One of the first pieces of information given to students when studying 1984 by George Orwell is the fact that the novel is heavily influenced by the reign of terror during World War II. Using these resources and activity ideas, students will instead discover where Orwell's ideas originated using two invaluable documents: both written by Orwell himself.
Using "Why I Write"
"Why I Write" is a literary essay penned by Orwell in 1946. It was published in the literary magazine Gangrel, and gives a unique and thorough look into the author's motivation for writing. Before 1984, Orwell wrote many firsthand accounts of his world travels, frequently interacting with squalor and tumultuous locations. This essay was written right after Animal Farm and foreshadows the writing of 1984 with bizarre lines such as "I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write."
Of particular note in this document are Orwell's explanations of the four motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. If this document is read after reading 1984, students can explain which motive best applies to 1984, or even rate the four motives in order of relevancy to the novel. Having the students cite direct textual evidence from the essay, novel, or both is of particular usefulness. Additionally, the following line from the end of the essay is excellent for sparking a spirited discussion or debate:
"All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."
Using the letter to Noel Wilmett
This extraordinary letter, originally published in George Orwell: A Life in Letters, gives insight into Orwell's political beliefs in the turbulent times of World War II. To give some time perspective, D-Day occurred less than a month after this letter was written (June 6th, 1944). Orwell immediately leaps into his opinions regarding totalitarianism, which are not quite as obvious as one might think, with lines including that "the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people." Counterintuitive lines like this are great for starting discussion.
The connections to 1984 are incredibly clear here, and Orwell alludes to many concepts blatant in the novel:
"Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible."
Between the notion of history not existing, the idea of two and two being five, and the presence of two or three great superstates, the letter seems to be a direct precursor to 1984. Students can construct an essay analyzing how this letter foreshadows the writing of the novel, or write an analysis of how George Orwell's specific political views in the letter parallel Winston's beliefs.