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Orwell – “….I was no good”

 
George Orwell

George Orwell

I recently read the following George Orwell quote:

    In a world where the prime necessities were money, titled relatives, athleticism, tailor-made clothes, neatly brushed hair, a charming smile, I was no good.

My initial impression was just WOW; what a great sentence.  My eyes lingered over the last four words, “…I am no good.”   The ending conveyed sense of worthlessness and low self esteem.  But its Orwell, “1984” and “Animal Farm” aren’t exactly “feel good” reads.  But he “was no good” compared to what?

So I read it again; paying more attention to the list of social standards to which he was comparing himself.  This time, the quote struck me as strangely uplifting and slightly rebellious.  No, extremely rebellious.  Against the standards of great hair, fashionable clothes, bleached teeth, being “no good” takes on a different meaning doesn’t it. He is cheering you on to be yourself, undaunted by the materialistic world and the shallow impressions of others.  I had to share the quote with someone.

So I called my wife, who is always up for a good quote.  I got the first four words out of my mouth, and she bust into laughter.

In a world…

Just a little back story, I have a pretty deep voice and struggle with smoking.  So when I said “In a world..”, my wife thought I was aping the “movie trailer guy.”  You know the voice.  Read the quote again, and think of it being set to a big James Bond Hollywood action trailer.  Orwell goes from someone with low self esteem to James Bond, kicking the door down and defiantly saying “I was no good.”

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George Orwell's Big Brother

I was struck by how this double meaning is rampant in Orwell’s works.  I read “1984” during the Bush Administration and “Animal Farm” during the Clinton years.  Even though with those two periods of our history were staged in dramatically different environments (.com boom vs. real estate bust, war vs. peace etc.)  Both books were easily connected with the world around me.  Orwell is timeless.   He describes the horror that mankind is capable of and its equal capacity for being complacent in the face of such horror.

I ran across this quote, reading 120 page cliff note type booklet on Orwell’s “1984”.  The booklet was published in 1965.  I thought it would interesting to see how people in the 1960’s related to Orwell.   Quite interesting, indeed.

So what was the context of George Orwell’s quote?  He was describing his experiences at a British prep school.  Orwell was a poor kid that was making his way through the rigid educational system on scholarships and getting by on his smarts and the  goodwill of others.  He felt he was treated vastly different than the well to do, social elite that attended the same school.  This theme seems an ever present inspiration for Orwell.

In many ways his real life mirrored “Animal Farm” and “1984.”   At times his experiences left  him feeling  burdened with low esteem.  At other times, he could appreciate his indiviuality and see the shallowness of socital standards. In this quote, he shows he can elegantly be both at the same time.


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