George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Considering Orwell and Inside the Whale

November 13, 2011 · Leave a Comment

During our class discussion about the historical and political context of Orwell’s essay Inside the Whale, we also discussed the inconsistencies in Orwell’s works. While Orwell had made claim in his essay Why I Write published in 1946 that “what I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art” (Why I Write), he negates the writer’s political responsibility in Inside the Whale, which was published six year earlier. Furthermore, most of his works, both fiction and non-fiction, are for the most part self-consciously political. However, I think that one can understand the trajectory of Orwell’s literary canon when one considers the problem of language that Orwell continued to struggle with throughout his entire career.


The problem of politics in Orwell’s work is implicit in his inability to separate himself from his social context and to achieve a kind of transparent writing style that would allow him to narrate the true plight of the subjugated classes. Orwell, and all writers for that matter, is necessarily the product of his contemporary political climate and his personal social context. If we take Barthes claim to be true a writer’s writing style is his personal property, “a self-sufficient language [that] is evolved [and] has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology” (Barthes 10). As such Orwell’s plain, reportorial style can be seen as his attempt to transcend his social context so that his writing could convey an authenticity and truthfulness. Precisely the reason he so admires Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is because it is supposedly “‘non-political,…non-ethical,…non-literary,…non-contemporary’” (Rushdie 94). Orwell sees Miller’s work as a narration of the ordinary man, who exists independent of politics because he refuses to get politically involved and assumes the role of the victim by remaining passive. However, whereas as Orwell’s quest to achieve an authentic way of writing was originally political in intent, he now admits that the only way to narrate the social reality of the ordinary man is too, like him, become passive to experience and live outside of politics.


It seems to me that the point Orwell is making in Inside the Whale is consistent with the problem of language and narration. However, this is first time he outright admits defeat and surrenders to quietism, which he sees as his only choice. Since he, as a writer, cannot seem to transcend the contemporary political climate in order to observe and critique it from outside culture itself, Orwell feels he has no other choice than to retreat from politics and the world altogether by actively ignoring society. However, as Rushdie observes, this too is impossible. After all, in choosing to ignore politics and remain passive “inside the whale” Orwell is still assuming a political stance since he is actively choosing to ignore the political reality of the time. Indeed saying “ ‘I accept’ in life in the thirties ‘is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine-guns…press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders’” (Rushdie 94). Where Orwell’s argument seems to break down is on this point. In this sense quietism cannot be considered an apolitical position because to assume a position of acceptance is an active political choice to ignore politics. In choosing not to act Orwell is still making a political statement that, as Rushdie observes, “is an intrinsically conservative one [because] the truth is that passivity always serves the interests of the status quo, of the people already on top of the heap” (Rushdie 97). We cannot simply retreat from the world and exist outside of politics, because we are always products of our time.


Furthermore, Rushdie argues that it is incumbent upon writers to enter into politics precisely because it is their responsibility to search for truth in their reconstruction of the world around us, to challenge the claims of the politicians and encourage us to approach the world with a critical and discerning eye. Defeated by the horrors of this age of destruction as well as the utter defeat of the socialist cause in Spain and its subsequent fall to Franco, Orwell admits the ultimate failure of language to narrate political truth. However, Rushdie argues that it is the writer’s responsibility as a writer to question the people in power. But Orwell’s belief about the failure of language to narrate the truths of our social experience is deep-seated and it is manifest in his works. For Orwell, at this time, it is almost an impossibility for a writer to enter into the realm of politics and narrate the truth and this is evident in his fictional works such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which characters such as Gordon Comstock is ultimately thwarted in thier quest to transcend politics and narrate the truth of man’s existence.



Categories: Inside the Whale

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