George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons
Michael Shelden is a Professor of English at Indiana State University, where he has won the top award for excellence in scholarship, the Theodore Dreiser Distinguished Research/Creativity Award, three times. He earned his PhD in English from Indiana University. He is the author of six biographies, including Orwell: The Authorized Biography, which was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His other Great Courses include How Winston Churchill Changed the World; George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons; and England, the 1960s, and the Triumph of the Beatles.
01: The Real George Orwell
Begin your in-depth encounter with George Orwell by going back to the dramatic moment in May 1937 when he was almost killed by a bullet wound to the throat. As you’ll learn, it was a defining moment that would remake the author and lay the groundwork for his obsession with individual freedom—and his fear of political tyranny.
02: George Orwell, Child of the British Empire
Examine George Orwell’s early life as the son of a man who spent his entire working life helping to perpetuate the worst evils of the British colonial system in the empire’s Opium Department. Orwell learned early on how corrosive lies and omissions can be when politeness blunts the truth.
03: Orwell’s Edwardian Idyll
How did a stubborn sense of English eccentricity take root in the young George Orwell? Find out in this lecture on the author’s boyhood at the town of Henley-on-Thames, which gave Orwell a vision of what he wanted to preserve in the face of a 20th century spinning out of control.
04: Orwell’s Unsentimental Education
In many ways, George Orwell’s school life was a preview of the more ruthless world of oppression he’d set down in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Focus here on a savagely ironic essay by Orwell about his years at St. Cyprian’s boarding school, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” under the rule of the monstrous bully Mrs. Wilkes.
05: Orwell, Eton, and Privilege
Here, Professor Shelden covers George Orwell’s years as a King’s Scholar at Eton. It was this academic institution where the young man would discover the intellectual freedom of novels by H. G. Wells, the rush of the rugby-like “Wall Game,” and a haughty indifference to the carnage of World War I.
06: Orwell the Policeman
At age 19, George Orwell threw himself into a colonial career with the Indian Imperial Police—a job for which he was profoundly unsuited. In this lecture, learn what drew Orwell to turn his back on England and serve the empire in Burma, administering a large police operation overseeing matters of life and death.
07: Orwell and the Imperial Burden
In Burma, George Orwell developed a powerful insight: that imperialism enslaved both its subjects and its masters. See this insight at work in the most famous essay to come from Orwell’s police experience, “Shooting the Elephant,” which offers a convincing portrait of a young imperial master who has lost respect for his job.
08: Orwell’s Lost Generation
Follow George Orwell to Paris, which helped him drain away some of the anger and disappointment with his years in Burma. Though he’s rarely grouped with the Lost Generation of American writers in avant-garde Paris, Orwell, nevertheless, immersed himself in that world so thoroughly it would become the subject for his first book.
09: Orwell, Poet of Poverty
Down and Out in Paris and London transformed George Orwell into one of the 20th century’s most eloquent champions of the economically oppressed. Along with a close look at the writing and reception of the book, you’ll explore an annotated copy of a first edition and what it reveals about the blending of fiction and fact.
10: Orwell and the Battle of Fact and Fiction
George Orwell struggled mightily to find his voice as a writer in a literary world that valued fiction over fact. Uncover the strain of his awkward efforts to build fictional stories in the novel Burmese Days (a scathing treatment of the English elite in Burma) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (an attempt to enter the mind of an ordinary English woman).
11: Orwell and England in the 1930s
Professor Shelden takes you inside two literary works shaped by George Orwell’s experiences in 1930s England. The first, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, was a novel that, in effect, criticized Orwell’s own tendencies toward self-absorption. The second, The Road to Wigan Pier, would document the plight of the working people and push Orwell closer to socialism.
12: Orwell and the Left
Discover why The Road to Wigan Pier marks the opening battle of George Orwell’s long struggle to reconcile the demands of the doctrinaire Left with his own hopes for a world of greater personal freedom and social responsibility. Also, learn about Orwell’s surprising marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy in the spring of 1936.
13: Orwell and the Spanish Crucible
In the summer of 1936, Spanish workers took up arms to oppose General Franco’s revolt against the country—and George Orwell went to observe and write about the war for the British press. Follow Orwell as he quickly becomes not just an observer, but a fighter who himself takes up arms against Franco.
14: Totalitarianism and Lessons of Barcelona
A nearly fatal wound in the throat from a sniper’s bullet. A heartbreaking series of betrayals from his comrades in arms. Learn why George Orwell’s experience in Spain became, for him, a painful lesson in ideological purges, propaganda battles, and Soviet skullduggery that would also open a path to the greatest literary works of his career.
15: Orwell and the Last Days of Peace
Focus on Homage to Catalonia: George Orwell’s first real masterpiece, and a book that refuses to accept easy answers. This autobiographical work, a report on the terrible things being done in the name of a Spanish revolution hijacked by Stalin, became a passionate defense of individuals resisting oppression in the name of liberty.
16: Orwell at the Outbreak of World War
In 1939, George Orwell published a novel that served as a farewell to his youth and to any remaining vestiges of pre-war innocence: Coming Up for Air. Examine the novel’s provocative road to publication, learn about the Orwell family’s wartime misfortunes (including the death of a relative at Dunkirk), and consider how Orwell inspires us today.
17: Orwell and the Art of Propaganda
First, read between the lines of The Lion and the Unicorn, a short book written during the darkest days of the Blitz that serves as a hopeful antithesis to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then, follow George Orwell’s career as an assistant for the BBC, where he was reintroduced to the sobering facts of how large organizations wield the power of censorship.
18: Orwell and the Cultural Underground
Through a series of popular and esoteric essays and reviews, George Orwell became associated with a cultural underground of writers and artists who thrived during the war years. Unpack what some of these fascinating pieces have to say, including “Politics and the English Language,” an attack on jargon and euphemism in public discourse.
19: Orwell and the Fight for Animal Farm
In just 30,000 words, George Orwell risked his reputation to expose the evils of the Soviet system (and the human character). The result was Animal Farm, a satire of Swiftian proportions that remains a trenchant guide to power politics and how tyranny rises. Place this landmark work in the context of Orwell’s beliefs—and fears.
20: Orwell’s Wife and the Life of Writing
In this lecture, Professor Shelden brings together the moving story of the last days of George Orwell’s wife, Eileen, with the story of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He considers Eileen’s influence not just on these two important works, but also on Orwell’s trenchant psychological observations of human nature in his writing.
21: Politics and the English Language
Here, you can spend time in the company of two of George Orwell’s most important postwar essays: “Politics and the English Language” and “The Prevention of Literature.” Both essays, which appeared in 1946, offer an elegantly simple argument: The corruption of society and politics begins, first and foremost, with the corruption of language.
22: Orwell’s Island Escape
Almost all of Nineteen Eighty-Four was written on the remote island of Jura, a place where George Orwell could use the past to model his vision of the future. In addition to Orwell’s life in seclusion, you’ll examine Nineteen Eighty-Four’s connection with Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s connection to two women: Celia Paget and Sonia Brownell.
23: 1984: Big Brother and the Thought Police
Spend an entire lecture immersed in the world of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Read this powerful novel as a great work of political and social insight, a timeless vision of man’s inhumanity to man, and also an autobiography of Orwell’s personal character. Above all, the novel proclaims, the rights of the individual must be sacred.
24: Orwell’s Long Farewell
Conclude these lectures with a look at the last years of George Orwell’s life, including his marriage to Sonia Brownell and his death from tuberculosis. Also, investigate a curious posthumous controversy surrounding a possible spymaster and a notebook of Orwell’s filled with the names of people in the West he considered “Crypto-Communists.”