Bumming Smokes in Paris and London

George Orwell’s Obsession with Tobacco

by Josh Indar

18 June 2009


Smoking and the Humanization of the Pig

Smoking and the Humanization of the Pig

A society that can’t produce a decent cigarette, Orwell seems to be saying, can’t be a decent place to live.

Orwell wrote his most famous and lasting works, Animal Farm and 1984, in the five years prior to his death. Animal Farm, due to its largely non-human cast, can be found in the non-smoking section of the Orwell library. It includes only one tobacco reference, in which Napoleon the Stalinesque pig appears “strolling in the farmhouse garden with a pipe in his mouth.”

Here, smoking represents the humanization of the pig (which works in a much more sinister way for Orwell than it does for, say, E.B. White), as it allegorizes the farm’s political transformation from revolutionary utopia to communist dictatorship. The pipe was also a nod to real-life dictator Josef Stalin, whose pipe-smoking became not only iconic, but a barometer of his famously mercurial mood swings.

cover art

Animal Farm

George Orwell

(1st World Library)
US: Sep 2004

While Orwell’s reliance on tobacco as a literary device waned in his later years, especially when compared to the excessive smoking references in Down and Out in Paris and London, he again found much use for the device in his most well-known book, 1984. The first reference occurs early and helps set the bleak tone of the novel. It also hints at themes that will be brought out later, giving the reader insight into the doomed life of protagonist Winston Smith and the hopeless and bizarre world he inhabits. As Smith attempts to steel himself for the criminal act of writing in his diary, he slugs a belt of gin and tries to light a cigarette:

He took a cigarette from a crumpled packet marked VICTORY CIGARETTES and incautiously held it upright, whereupon the tobacco fell out onto the floor.

This seemingly innocuous sentence brings out several key aspects of Smith’s struggle. First, it speaks to the general shoddiness of life in Oceania, where nothing seems to work right and nothing is as it seems. A society that can’t produce a decent cigarette, Orwell seems to be saying, can’t be a decent place to live.

But aside from this rather obvious meaning, a second fundamental aspect of life in Oceania is highlighted by Orwell’s use of the VICTORY brand, which is featured on every commodity available in Oceania. There’s a double irony intended here, as one wonders how a country can win a victory in anything if it can’t keep tobacco from falling out of a cigarette. But the more subtle and sour half of the joke only becomes clear after Orwell describes how Oceania works.

Because the country’s economy is based on constant warfare, the word “victory” has come to mean something far short of winning, something closer to “Sisyphean struggle”. For while the people of Oceania are constantly urged to make sacrifices in the name of victory, an actual victory would mean the cessation of hostilities, and therefore the economic death of state.

In this way, the ubiquitous and duplicitous brand name introduces the concept of Doublethink, in which the word for one thing carries the meaning of its opposite. Control of language is essential to controlling the population in 1984, and the VICTORY brand shows how culturally embedded the technique has become.

cover art


George Orwell

reissue: Jul 1950

Much of 1984’s emotional traction comes from Orwell’s frightening vision of a state that has the means to control the most intimate and private details of its citizens’ lives. The most effective and fearsome example of this is found in the inner party’s control over the sex lives of Oceanians.

Orwell delves into this theme explicitly, using Smith’s relationship with his strident young lover, Julia, to explore the link between erotic passion and political power. Smith is drawn to Julia for many reasons, the most important being, according to Smith, that “The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion.”

This revelation is made by Smith in the process of describing a nauseating hook-up with an aging prostitute, whom Smith writes about in his diary. But the setup to the diary scene occurs two pages earlier, when Smith is struck by “a horrible pang of terror” because Julia glances at him in a crowded cafeteria. After he looks away, “the remaining tobacco fell out of his cigarette.”

This reference to a suddenly limp cigarette, sandwiched as it is between Smith’s painful longing for Julia and his embarrassment over the two-dollar-whore affair, is clearly symbolic of impotence, both the sexual variety and as a manifestation of political powerlessness.  (The limp cigarette as a symbol of impotence was also used as in a recent anti-tobacco ad campaign designed to convince smokers that the habit makes one unable to achieve an erection. Evidence that smoking can cause or exacerbate impotence has been presented by the American Journal of Epidemiology, the British Medical Association and others.)

Smith’s ability to perform sexually is a cornerstone of his rebellion against the state, and helps create his self-image of being “The Last Man in Europe” (the original title for 1984). In this context, there can be no doubt that Orwell intended to link the state’s anti-sex stance with its production of self-deflating cigarettes. Just as VICTORY gin keeps the public stupid and sedate, VICTORY cigarettes keep them flaccid and sexually dead, and thus unable to feel real passion for life.

Without that passion, Orwell asserts, people are little more than livestock, easily manipulated for political or economic gain. Smith’s eventual betrayal of Julia reinforces this concept, as his love for her is coercively transferred to the sexless and oppressive image of Big Brother, a clear example of the state’s ultimate control over his most intimate desires.

Orwell also uses tobacco to show the discrepancies between standards of living among the different classes of Oceania, where the vast majority smoke VICTORYs and the inner party smokes “very good cigarettes, very thick and well-packed, with an unfamiliar silkiness in the paper.”

Smith learns this when he calls on O’Brien, the inner party inquisitor whom Smith stupidly unburdens himself to. Smith and O’Brien’s interaction over the sharing of tobacco is a classic Orwell moment, showing how small commonalities can momentarily transcend vast differences in class and ideology.

O’Brien, pretending to be a fellow revolutionary, offers a smoke from a silver case while Smith watches him in homoerotic awe: “… there was a remarkable grace in his movements. It came out even in the gesture with which he thrust a hand into his pocket, or manipulated a cigarette.” O’Brien, of course, has no intention of leaving the inner party for some imagined revolution. On the contrary, he later tortures Smith ruthlessly in order to cleanse his mind of such thoughtcrimes. In the meantime though, as long as they are smoking together, O’Brien and Smith are pals.

1984 turned out to be Orwell’s swan song. Just as Smith is aware from the first page onward that his own demise is imminent, Orwell must have known while he was writing the book that his illness would soon destroy him. But he was able to stave off death long enough for his name to be thrust into the English lexicon as shorthand for the dystopian society he created in 1984.

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