George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons

Course No. 2454
Professor Michael Shelden, PhD
Indiana State University
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Course No. 2454
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine how the young Orwell was shaped by his experiences at a severe English boarding school.
  • Discover the inspiration behind "Shooting the Elephant" and Orwell's other landmark essays.
  • Learn how Orwell was inspired by writers including Jonathan Swift, H. G. Wells, and James Joyce.
  • Follow Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and other books on the road to publication.
  • Make sense of Orwell's views on personal freedom, liberty, and the threat of totalitarianism.

Course Overview

Even if you’ve never read a single word written by George Orwell, you’re probably familiar with his name. His style and perspective are so distinct, we have transformed his name into an adjective, one that conjures a nightmare vision of misleading terminology, state surveillance, and distorted history. When something is described as “Orwellian,” it means authority reigns supreme—and freedom is nowhere to be found.

Much like Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy have come to represent the literature of their nations, Orwell captured and conveyed the spirit of Great Britain in the first half of the 20th century like no other writer of his generation. In essays like “Such, Such Were the Joys,” nonfiction reports like Down and Out in Paris and London, and novels like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell laid bare the hopes and fears, the hardships and triumphs of the British people.

But George Orwell was more than just a writer. He was a political and social sage who valued, above all else, individual freedom. He was a champion of individuality in the face of authoritarian regimes. That’s one reason why, more than 60 years after his untimely death, Orwell’s struggles are still our struggles. The concepts he invented in his fiction—Big Brother, doublespeak, 2+2=5—have always felt as if they are on the cusp of becoming reality. As a civilization, we’re constantly standing on that precipice, and Orwell reminds us where our values lie. His works aren’t just entertainment—they’re cautionary tales and red flags of warning. And if we ever hope to understand threats to freedom and how to stop them, we have to learn from them.

In George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons, join Orwell’s authorized biographer, Professor Michael Shelden of Indiana State University, for a 24-lecture journey through the life and times that shaped this profound writer and his eerily prescient masterpieces. From Orwell’s youth in Edwardian England to his formative experiences abroad in colonial Burma and revolutionary Spain to his internal war with socialism and authoritarian regimes, you’ll learn how the man born Eric Blair forged himself into a writer of international importance and renown. Rooted in Professor Shelden’s interviews with Orwell’s friends and lovers—and his own astute literary analysis of all of Orwell’s major works—this course is a one-of-a-kind portrait of the modern world’s greatest champion of individuality. If you’re new to Orwell’s body of work, Professor Shelden will have you rushing to your nearest bookstore or library. If you are already familiar with any of Orwell’s work, he’ll add new layers of understanding and appreciation to this undeniable titan of English literature.

Unpack the Truths inside Orwell’s Masterpieces

While many consider George Orwell’s bigger themes to be “what is truth?” Professor Shelden demonstrates he is asking a much more provocative question: “What is it about the truth that we don’t want to know?” While Orwell didn’t believe truth was unknowable, he did question whether we as people had the will to know the truth, to face it, and to truly accept it.

A mix of historical inquiry, literary analysis, and cultural biography, George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons gets at the truth of British life in the opening decades of the 20th century. These lectures cover the creation, reception, and implication of Orwell’s work, whether they’re recounting the idylls of a country churchyard or the terrors of civil war in Spain.

  • Burmese Days: This novel from 1934 uses a fictional cast of colonial masters and natives to dramatize the conflicts Orwell witnessed during his time as a policeman in imperial Burma. Professor Shelden shows you how Orwell captured the conflicting demands of the British Empire and the actual needs of Burma, and why Burmese Days is a scathing treatment of bigotry among the ruling elite. At one point in the novel, Orwell ridicules two devoted British imperialists for their petty argument over which of them has the right to kick the servants at their club.
  • Homage to Catalonia: This book of reportage from Orwell’s years in revolutionary Spain was the author’s first real masterpiece. While it was supposed to be a straightforward account of an international fight for freedom, Professor Shelden reveals it as a passionate defense of individuals resisting oppression. Homage to Catalonia contains touching tributes to countless acts of heroism, and the real homage isn’t to merely one country but to all places where good men and women sacrifice everything in the name of liberty.
  • Animal Farm: The most successful trick Orwell pulls in this short, but powerful, book is the transition from satire to tragedy. A story that begins in the soft tones of a children’s book gradually descends into fear and terror. Hate and envy replace an earlier mood of cooperation and—like the Soviets under the rule of Joseph Stalin—the world is torn apart by false recriminations and paranoia. The pigs go from cute to devilish because Orwell sees it as the inevitable effect of the perversion of their revolution.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four: Just as Jonathan Swift turned his satiric guns on the Whigs and Tories of his day by inventing Lilliput for their inflated egos, so, too, did Orwell create Big Brother’s empire of Oceania as a parallel world for the scheming communists, socialists, capitalists, and anarchists of Orwell’s day. As Professor Shelden notes, what saves Nineteen Eighty-Four from being a merely topical satire is the same thing that saves Gulliver’s Travels from that same fate—a depth of imagination that transforms the particular into the universal.

What Made Orwell a Citizen of the World?

As you will see throughout the lectures, George Orwell’s impressive body of work wasn’t just the result of crisp prose and a razor-sharp imagination, but deeply shaped by the events of his life as well.

In his lectures, Professor Shelden takes you on a chronological journey through Orwell’s life and times, from his youth in Edwardian England to his formative experiences at boarding school (captured in the brilliant essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys”) to his being shot through the neck by a sniper while serving as a freedom fighter against the forces of General Franco. You’ll examine the experiences—and the people—Orwell drew upon when forging himself into a writer and a citizen of the world.

For example, you’ll learn how:

  • Orwell’s template for a paradise of individual freedom sprung from his relatively happy life as a young, middle-class boy in the Thames Valley pursuing simple outdoor pleasures and boyish pursuits;
  • The two months Orwell spent in the north of England interviewing impoverished factory workers for the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier pushed the author closer toward socialism;
  • Working at the BBC during World War II taught him the sobering facts of how large organizations can create justifications for meaningless activity, and how they can persuade workers to take this work seriously;
  • Orwell’s wife Eileen, who was trained in psychological research, helped make Orwell a shrewd observer of human nature—and even influenced the psychological horrors that would come to define Nineteen Eighty-Four; and
  • His efforts to visualize the postwar future, especially the isolation that plagued society’s lonely and forlorn, were influenced by the artistic experiments of the painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

A Powerful Blend of Literary Analysis and Biography

A consummate scholar, Professor Shelden brings to George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons the same level of depth and insight he brought to his authorized biography of George Orwell, which was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

His powerful blending of literary and biographical analysis—which can also be found in his biographies of other titans of letters, including Mark Twain and Herman Melville—are complemented in this course by period photographs and illustrations, rich excerpts from Orwell’s literary canon, and rare insights from interviews with some of Orwell’s contemporaries.

“What Orwell envisioned was not a world of perfect truths,” Professor Shelden says. “He envisioned a world in which lies are more difficult to tell, and more difficult to live with.”

Here, in one comprehensive course, is a compendium of all Orwell’s many personas: the writer brave enough to speak truth to power, the soldier willing to sacrifice his life for others, the citizen willing to expose the injustices of his own country, and the sage for freedom-loving civilizations everywhere.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 26 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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." x
  • 5
    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." x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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." x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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). x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 14
    Totalitarianism and the 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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."" x

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  • Bibliography

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Your professor

Michael Shelden

About Your Professor

Michael Shelden, PhD
Indiana State University
Michael Shelden is 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. Professor Shelden is the author of six biographies, including Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, which has been translated into Russian, Chinese, and...
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