as Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels in the nineteenth century had done.
Recommended edition: Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin Modern Classics)
2. Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
George Orwell also wrote well about petty poverty, the writer’s life (see his ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, also from 1946), and the English obsession with money, usually with having too little of it. And he did all of these in his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which focuses on Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet, who has dreams of making it big in the literary world.
Certainly, he spends his days surrounded by books, quite literally: he works in a small bookshop in London. Gordon had had a well-paid job as an advertising copywriter, but he’d thrown it up in favour of a more modest job so he would be free to write poetry. However, he finds it difficult to get inspired and writes virtually no poetry while working at the bookshop. A long-suffering ‘girlfriend’ of Gordon’s, Rosemary, and his friend, the upper-class Ravelston (a sort of champagne socialist), are the other chief characters in the novel, as we follow Gordon’s journey through rejection, writer’s block, inspiration, selling a poem, celebrating by splashing out and spending all the money he’s earned, and ending up … well, it would be churlish to offer spoilers now, wouldn’t it?
We discuss this novel in more detail here.
Recommended edition: Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Penguin Modern Classics)
3. ‘Shooting an Elephant’.
This is an early Orwell essay, from 1936. In it, he recalls his experiences as a police officer in Burma, when he had to shoot an elephant that had got out of hand. Orwell extrapolates from this one event (which may well have been fictional), seeing it as a microcosm of imperialism, wherein the coloniser loses his humanity and freedom through oppressing others.
We have analysed this essay here.
Recommended edition: Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays (Penguin Modern Classics)
4. The Road to Wigan Pier.
Does Wigan have a pier? Many people think Orwell’s title for this 1937 book – a work of journalism documenting his time spent among working-class people in the industrial north of England – is ironic, because the north-west town of Wigan is inland. But there was a ‘pier’ there: Orwell’s title refers to the coal-loading staithe where wagons from the local colliery were unloaded. Like Down and Out in Paris and London, the book is an important book detailing poverty in the 1930s, and shows Orwell’s commitment to journalistic integrity and first-hand research.
Recommended edition: The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin Modern Classics)
5. Homage to Catalonia.
When civil war between the Republicans and Nationalists broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell travelled out there, like many left-wing intellectuals (the poet W. H. Auden was another). But once he was amongst the fighting, Orwell considered it his duty to join the left-leaning Republicans in their fight against Franco’s fascists, and he ended up enlisting as a soldier. He was shot in the throat and was lucky to survive – and wrote this memoir of his time in Spain during this particularly bloody period of its history.
Recommended edition: Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics)
6. Coming up for Air.
Another early, lighter novel, Coming up for Air was published in June 1939, just three months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The novel follows middle-aged George Bowling as he revisits his boyhood town and discovers how much everything has changed. Although it’s a lighter work, this nostalgic novel still addresses some important social and political themes, notably the effects that capitalism and speculative building were having on rural and semi-rural Britain.
Recommended edition: Coming Up for Air (Penguin Modern Classics)
7. ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’.
Subtitled ‘Socialism and the English Genius’, this is an essay Orwell wrote about Britain in the wake of the outbreak of the Second World War. Published in 1941, this essay takes its title from the heraldic symbols for England (the lion) and Scotland (the unicorn). Orwell argues that some sort of socialist revolution is needed to wrest Britain out of its outmoded ways and an overhaul of the British class system will help Britain to defeat the Nazis.
The long essay contains a section, ‘England Your England’, which is often reprinted as a standalone essay, written as the German bomber planes were whizzing overhead during the Blitz of 1941. This part of the essay is a critique of blind English patriotism during wartime and an attempt to pin down ‘English’ values at a time when England itself was under threat from Nazi invasion.
Recommended edition: The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (Penguin Modern Classics)
8. Animal Farm.
Animal Farm is, after Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s most famous book. Published in 1945, the novella (at under 100 pages, it’s too short to be called a full-blown ‘novel’) tells the story of how a group of animals on a farm overthrow the farmer who puts them to work, and set up an equal society where all animals work and share the fruits of their labours. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear that the society the animals have constructed is not equal at all. It’s well-known that the novella is an allegory for Communist Russia under Josef Stalin, who was leader of the Soviet Union when Orwell wrote the book.
Curiously, the book very nearly didn’t make it into print at all. First, not long after Orwell completed the first draft in February 1944, his flat on Mortimer Crescent in London was bombed in June, and he feared the typescript had been destroyed. Orwell later found it in the rubble. Then, Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher. T. S. Eliot, at Faber and Faber, rejected it (you can read Eliot’s letter to Orwell here). The novella was eventually published the following year, in 1945, and its relevance – as political satire, as animal fable, and as one of Orwell’s two great works of fiction – shows no signs of abating.
We have analysed Animal Farm here.
Recommended edition: Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin Modern Classics)
9. ‘Politics and the English Language’.
The English language is ‘in a bad way’, Orwell argues in this famous essay from 1946. As its title suggests, Orwell identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation: Orwell sees modern political discourse as being less a matter of words chosen for their clear meanings than a series of stock phrases slung together. Orwell concludes with six rules or guidelines for political writers and essayists, which include: never use a long word when a short one will do, or a specialist or foreign term when a simpler English one should suffice.
We have analysed this essay here.
Recommended edition: Politics and the English Language (Penguin Modern Classics)
10. Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This novel often tops the list of ‘books people lie about having read’, with an estimated two-fifths of Brits pretending they’ve read Orwell’s classic dystopian vision in order to look smart. The term ‘Orwellian’, now in common use, shows the influence of this novel, which was initially going to be called The Last Man in Europe.
Focusing on Winston Smith who works for the Ministry of Truth (loosely based on the BBC, where Orwell worked during the Second World War), and featuring Room 101 (based on a room at the BBC where Orwell had to sit through tedious meetings!), and newspeak (thoughtcrime, sexcrime, doubleplusgood, etc.), this novel remains the novel about state surveillance and totalitarianism, and although many people lie about having read it, thousands if not millions are still reading it every year.
Recommended edition: 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics)
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“Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was such a pleasant surprise. Glad you included it.
Many thanks to Dr. Tearle for this concisely written overview of George Orwell, his life, and his writings.
The Everyman edition of Orwell’s ‘Essays’ (1200 pages) is my desert island book. Endlessly rereadable and much better than his fiction in this heretic’s view.