George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Orwell: Inside or Outside the Whale?

November 11, 2011 · Leave a Comment

After an informative presentation on Orwell’s essay and Thompson and Rushdie’s two responses, one issue that the class focused on was Orwell’s true fit amongst these various proposed ideologies. Despite writing convincingly that authors should remain inside the whale, insulated from politics and silenced from prescribing solutions to the problems of the world, Orwell himself seems to defy this categorization. His previous works written before the Spanish Civil War–Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier, and others–completely immerse themselves into the political realm, offering stringent critiques of poverty, capitalism, imperialism, and other social ills of 20th century British society. Orwell makes no attempts whatsoever to take on the passive point of view that accepts a position of futility that he advocates in “Inside the Whale.” So where does Orwell himself fit in relation to this whale?

However, as we discussed at multiple points in class, Orwell’s harrowing experience in the Spanish Civil War was a huge turning point in his life, both literary and otherwise. While he entered the conflict with a praiseworthy and hopeful attitude towards the proletarian-egalitarian society emerging in Barcelona in 1936, his return and subsequent experience of the May Days dashed all his dreams of such a society existing and thriving. Even in the midst of a brutal conflict in the streets of Barcelona, Orwell had never felt more futile, useless, and demoralized. This immense personal loss of ideals powerfully affected Orwell and his post-Spanish Civil War writings and became a major motivation for his ideas in “Inside the Whale.” In order to more fully understand the effect of this shift in Orwell’s life, we must read more of his post-war material to grasp the nuanced changes in his point of view, tone, and style.

In fact, I have already started to sense a subtle shift in Orwell’s attitude and tone in the beginning of Coming Up for Air, first published in June of 1939. The oblivious main character, George Bowling, remains secluded in his own life of worries, with his most politically-oriented thought manifesting itself as a vague worry of impending bombs and war with Germany. Bowling also harbors an intense nostalgia for the simple, quiet summer days of his childhood in a rural town. Bowling, as well as his dwindling family, seem utterly stuck inside the whale, revealing Orwell’s possible shift into a viewpoint of pessimistic futility towards social criticism. But the question still remains whether Orwell will come to unveil such a critique in some subtle way, or whether he will continue in the sober vein of his character study of George Bowling.

Categories: Inside the Whale · Orwell and Spain

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