Although George Orwell is probably best known for the two novels he wrote late in his life, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), his reputation as an essayist clearly ranks with the finest of the 20th century. His achievement is something of an anomaly given the artistic and cultural movements of the 1930s and 1940s when he produced the majority of his essays. At a time when the Modernists were struggling to produce a new aesthetic and traditionalists were reviving classical forms, a writer who willingly sacrificed the literary integrity of his work for political purposes must have seemed altogether beyond the pale.
In “Why I Write” (1946), a landmark essay on the writer’s life, Orwell examines the motives behind literary production, including sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. To some degree, he finds these various impulses to be beyond the writer’s control. His own natural inclination would have led him to write less polemical works, but the exigencies of his time—deprivation of human rights in the
British Empire, massive unemployment among the working classes in England, the rise of fascism in Europe—made it impossible for him to retreat to the novel of manners or elegiac poetry. His experience in the Spanish Civil War was pivotal in driving him to sublimate his literary ambitions to political necessity. He was also transparent about the nature of his political motives: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism.”
However, Orwell did not think that political writing was necessarily devoid of artistic merit. In his own writing, he clearly distinguished rapidly produced newspaper articles and reviews from more significant essays that combined political purpose and aesthetic enthusiasm. Instead of identifying writers as essayists or journalists, OrwelPs tendency is to connect the essay to the conditions of publication. He produced a steady stream of “potboilers” for most of his life which were written primarily for the money, including the radio scripts he produced for the BBC during World War II. Interspersed with these ephemeral creations were the carefully crafted essays written for important journals such as Adelphi, Horizon, and the Partisan Review.
Of course, writing that is motivated by political purpose can potentially undermine the aesthetic achievement of the text. In “Why I Write” Orwell recalls a conversation with one of his critics about Homage to Catalonia (1938), his book on the Spanish Civil War.
The majority of the book describes Orwell’s experiences as a foot soldier in a badly disorganized army. His depiction of the war has the qualities we associate with a great novel: vivid description, interesting characters, suspenseful action. However, the political purpose which motivated his writing was the need to alert the West to the betrayal of the ordinary soldiers and workers by their duplicitous leaders. For this reason, Orwell spends a chapter in the book describing the political in-fighting among the various Marxist factions in the war. Orwell’s critics argued that this chapter should have been omitted in order to maintain the artistic integrity of the book. Orwell believed passionately that to delete this chapter would have undermined the whole purpose of the book.
Still, the aesthetic failure of Homage to Catalonia led Orwell to look for new ways to “fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” His search led him to examine the work of many canonical writers who were “political” to one degree or another. In “Charles Dickens” (1940), Orwell noted that although everyone is sure that Dickens is politically motivated, no one can be sure what his politics are. He is claimed by both Marxists and Christians, proletariat and bourgeoisie. He is assumed to be a reformer, but he is as cynical about reformers as he is about capitalists and landowners.
In essence, Dickens’ political philosophy can be summed up as behaving decently toward one another. In this essay Orwell clearly stipulates that “all art is propaganda,” but he quickly adds “not all propaganda is art.” One of the things that defines the great writer, he believes, is the ability to avoid the party line, to write honestly and independently. The eccentricity, and even inconsistency, of Dickens’ work is a sign of his genius.
Orwell takes up this theme again in “Politics vs. Literature” (1946), his examination of Jonathan Swift’s moral philosophy as expounded in Gulliver’s Travels. Orwell was a great admirer of Swift’s work, and no one can read Animal Farm without recognizing Orwell’s indebtedness to Swift’s satire. On the other hand, Swift’s Tory politics were completely antithetical to an avowed socialist. Can such literature be “good” if it espouses a false world view? For Orwell the answer is clearly “yes.” He argues first that what represents a false world view can only be understood within the political possibilities of a particular age. But beyond this, Orwell is willing to separate artistic achievement from political progressivism: “The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.” It is worth noting that Orweli considers talent to be virtually synonymous with conviction. For him a writer need not possess the “correct” world view, but he must hold some view with conviction in order to succeed as an artist.
Perhaps even more problematic for Orwell as a writer was the nature of his own political convictions. He was well aware that most art was inherently elitist and aristocratic. Good books were produced by and for the upper classes. As a proponent of “democratic Socialism” what sort of “art” was possible for the serious writer? Orwell grappled with this dilemma in many of his major essays.
One consequence of his socialist position was a tendency to savage the cultural elite.
Yeats is a fascist (“W.B.Yeats,” 1943); H.G.Wells is out of touch with reality (“Wells, Hitler and the World State,” 1941); Shaw writes “cracker-mottoes” (“Rudyard Kipling,” 1946); Salvador Dalí is decadent (“Benefit of Clergy,” 1946); even Gandhi comes in for some criticism (“Reflections on Gandhi,” 1949). On the other hand, he often defends the most unlikely heroes. He rehabilitates Kipling, who was, without doubt, a “jingo
Imperialist,” but who spoke the language of the common people. In fact, Orwell identifies a whole genre of what he calls “good bad poetry.” In essence, this is poetry that gives pleasure to the masses; it is a “graceful monument to the obvious.” Even more remarkably, Orwell defends the German broadcasts of P.G.Wodehouse, which were considered treasonous by many British citizens. As someone who had dedicated his life against fascism, how could Orwell defend a German sympathizer during the war?
Furthermore, how could he defend Wodehouse’s novels, which seemed tailor-made for Orwell’s socialist critique? At first, such a defense must seem pure perversity on Orwell’s part. More likely, however, is that Orwell sees in Wodehouse a harmless dupe, much less guilty of abetting the enemy than his accusers, many of whom had cheered the policy of appeasement in 1938.
Perhaps OrwelPs sympathy for Wodehouse sprang from his own sense of culpability as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. Some of his best essays reflect upon his experience in Burma. One of his earliest essays, “A Hanging” (1931), is a chilling description of the death of a Burmese native and the inhumanity of his executioners.
“Shooting an Elephant” (1936) displays Orwell’s self-loathing as a British officer who is trapped between his hatred of the Empire, which is clearly morally indefensible, and his hatred of the people, who take every opportunity to humiliate their oppressors. The irony of the essay is that he ultimately shoots the elephant, not because it represents a real threat, but “solely to avoid looking a fool.” The dilemma of those serving the Empire is also the theme of Orwell’s early novel, Burmese Days (1934).
Another theme running through many of Orwell’s essays is his sympathy for the lower classes. After returning from Burma, Orwell more or less deliberately plunged into a life of poverty. These experiences were recorded in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). One of Orwell’s last essays is also drawn from his experience when taken ill in France. “How the Poor Die” (wr. 1946, pub. 1950) describes the degrading medical treatment given to the destitute in public hospitals. Even after Orwell resumed middleclass life, he often disguised himself as a tramp in order to understand the hardships of the lower class. His experiences are recorded in articles such as “The Spike” (1931) and “Common Lodging Houses” (1932). Some of them were included in his 1935 novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. Ultimately, they led to his first popular success, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), a description of unemployed laborers in the north of England.
One other recurring theme in Orwell’s essays is his attachment to childhood. In his weekly articles for the Tribune, he sometimes returned to childhood pleasures, as in his “Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1946) and “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” (1946). He was also one of the earliest critics to consider the effect of popular children’s literature on the formation of political principles. His review of “Boys’ Weeklies” (1940), though erring in some factual details, argues that the stories contained in such papers are all tracts for conservative, if not fascist, points of view. It is perhaps fitting that his last major essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys” (wr. 1947, pub. 1953), treats the subject of his boarding school education. In this essay, many of Orwell’s lifelong themes—contempt for authority, sympathy for the oppressed, and a love of simple pleasures—readily coalesce.
Orwell’s principal contribution to the essay was his unification of political purpose and human sympathy into a genre that was largely divided between ideological diatribe on the one hand and sentimental recollection on the other. As a stylist, he contributed unforgettable passages of prose. No one who has watched Orwell’s elephant die can soon forget it: “He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down.”
The early criticism of Orwell, coming in the political climate of the Cold War, was frequently devoted to illuminating Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian state. Contemporary studies of Orwell have focused more on the effects of technology on human privacy and the connections between language and bureaucratic institutions of all kinds. His essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946) is considered foundational to understanding the influence of language on political decision-making. He argues forcefully that political chicanery not only debases language, but that bad habits of language undermine the political process. His view that language is not morally neutral—expounded both here and in the “Newspeak” addendum to Nineteen Eighty-Four—has had a profound impact on both the practice of the essay and the nature of political discourse in our times.
Born Eric Arthur Blair, 25 June 1903 in Motihari, Bengal. Moved with mother and sister to England, 1904. Studied at St. Cyprian’s, Eastbourne, Sussex, 1911–16; Wellington School, Somerset, 1917; Eton College, Berkshire, 1917–21. Member of the Imperial Indian Police in Burma, 1921–27. Lived in London, 1927 and 1930–31, and Paris, 1928– 29; teacher and bookshop clerk, 1929–36. Reviewer for the New English Weekly, 1935–
36, Time and Tide, 1940–41, the Tribune, 1940–47 (literary editor, 1943–45), and Horizon, 1940–49. Married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, 1936 (died, 1945): one adopted son.
Shopkeeper, Wallingford, Hertfordshire, 1936–40. Went to Spain as a journalist and served in the United Marxist Workers’ Party militia in Catalonia, 1937: wounded in the neck. Served in the Home Guards, 1940–43. Columnist of “London Letter,” Partisan Review, New York, 1941–46; coeditor, Searchlight Books series, Secker and Warburg publishers, London, 1941–42; talks producer in the Empire Department, BBC, London,
1941–43; contributor, the Observer, London, 1942–49 (war correspondent, 1945); columnist, Manchester Evening News, 1943–46. Lived on Jura, Hebrides Islands, Scotland, 1946–47. Married Sonia Mary Brownell, 1949. Died (of tuberculosis) in London, 21 January 1950.
Essays and Related Prose
Inside the Whale, and Other Essays, 1940
The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, 1941
Critical Essays, 1946; as Dickens, Dali and Others: Studies in Popular Culture, 1946
The English People, 1947
Shooting an Elephant, and Other Essays, 1950
England, Your England and Other Essays, 1953; as Such, Such Were the Joys, 1953
A Collection of Essays, 1954
The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage, edited by Richard H.Rovere, 1956
Selected Essays, 1957; as Inside the Whale and Other Essays, 1965
Collected Essays, 1961
Decline of English Murder and Other Essays, 1965
The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols., 1968
The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, 1984
Other writings: six novels (Burmese Days, 1934; A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935; Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936; Coming Up for Air, 1939; Animal Farm, 1945; Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949) and three volumes of reportage (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933; The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937; Homage to Catalonia, 1938).
Hammond, J.R., “Select Bibliography,” in his A George Orwell Companion, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982:266–74
Meyers, Jeffrey, and Valerie Meyers, George Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, New York: Garland, 1977
Aldritt, Keith, The Making of George Orwell: An Essay in Literary History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, and London: Arnold, 1969
Atkins, John, George Orwell: A Literary Study, London: Calder, and New York: Ungar, 1971 (original edition, 1955)
Bal, Sant Singh, George Orwell: The Ethical Imagination, New Delhi: Arnold- Heinemann, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981
Bolton, W.F., The Language of 1984: Orwell’s English and Ours, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1984
Gardner, Averil, “Orwell the Essayist,” in her George Orwell, Boston: Twayne, 1987:80– 95
Good, Graham, “George Orwell: Myth and Counter-myth,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:151–75
Gross, Miriam, editor, The World of George Orwell, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972
Hammond, J.R., “The Essays,” in his A George Orwell Companion, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982:187–227
Harris, Harold J., “Orwell’s Essays and 1984,” Twentieth Century Literature 4 (1959):154–61
Kubal, David L., Outside tbe Whale: George Orwell’s Art and Politics, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972
Meyers, Jeffrey, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975; Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield Adams, 1977
Meyers, Jeffrey, editor, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975
Oldsey, Bernard, and Joseph Browne, editors, Critical Essays on George Orwell, Boston: Hall, 1986
Patai, Daphne, The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984
Rees, Richard, George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory, London: Secker and Warburg, and Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961
Wemyss, Courtney T., and Alexej Ugrinsky, editors, George Orwell, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987
Williams, Raymond, Orwell, London: Collins, 1971; as George Orwell, New York: Viking, 1971
Williams, Raymond, editor, George Orwell: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974
Woodcock, George, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell, Boston: Little Brown, 1966; London: Cape, 1967
Zwerdling, Alex, Orwell and the Left, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1974
►→ back to ►→ Encyclopedia of THE ESSAY
- *George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty Four
- George Orwell. Animal Farm
- George Orwell. Burmese Days
- George Orwell. Critical Essays
- George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London
- George Orwell. Fifty Essays
- George Orwell. Homage to Catalonia
- George Orwell. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters
- What does George Orwell Have to Tell us About Social Metaphysics?
- *George Orwell – Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. My Country Right or Left
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 1. New Words
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 10. Letter to John Lehmann
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 11. Prophecies of Fascism
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 12. Letter to James Laughlin
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 13. Charles Reade
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 14. The Proletarian Writer
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 15. Review. Landfall by Nevil Shute; Nailcruncher by Albert Cohen, translated from the French by Vyvyan Holland
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 17. The Lion and the Unicorn : Socialism and the English Genius
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 18. Letter to the Reverend Iorwerth Jones
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 19. London Letter to Partisan Review
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 2. Review. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (unabridged translation)
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 20. The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 21. Tolstoy and Shakespeare
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 22. The Meaning of a Poem
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 23. Literature and Totalitarianism
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 24. Letter to Dorothy Plowman
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 25. Wells, Hitler and the World State
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 26. London Letter to Partisan Review
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 3. Notes on the Way
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 4. Letter to Rayner Heppenstall
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 5. Review. Personal Record 1928-1939 by Julian Green, translated by Jocelyn Godefroi
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 6. Letter to Rayner Heppenstall
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 7. (Autobiographical Note)
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 8. Review. The Totalitarian Enemy by F. Borkenau
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 9. Letter to the Editor of Time and Tide
- *George Orwell – Fifty Essays.
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. A GOOD WORD FOR THE VICAR OF BRAY
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. A HANGING (1931)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. A NICE CUP OF TEA (1946)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. ANTISEMITISM IN BRITAIN (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. ARTHUR KOESTLER (1944)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. BOOKS VS. CIGARETTES
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. BOOKSHOP MEMORIES (1936)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. CHARLES DICKENS (1940)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. CHARLES READE (1940)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK REVIEWER
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. DECLINE OF THE ENGLISH MURDER
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. FREEDOM OF THE PARK (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. FUTURE OF A RUINED GERMANY (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. GOOD BAD BOOKS
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. HOW THE POOR DIE
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. IN DEFENCE OF P. G. WODEHOUSE (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. INSIDE THE WHALE (1940)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. LEAR, TOLSTOY AND THE FOOL
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. LOOKING BACK ON THE SPANISH WAR (1942)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. MARK TWAIN–THE LICENSED JESTER (1943)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. MARRAKECH (1939)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. NONSENSE POETRY
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. NORTH AND SOUTH (FROM “THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER”) (1937)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. NOTES ON NATIONALISM (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. PLEASURE SPOTS
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. POETRY AND THE MICROPHONE (1943)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. PROFESSOR LANCELOT HOGBEN (INTERGLOSSA)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. RAFFLES AND MISS BLANDISH (1944)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. REFLECTIONS ON GANDHI
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. REVENGE IS SOUR (1945)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. RIDING DOWN FROM BANGOR
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. RUDYARD KIPLING (1942)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT (1936)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. Shopkeepers at War
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. SOME THOUGHTS ON THE COMMON TOAD
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. SPILLING THE SPANISH BEANS (1937)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. SUCH, SUCH WERE THE JOYS (1947)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. THE ART OF DONALD MCGILL (1941)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. THE PREVENTION OF LITERATURE
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. THE SPIKE
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. THE SPORTING SPIRIT
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. W. B. YEATS (1943)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. WHY I WRITE (1946)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. WRITERS AND LEVIATHAN (1948)
- George Orwell – Fifty Essays. YOU AND THE ATOMIC BOMB (1945)
- George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. 16. London Letter to Partisan Review
- *Orwell, George
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