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The genius of George Orwell

Back when I was a university student contemplating a topic for my English Literature Honours thesis, I thought it might be interesting to examine the early works of George Orwell, one of my favourite writers at the time.

After twelve months of immersing myself in biographies, literacy criticism, opinion pieces and pretty much the entire Orwell canon, I was ready for a break. Unfortunately for me, nearly every birthday and Christmas for years after, well-meaning friends and family continued to give me Orwell-inspired gifts.

Last month I decided that enough time had passed to rekindle my interest in the man many rate as one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. And so I found myself at the Fitzroy Library for the launch of Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe, a fictionalised account of Orwell’s writing of his final and perhaps best-known work, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Glover’s research relates to a possible change to the original text of Nineteen Eighty-Four, originally attributed to an error in the printing process. Towards the conclusion of the novel, in a sign he has been totally broken by Big Brother’s totalitarian regime, the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, writes the equation 2 + 2 = 5. However, Glover discovered he owned an edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four printed in Orwell’s lifetime where the ‘5’ was replaced with a ‘?’.

It might not seem like much, but as Glover explains in this article from the Age newspaper, the insertion of the question mark suggests that even after being subjected to torture, Smith is still capable of resisting through a simple act of ‘thought crime’. It casts a very different light on the novel’s conclusion and, as Glover notes, could have been an attempt by the author (who died of tuberculosis six months after its publication) to modify an ending he had previously expressed dissatisfaction with.

I have written previously on the legal case where the absence of a comma cost a US trucking company $13 million, so I am very interested in how small changes to language can make a big difference to meaning. I think few writers have understood this fact as well as George Orwell.

So, I’m looking forward to reading my signed copy of The Last Man in Europe, and after that I might even re-read my Ralph Steadman illustrated 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm.   

Photo: Public domain

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