George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

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Situating Orwell: in history and motivation

November 10, 2011 · Leave a Comment

The presenting group discussing Inside and Outside the Whale started by situating the debate in historical context.  By explaining Housman and the Naturalists, it was easy to see that Orwell was influenced  by these earlier works.  For example, Orwell’s pessimistic style and reverence of passivity could have stemmed from Housman’s similar techniques. After Housman, WWI was a huge event, not just for global politics, but also for the literary community, with more pictures and documentary than ever before. After WWII, the cultural break-up and growth of the Popular Front created space for art.  At the time, literature was influenced by the Lost Generation and a shift from naturalism (appreciation for the beauty of nature) to a tragic sense of life, characterized by pessimism and a disbelief in the influence of change.  However, by the 1930s, many were more optimistic, and the Oxford Group rose in prominence but which Orwell characterized as “middle class, highly educated, male southerners.”

As stated, Orwell was similar to writers of the 1920s because of his persistent pessimism. However, his writing differed because he was concerned with social issues and politics. For example, even though Orwell critiques poverty and the social system, he has little faith in the ability to change the system.  Orwell was similar to writers of the 1930s because he was not politically indifferent; however he was a socialist, not a communist. Though Orwell claims that he would have written “purple prose” and non-political works, he claimed he was forced by the social events and situations of the time to direct his attention to political and social matters. In “Why I Write” on pages 228 and 229, Orwell states that the times determined his work.  However this view is starkly contrasted by Orwell’s later position supporting the passivity of Henry Miller.  His seemingly contradictory switch could have been fomented by his demoralizing experiences during the Spanish Civil War, inciting the view he reveals in “Inside the Whale.”  Thus, Orwell is caught in an interesting contradiction. He claims that writers have a duty to present the political situation to help change, but his experiences seem to imply that such efforts are useless and that only a passive approach will succeed.

However, both Rushdie and Thompson refute Orwell’s claims for passivism.  Thompson states that Orwell crushed a generation by destroying their political ideas without giving them new ones. However, Thompson claims that there were effective political ideas during the war.  Overall, Thompson criticizes Orwell for disengaging with the world because he claims that the victims of power are the ones who need to fight for it. Rushdie also disputes Orwell’s advice to retreat inside the whale. He framed his criticisms by discussing the recent portrayals of Indians in the media.  Instead of accepting what is happening, Rushdie advocates that individuals should not and cannot be passive because culture cannot be separated from politics and history. He states, “For every text, there is a context”(92).  He emphasizes a similar theme to Thompson, stating that the ones that might be resisted gain power from a lack of resistance. While Thompson states that one cannot retreat inside the whale, Rushdie claims that there is no whale.

While these views are somewhat at odds, they speak to the same effect from different perspectives. Orwell’s earlier sentiments were much more similar to those of Rushdie and Thompson but his experiences changed his view.  Orwell’s traumatic experiences in the Spanish Civil War transformed his fervor for political literature despite his earlier emphasis. It seems as though Orwell was drawn to Henry Miller because he identified with his lack of agency.  Even though Orwell was still motivated to pursue his political aims, he was dissuaded  by the failure in Spain and his inability to change the system.


Categories: History