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Essays [Penguin Modern Classics] by George…
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Essays [Penguin Modern Classics] (1984)

by George Orwell

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George Orwell

Essays

Penguin Modern Classics, Paperback, [2000].

8vo. xxv+466 pp. Introduction by Bernard Crick, 1994 [vii-xxv].

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volumes 1-4, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 1968.
Published in Penguin Books, 1968-70.
This volume published as The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, 1984.
Reprinted with an Introduction, 1994.
Reprinted under the current title in Penguin Classics, 2000.

Contents*

Introduction

1. Why I Write [Summer 1946, Gangrel, No. 4]
2. The Spike [Apr 1931, Adelphi]
3. A Hanging [Aug 1931, Adelphi]
4. Shooting an Elephant [Autumn 1936, New Writing, No. 2]
5. Bookshop Memories [Nov 1936, Fortnightly]
6. Marrakech [Christmas 1939, New Writing]
7. Charles Dickens [Apr 1940, Inside the Whale and Other Essays]
8. Boys' Weeklies [Mar 1940, Horizon (abridged)]
9. Inside the Whale [Apr 1940, Inside the Whale and Other Essays]
10. My Country Right or Left [Autumn 1940, Folios of New Writing]
11. The Lion and the Unicorn [19 Feb 1941, Secker & Warburg**]
- I. England Your England
- II. Shopkeepers at War
- III. The English Revolution
12. Wells, Hitler and the World State [Aug 1941, Horizon]
13. The Art of Donald McGill [Sep 1941, Horizon]
14. Rudyard Kipling [Feb 1942, Horizon]
15. Looking Back on the Spanish War [Jun?, 1943, New Road, parts I-III, VII]
16. W. B. Yeats [Jan 1943, Horizon]
17. Poetry and the Microphone [Mar 1945, New Saxon Pamphlet, No. 3]
18. In Defence of English Cooking [15 Dec 1945, Evening Standard]
19. Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali [1946, Critical Essays***]
20. Raffles and Miss Blandish [Oct 1944, Horizon]
21. Arthur Koestler [1946, Critical Essays]
22. Antisemitism in Britain [Apr 1945, Contemporary Jewish Record]
23. In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse [Jul 1945, Windmill, No. 2]
24. Notes on Nationalism [Oct 1945, Polemic, No. 1]
25. Good Bad Books [2 Nov 1945, Tribune]
26. The Sporting Spirit [14 Dec 1945, Tribune]
27. Nonsense Poetry [21 Dec 1945, Tribune]
28. The Prevention of Literature [Jan 1946, Polemic, No. 2]
29. Books v. Cigarettes [8 Feb 1946, Tribune]
30. Decline of the English Murder [15 Feb 1946, Tribune]
31. Politics and the English Language [Apr 1946, Horizon]
32. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad [12 Apr 1946, Tribune]
33. A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray [26 Apr 1946, Tribune]
34. Confessions of a Book Reviewer [3 May 1946, Tribune]
35. Politics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels [Sep–Oct 1946, Polemic, No. 5]
36. How the Poor Die [Nov 1946, Now, No. 6]
37. Riding Down from Bangor [22 Nov 1946, Tribune]
38. Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool [Mar 1947, Polemic, No. 7]
39. Such, Such Were the Joys [Sep–Oct 1952, Partisan Review; written, May 1947]
40. Writers and Leviathan [Summer 1948, Politics and Letters]
41. Reflections on Gandhi [Jan 1949, Partisan Review]

*In square brackets: bibliographical data about the first publication.

**The first part of “The Lion and the Unicorn” was published in Horizon, December 1940, as “The Ruling Class”. “England Your England” was published separately in several collections after Orwell’s death. The English People (1947) was a book which consisted of revised versions of the first two parts. The first complete edition by Secker & Warburg in 1941 was the first volume in the Searchlight Books series.

***As explained by the author in a footnote, his essay on Dali, written in June 1944, was suppressed on grounds of obscenity. It did make a “phantom appearance” in the Saturday Book for 1944 because “for technical reasons it was impossible to remove its title from the table of contents.”

============================================

I once said, rather carelessly, that Orwell is always worth reading, no matter what he writes about. Having finished with this collection of essays, I am ready to repeat this grand statement in a somewhat qualified way. Orwell is always worth reading, but he is not always worth re-reading.

Some essays from Orwell’s Burmese days, like the inexplicably famous “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”, are surprisingly disappointing. Describing executions in gruesome detail can only be justified if you have some really important points to make. Orwell does try to make such points. But he is far from convincing. In fact, he is evasive, ambiguous and unduly rhetorical. The writing is beautiful, but what does it say? Not much and, when you look carefully into it, even that is objectionable.

When he saw a man dying on the gallows, Orwell “saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Why is it wrong? What has the man done to deserve such punishment? Would it have been wrong if the man had been old or sick and dying anyway? If you are going to oppose the capital punishment, you should be able to do a lot better than that, Georgie. When he did shoot the elephant, numerous times with two different rifles and still the animal took a long time to die, Orwell did it for the simple reason that he was afraid he would look like a coward in the eyes of the crowd that had gathered around him. At the same time, he saw in a flash of brilliant white light the essence of imperialism: “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” because he is forced to act as “a sort of hollow, posing dummy”. What’s that supposed to mean? Imperialism is wrong not because it’s oppressive, but because it hurts the White Man’s vanity? Is this the most important thing about it? Did this sahib posturing curb the White Man’s colonial ambitions or did it stimulate them? Again, Orwell provides not even the most tentative answers to these questions.

These essays will not bear a re-reading. For my part, that would be an exercise in worthless masochism.

Other disappointments were less complete, but they still left me with a sense of wasted time. If you’re interested in obscure adolescent publications or the system of education in England of the early twentieth century, you may find “Boys’ Weeklies” and “Such, Such Were the Joys”, respectively, entertaining and illuminating. I am not, and I did not. For all of Orwell’s humour and narrative skills, I found these pieces rather dull. “How the Poor Die” deals with Orwell’s harrowing experience in a French hospital. It smacks of both foolish English chauvinism (e.g. you can die so much more comfortably in an English hospital) and cheap attempts at shocking the reader for the sake of morbidity. I may possibly re-read these essays in the future, in a different state of mind and with different experiences behind my back, and get more from them. But for know they are not high on the re-reading list.

Nor is Orwell more successful with writers and works unknown to me. Great essayists are nothing if not inspirational, and that certainly includes books and authors. Somerset Maugham, for example, has made me read such unlikely choices like Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold, William Hazlitt, Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne. I am not saying I finished everything I started by these writers, but I do claim it was Maugham who made me start them. Orwell, however, did not inspire any future reading plans in regard to, say, Henry Miller, W. B. Yeats or Arthur Koestler. “Inside the Whale”, which deals mostly with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), is still worth reading because it goes much further into, for example, the elusive communication between writer and reader, obscenity in literature, writing in exile, the profound change of outlook between the nineteenth- and the twentieth-century American literature, the peculiar character of British writers in the 1920s and the 1930s, Joyce, Whitman, Housman, Huxley, Lawrence, Lewis – and anything else.

More general criticisms of Orwell are his obsession with politics and his Johnsonian even-handedness. I admit the first is my fault. I have always looked on politics as one of the most lamentable signs of the immaturity of the human race. I have never understood how presumably intelligent adults can indulge in political squabbles. I often wish Orwell had used less often words like “Proletariat”, “Marxism”, “Communism”, “Capitalism” and the like. Together with their corresponding adjectives, these words say too much to mean a great deal. Sometimes Orwell’s preoccupation with current affairs leads to ludicrous claims like “a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot.” That certainly rules out Jane Austen, not to mention Somerset Maugham. Jane and Willie knew, as every true novelist does know, that most “major public events” age quickly. Look at them a decade or two later, and you might wonder what was so major about them. In any case, a work of fiction is none the worse for being dated on the surface so long as it deals with timeless matters underneath. And the only truly timeless subject is human nature.

It is sad to observe how really fine essays are marred by Orwell’s political ramblings. “Inside the Whale”, for instance, contains in the middle, out of the blue, a discourse on the Communist Party in England which is neither here nor there. It is far more questionable than Orwell’s somewhat wild generalisations about the literary climate of the 1920s and the 1930s. “Writers and Leviathan” is an even graver example. If Orwell had gone beyond the Hobbesian sense of Leviathan, this could have been a fine essay about the dependence of authors, or reviewers, on any large organisation that has any control over their work. But Orwell, when he does not deal with quite unliterary political propaganda, again repeats his old mantra that “no thinking person can or does genuinely keep out of politics, in an age like the present one”, implying of course that apolitical writers are worthless fellows. I could not disagree more. The most productive years of Somerset Maugham, for one, coincided with the tumultuous period between the World Wars, but he firmly refused to dilute his novels and short stories with politics. I certainly don’t think his works are the worse for that. Indeed, they are the better for it: they have aged so much better than they would have had he been a political propagandist.[1]

In Orwell’s defence, he lived in boisterous times and I guess he could not help being a very political writer. And he often goes way beyond politics in his essays. For instance, “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse” is largely concerned with Wodehouse’s unwise decision to do some radio broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War – which “do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity” – but Orwell goes into considerable detail about his works to show that the Nazis were wrong to hope that these talks would make fun of the British and damage their morale. Considering that I couldn’t care less about Wodehouse’s writing, I found the essay surprisingly absorbing. I guess that’s saying something about Orwell’s powers as an essayist.

There are several essays which are nowhere near as politically orientated as their titles sound, or at least the politics are discussed in an accessible and meaningful way. “The Lion and the Unicorn” is objectively the longest piece in the book (50 pages), a pamphlet rather than an essay, and subjectively one of the most substantial and one of the most controversial. Some of Orwell’s observations about national character in general and the English one in particular sound strangely superficial and (today) are probably dated, but there is a lot of thought-provoking material on the privileged classes in England, which Orwell hates for many good reasons, and the socialism which he proposes. The essay on Gulliver’s Travels is another surprisingly engrossing piece along political lines. Unfortunately, it makes little sense if one is not familiar with Swift’s writings, or at least with his most famous work, but I expect to return to this remarkable essay as I rectify this glaring omission in my personal reading history. Orwell is just the second writer, after Bertrand Russell, who makes politics sound like something that actually makes sense. I guess that’s saying something about his powers as an essayist, too.

What I have called “Johnsonian even-handedness”, taking as a model Dr Johnson’s Shakespearean criticism, looks like a less serious defect at first glance, but this might not be the case in the long run. One must admire Orwell’s intellectual honesty, but sometimes I do wish he would be just a little less impartial and more opinionated. Now and then his passion for balanced assessments leads to almost comic results. In the essay on the author of Jungle Books, he states in the very beginning that (original emphasis) “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”, and then he tries to convince me that Kipling’s poetry (the short stories and novels are barely mentioned) is worth reading. I am not convinced at all. What do I care about Kipling’s penetratingly poetic descriptions of the British soldier and his life in the barracks?

Sometimes Orwell is simply vague and inconclusive. In the entertaining essay on Dali, which is actually a review of his obscene autobiography, Orwell makes no bones that the notorious Spaniard was “a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being” and that “he is a symptom of the world's illness”. But it’s never disclosed what this illness might be save the quaint statement that Dali’s pictures “probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilisation”. (What the…?!) The essays on nationalism and anti-Semitism are fascinating from start to finish, with many excellent points which remain relevant seven decades later, but one has to read very carefully to note that Orwell actually disapproves of these mental aberrations.

Other essay fare better. If you’re looking for Orwell’s most uncompromising anti-colonial writing, don’t go for a tedious dreck like “Shooting an Elephant”. Read “Marrakech”. It contains some really powerful passages on the subject:

When you walk through a town like this – two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in – when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces – besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that it is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons.

From the shorter and lighter pieces on sundry subjects, I must single out “Reflections on the Common Toad” and “The Sporting Spirit”. The former is a humorous yet touching tribute to nature and spring, something everybody can enjoy even in the city, while the latter is a sadly modern discourse on the deification of professional sport, how this cult arose in the first place, and why it is often “an unfailing cause of ill-will”. Even though politics are never far – rightly so, especially in international sport events, and even more so today when sport is huge business – these essays demonstrate Orwell’s versatility and humanity in a somewhat purer form. I wish there were more of them. Here is one uncompromising passage with which, an occasional exception notwithstanding, it is hard to disagree:

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

Orwell is at his best, as it might be expected, on writers, writing, books and the English language. Nearly every essay here is a gem, but two of them deserve special treatment. When Orwell writes like that, he is very much worth re-reading.

“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” is magnificent demolition of Tolstoy’s asinine full-scale assault on Shakespeare. In the end of his life, the author of War and Peace decided to prove the maxim that it’s never too late to make a fool of yourself. He lambasted Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular with unprecedented venom in the history of Shakespearean criticism. Orwell asks why Shakespeare, why that particular play, why being so vicious? He explains patiently that Tolstoy’s claims of impartiality are bogus, his idea of Bardolatry having started with the German Romantics erroneous, and his accusations sometimes violently contradictory. A lesser writer would have stopped here. But this is where Orwell’s essay really begins:

Certainly his dislike of Shakespeare is real enough, but the reasons for it may be different, or partly different, from what he avows; and therein lies the interest of his pamphlet.

Orwell supplies the controversial, but rather convincing, theory that Tolstoy chose Lear because it was uncomfortably close to his own mistakes. Both Lear and Tolstoy, in their old and not too lucid age, did one “huge and gratuitous act of renunciation”, but both also failed to get the results they hoped for. Tolstoy, like Lear, was hardly a humble man and a good judge of character. Far from bringing him happiness, his renunciation of titles, estates and copyrights only made him more miserable, not least because his children turned against him, “though, of course, in a less sensational manner than Regan and Goneril.” Even the very end of Tolstoy’s life, with his sudden flight through the country accompanied by a faithful daughter and his death in a remote cottage, “seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear.”

If there is a moral in King Lear, and if it could be summed up in a few words, Orwell argues, it would be that “self-denial for selfish reasons” is bound to be disastrous. This obviously didn’t sit well with Tolstoy. Neither did Shakespeare’s worldliness and humanism with Tolstoy’s, in his old age long after his two great novels were written, religious misanthropy. Hence Tolstoy’s foolish dismissal of the Fool, “a trickle of sanity running through the play” in Orwell’s memorable words and an indispensable part of Lear’s personal odyssey. (Orwell, amazingly, declares that Edgar is a superfluous character and that the play might have been better without the Gloucester subplot. Boy, did he miss the point there!)

In the end, Orwell marvels how little difference it all makes. At the time of writing, some forty years after Tolstoy’s essay, nobody remembered his shameful diatribe and Shakespeare was certainly not the worse for it. Indeed! Who remembers today Stravinsky’s equally ridiculous dismissal of the Ninth Symphony? Yet such criticism, foolish though it may be, is worth remembering just for showing that if the greatest artists are quite human – indeed more so – then the rest of us may perhaps achieve some of their greatness.

“Politics and the English Language” is an essential companion piece to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and one of the wisest things even penned on the dangers of verbal communication. The word “politics” is used here in the widest sense of influencing opinion, while language is discussed as an “instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

Orwell savagely denounces the pretentious obscurity in both written and spoken English, and though he refers to the mid-1940s and quotes contemporary examples, his arguments are timeless. Today as in any other time in history, people are susceptible in the extreme to well-honed speeches. They listen to a politician or a preacher and remark “How well he speaks!”. What they really mean is “How smoothly he speaks!” They pay no attention to what is actually spoken. The same thing goes with writers and journalists who “write so well”. Again, no attention is paid to the meaning, often enough difficult to find, and still less is such writing and speaking denounced for the blatant manipulation it usually is. What’s the problem with saying “I think” instead of the horrendous “In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that”? This is Orwell’s example, and so is his totally hilarious “translation” of a famous passage from the Ecclesiastes:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.


“This is a parody, but not a very gross one.” Indeed!

Worst of all, Orwell argues, this type of speaking or writing easily degenerates into unconscious habit. People talk with their larynxes or write with their hands, but without any input from their brains and their hearts. If such a speaker happens to wear glasses, under a certain angle they so reflect the light that he looks like “an eyeless dummy”. Orwell used the same striking simile in Nineteen Eighty-Four where he explored the extreme consequences of verbal propaganda; although the “Newspeak” of his dystopian world actually works in the opposite direction (destroying words and the possibility of complex expression), the final effect is pretty much the same.

Far from stopping there, Orwell goes on to point out exact examples of “dying metaphors”, “verbal false limbs”, “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words” which corrupt your language beyond comprehension. All this is summarised in Orwell’s six famous rules. If you follow them all, but especially the last one, you will certainly begin to speak and write at least a little better.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.


On a lower level, “Bookshop Memories” and “Confessions of a Reviewer” are just as hilarious as they are serious. The former recounts Orwell’s experience as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop. He has a sharp eye for the different versions of book snobbery, from first-edition freaks to senile chatter-boxes. You know, the old lady who read a great, great book fifty years ago and now tries to find it. No, she doesn’t remember anything about the plot or insignificant details like the name of the author or the title, but she does remember the red cover. As for reviewing hastily and hatefully a bunch of books that “ought to go well together” but which the reviewer has at best skimmed through, let’s hope we have improved since the mid-1940s. But have we?

Even trifles like “Books and Cigarettes”, clearly dated with all those marvellous pound-shilling-pence calculations (correct; I’ve checked them), are more than a little relevant to our times – indeed, more so, in this case, than they originally were. Reading has never been cheaper than it is today, and I don’t even count libraries, e-books or the massive resources of the Web. I mean good old-fashioned books on paper. If you collect first or deluxe editions, “reading” may be ludicrously expensive. But if you’re more interested in the content than in the packaging, budget-price editions and second-hand copies are countless, affordable and, quite often, surprisingly well produced. They cost no more than cigarettes.

Last but actually first, “Why I Read” is an admirably honest self-analysis. Orwell defines four great motives for writing – sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historic impulse, political purpose – and admits that in “peaceful times” the first three would have outweighed the fourth. Things turned out differently, though. The “Burmese Days”, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Stalin, history conspired against Orwell and forced him “into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” Here he does recognise what, I think, is one of his chief defects as a writer. Most of his political ideals, such as abhorrence of imperialism and totalitarianism, are praiseworthy in themselves. But sometimes I do wish they were just a little less prominent.

Orwell, unfortunately, didn’t have much time. Animal Farm, by his own admission the first book in which he tried “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”, was first published in August 1945. In January 1950, Orwell was dead, aged only 46. He finishes the essay with another example of rare candour:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. 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. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

From Orwell’s opinions on his colleagues, the essay on Dickens easily stands out. It is one of the longest in the book (more than 40 pages) and I am sure I will revisit it often as my familiarity with his novels, currently limited to Oliver Twist, grows in the future. Orwell is in his Johnsonian mood and it remains unclear, in the end of the essay, whether Dickens is or isn’t worth reading. But he makes a number of thought-provoking observations, both positive and negative, about Dickens’ social, moral and political essence. On the whole, he doesn’t sound as dismissive as Somerset Maugham[2], but I have a notion (to use a Maughamism) that Orwell doesn’t think that much of Dickens. The following selection of quotes might perhaps convey his ambiguous attitude, though by no means does it reflect the scope of the essay:

In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.

The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens's attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it
were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point of view.

Dickens's lack of vulgar nationalism is in part the mark of a real largeness of mind, and in part results from his negative, rather unhelpful political attitude. He is very much an Englishman but he is hardly aware of it – certainly the thought of being an Englishman does not thrill him. He has no imperialist feelings, no discernible views on foreign politics, and is untouched by the military tradition.

Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and in spite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the special prejudices of the shabby-genteel. It is usual to claim him as a 'popular' writer, a champion of the 'oppressed masses'. So he is, so long as he thinks of them as oppressed; but there are two things that condition his attitude. In the first place, he is a south-of-England man, and a Cockney at that, and therefore out of touch with the bulk of the real oppressed masses, the industrial and agricultural labourers. It is interesting to see how Chesterton, another Cockney, always presents Dickens as the spokesman of 'the poor', without showing much awareness of who 'the poor' really are. To Chesterton 'the poor' means small shopkeepers and servants. Sam Weller, he says, 'is the great symbol in English literature of the populace peculiar to England'; and Sam Weller is a valet!

Dickens also shows less understanding of criminals than one would expect of him. Although he is well aware of the social and economic causes of crime, he often seems to feel that when a man has once broken the law he has put himself outside human society.

It is not merely a coincidence that Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food. He was a Cockney, and London is the centre of the earth in rather the same sense that the belly is the centre of the body. It is a city of consumers, of people who are deeply civilized but not primarily useful. A thing that strikes one when one looks below the surface of Dickens's books is that, as nineteenth-century novelists go, he is rather ignorant. He knows very little about the way things really happen. At first sight this statement looks flatly untrue and it needs some qualification.

Dickens had had vivid glimpses of 'low life'–life in a debtor's prison, for example–and he was also a popular novelist and able to write about ordinary people. So were all the characteristic English novelists of the nineteenth century. They felt at home in the world they lived in, whereas a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist. Even when Joyce, for instance, spends a decade or so in patient efforts to make contact with the 'common man', his 'common man' finally turns out to be a Jew, and a bit of a highbrow at that. Dickens at least does not suffer from this kind of thing. He has no difficulty in introducing the common motives, love, ambition, avarice, vengeance and so forth. What he does not noticeably write about, however, is work.

In Dickens's novels anything in the nature of work happens off-stage. The only one of his heroes who has a plausible profession is David Copperfield, who is first a shorthand writer and then a novelist, like Dickens himself. With most of the others, the way they earn their living is very much in the background. Pip, for instance, 'goes into business' in Egypt; we are not told what business, and Pip's working life occupies about half a page of the book. Clennam has been in some unspecified business in China, and later goes into another barely specified business with Doyce; Martin Chuzzlewit is an architect, but does not seem to get much time for practising. In no case do their adventures spring directly out of their work. Here the contrast between Dickens and, say, Trollope is startling.

By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me.

I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his 'message', and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, HAS a 'message', whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. As I said earlier, Dickens is one of those writers who are felt to be worth stealing. He has been stolen by Marxists, by Catholics and, above all, by Conservatives. The question is, What is there to steal? Why does anyone care about Dickens? Why do I care about Dickens?

Significantly, Dickens's most successful books (not his
best books) are The Pickwick Papers, which is not a novel, and Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, which are not funny. As a novelist his natural fertility greatly hampers him, because the burlesque which he is never able to resist, is constantly breaking into what ought to be serious situations.

If Dickens had been merely a comic writer, the chances are that no one would now remember his name.
[…] Who has not felt sometimes that it was 'a pity' that Dickens ever deserted the vein of Pickwick for things like Little Dorrit and Hard Times? What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one.

No grown-up person can read Dickens without feeling his limitations, and yet there does remain his native generosity of mind, which acts as a kind of anchor and nearly always keeps him where he belongs. It is probably the central secret of his popularity. A good-tempered antinomianism rather of Dickens's type is one of the marks of Western popular culture.


Enthralling essay one could go on quoting for quite some time. Whether I agree with Orwell is irrelevant – a sure sign of the great essayist. I don’t think he is likely to enrage even the die-hard Dickensian buffs.

At his best, Orwell is an outstanding essayist. He has intelligence, wit, erudition and one of the most lucid, lively and engaging prose styles I have ever encountered. He is readable, entertaining and provocative. I do think one or two of his finest essays on language and literature ought to be included in every anthology, and I was dismayed that W. E. Williams snubbed him in A Book of English Essays (Penguin, 1951, rev. edn.). Read Orwell en masse, however, and he becomes uneven, repetitious and rather boring. You might say this is the case with every prolific essayist. True enough, but I have endured similar amounts of William Hazlitt, Bertrand Russell or Arthur Clarke with less apprehension of boredom.[3]

Note on the Edition

The editorial work is a little sloppy by Penguin’s standards. Every essay is followed by information about its first publication and subsequent reprinting in other collections. The latter are given with initials and the full titles can be found in a “Bibliographical Note”. Some of these titles are generic enough to exist several times. Years, publishers and editors would have been appreciated, but none is provided. The texts (and an occasional footnote) come from the 1968 edition The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, “but will in time be changed to follow the completely re-edited text” from The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison “(1986–)”, as this is the current practice at Penguin. So it is clear neither which essays come from where nor what so much there was to re-edit by Mr Davison. As far as I know, this edition was completed in 20 volumes sometime in the late 1990s, so presumably this late reprint (25th per number line) of an edition from 2000 contains Mr Davison’s texts (without his critical apparatus, of course). But this is sheer guesswork. Given Penguin’s laziness, I’d not be surprised if each essay here is precisely the same as it was edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell in 1968.

Bernard Crick lost me in the very beginning of his essay with the curious statement that an introduction is necessary “if only to show that [Orwell’s essays] are not merely pleasant appendages to his real books, but may well constitute his lasting claim to greatness as a writer.” I doubt many people could read 1984 and this collection of essays and then decide that the former is the greater book. Much of Mr Crick’s rather pretentious essay is occupied with dubious observations on Orwell’s notoriously plain prose style. Do yourself a favour and skip this introduction. Whatever one’s opinion of Orwell, one thing is certain. He is in no need of explanation.

_______________________________________________
[1] I can think of exactly one novel (Christmas Holiday, 1939) and one short story (“Mr Harrington’s Washing”, 1928) by Maugham in which politics play any role at all, and it’s certainly not a major role.
[2] W. Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), “Charles Dickens and David Copperfield”.
[3] Highly recommended one-volume selections are: William Hazlitt, Selected Writings (1991, 1998), Oxford World’s Classics, ed. Jon Cook; The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (1961), eds. Robert Egner and Lester Denonn; Arthur C. Clarke, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999), ed. Ian Macauley. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jun 10, 2016 |
Brilliant! The second time I read this and it will probably not be the last.

I am giving only 4 stars instead of the 5 that it actually deserves because his obsession with fascism and socialism sometimes distorted what would have otherwise been very insightful observations. An example would be in "Raffles and Miss Blandish". Given the times when these essays were written though, my judgement is likely unfair.

The back cover of my copy contains the blurb: "Anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century will still have to read Orwell." To me however, it contained some very interesting insights into specifically the english psyche.

Orwell tells it as he sees it, with amazing clarity and command of language.

The essays that made me think were:

Politics and the English Language
Shooting an Elephant
Inside the Whale
The Lion and the Unicorn
Benefit of Clergy; Some Notes on Salvador Dali
Antisemitism in Britain
Notes on Nationalism
The Sporting Spirit
Writers and Leviathan

Oh that he were around today to explain the state of affairs to us! ( )
1 vote pengvini | Dec 26, 2013 |
"Animal Farm" or "1984" are not the best books of Orwell. The essays are. Luckily there are so many of them.

If you hesitate, read "Why I Write" or "Shooting an Elephant".
  jukke | Nov 15, 2006 |
Fascinating work and lots of it is much more interesting than his more famous Animal Farm. Conversational, philosophical and very funny in parts. ( )
  notmyrealname | Apr 9, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141183063, Paperback)

The articles collected in George Orwell's Essays illuminate the life and work of one of the most individual writers of this century - a man who elevated political writing to an art. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Bernard Crick. This outstanding collection brings together Orwell's longer, major essays and a fine selection of shorter pieces that includes 'My Country Right or Left', 'Decline of the English Murder', 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging'. With great originality and wit Orwell unfolds his views on subjects ranging from a revaluation of Charles Dickens to the nature of Socialism, from a comic yet profound discussion of naughty seaside postcards to a spirited defence of English cooking. Displaying an almost unrivalled mastery of English plain prose, Orwell's essays created a unique literary manner from the process of thinking aloud and continue to challenge, move and entertain. If you enjoyed Essays you might like Orwell's Shooting an Elephant, also available in Penguin Modern Classics. 'Anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century will still have to read Orwell' Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 02 Jul 2015 03:09:11 -0400)

First published under title: The Penguin essays of George Orwell - 1984

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