George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Inside the Whale

November 10, 2011 · 1 Comment

Much of today’s discussion had a focus on the volatile historical times that George Orwell and many of his fellow authors like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald faced, from the roaring 20’s that led to a real separation of artists from society, to the rise of fascism and stalinism in the 30’s. Probably in part due to the rise of these radical if not evil movements, Orwell is rather defeatist about the role of the artist in moving the direction of society. He also was on the losing effort of the Spanish Civil War, which will not engender optimism.

At the same time, many of his compatriots do call him out for taking this defeatist stance, in fact suggesting the artist should remove himself from society. I personally agree with these criticisms. If anything, Orwell’s stance comes across as a cop-out to avoid taking a stance in society. He determines the artist cannot do anything, and as a consequence, one should not try. To me, it almost seems as if he is rationalizing his own failures to create change–just look at how Imperialism survived despite his attacks in Shooting an Elephant and Burmese Days. Rather than working harder to alter the course of society, Orwell gives himself an excuse–artists should stay inside the whale and avoid directly confronting the issues of society to better the state of one’s fellow man. 

I utterly reject Orwell’s stance; even if his conclusions are true. He could be correct that an artist does not have the ability to alter society. By definition literature or any other form of art does not appeal to the masses, it is not intended to, rather a small segment of society. Rarely if ever, does change spring from a small minority, especially when that minority resides in the upper echelon of society. Still if one is destined to fail, that does not mean one should not try. Imagine if fire-fighters did not try to save lives in burning buildings because likely they would not get there in time, or doctors did not treat cancer patients because survival was a wrong shoot. In life, often the effort is significantly more important. than the end-result. Orwell is rationalizing laziness because he has determined he does not want to try to better society himself.

Categories: Inside the Whale

1 response so far ↓

  • Marcie King // November 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm |

    The group presentation and subsequent discussion today in class was extremely insightful and thought provoking. During the presentation, Albert, Kate, Brittney, and Anthony clearly described and explained the political and literary atmospheres of the 1920s and 1930s and how these realms influenced one another. While the writers of the 1920s adopted a pessimistic and passive outlook, the writer’s of the 1930’s took a more purposeful and pointed approach to writing.

    Using Orwell’s essay Inside the Whale as a basis of discussion, we examined where on the spectrum of authors Orwell falls. Like the writer’s of the 1920’s Orwell’s outlook is undeniably pessimistic. As we have seen in the novels we have read thus far in the course, all of Orwell’s protagonists are trapped in an unfortunate condition in which they recognize the miseries of their class but cannot transcend it. They are either reabsorbed into the society they despise or die. Despite this pessimistic outlook, however, Orwell, unlike the writer’s of the 1920’s is concerned with politics and with the problems of the day. Although Orwell praises writers like Miller for their passivity to politics—for living “inside the whale”—Orwell continues to be political in his writing.

    This apparent contradiction afforded an excellent conversation in class today. The group raised the question: Why would Orwell continue to frame his writing in a political context but advocate a literary life “inside the whale”? Although there is no right or wrong answer to this question, one idea that was mentioned in class was that Orwell recognized the distinction between what people ought to feel and what they do feel and acted according to what he “ought” to feel. Despite the passivity he may have in fact felt toward politics or that he believed people felt, he acted according to a belief that he ought to address these issues in his writing.

    We also discussed the Thompson and Rushdie essays regarding Inside the Whale. Unlike Orwell, both authors think that passivity and pessimism is a weak position from which to write. I particularly liked Rushdie’s idea that the whale does not exist at all. I think that part of Orwell’s problem as a writer is his tendency to distinguish between writing and politics. For Orwell, these two spheres of life cannot be reconciled and, therefore, he feels that it is better to live inside the whale and be passive. However, if there is no distinction between the inside and the outside of the whale—if the whale does not exist—then there is no Orwellian contradiction. As Rushdie argues, literature cannot be formed in isolation. It is a reflection of the context and period in which it is born. Arguably, this is why Orwell, despite his justification of living “inside the whale” cannot in fact do this.

    The group did an excellent job presenting the issues at the root of Orwell’s argument in Inside the Whale and together as a class we delved deeper into some of these seeming contradictions.

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