George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Entries categorized as ‘Inside the Whale’

Orwell and England Presentation Reflection — Connections to “The Lion and the Unicorn” and “Inside the Whale”

November 15, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Through our presentation today, my fellow group members and I attempted to delineate certain significant historical, political, and cultural factors that influenced Orwell’s writing of Coming Up for Air. Specifically, my individual research centered around “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.” (I had mentioned in class today that “England Your England” is included in Facing the Unpleasant Facts, and I used the following website to read the second and third parts of the essay: From my reading and my own understanding of the piece, I argue that Orwell’s main focus of the essay is the utility of synthesizing Socialist and nationalist ideals – a message that he most evidently purports in the third section, “The English Revolution.” I believe that “Shopkeepers at War” is useful because it allows him to expressly state what he means when talking about various ideologies, and I think that “England Your England” is important because it seeks to capitalize on precisely what makes Britain “British” and how these factors accrue a sense of patriotic pride.

There is much to be discussed in this essay, and I am looking forward to covering it in more depth when we study it as a class next week. However, for the time being, I am interested in how Orwell’s understanding of the situation in Britain (i.e. country’s fast-approaching involvement in World War II) leads him to advocate for Socialist change and only Socialist change. Indeed, he writes: “Now however, the circumstances have changed, the drowsy years have ended. Being a Socialist no longer means kicking theoretically against a system which in practice you are fairly well satisfied with. This time our predicament is real” – thus alluding to the changing times in his country, and how the situation at hand merits Socialist reform. In our discussion last week concerning “Inside the Whale,” the presenting group mentioned how Orwell’s Socialist ideals likewise manifest themselves clearly in “Why I Write,” and, indeed, the other works we have studied throughout the course of the semester provide evidence for the fact that Orwell was wholly concerned with “urgent problems of the moment.”

I think one issue that demands greater exploration and that we touched on a bit in our subsequent discussion this afternoon is the relationship between Coming Up for Air and “Inside the Whale.” While we ultimately did not cover this relationship in our finalized version of the presentation, some of my research led me to The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell by John Rodden (there is a preview of some pages online through GoogleBooks, but the complete work can also be found in Lauinger Library under the call number PR6029.R8 26145 2007), and this source directly addresses the issue at hand. In one section of this book, author Michael Levenson points out: “George Bowling is Orwell’s Jonah… Hemmed in on every side – by job, home, history – Bowling neither comprehends the political world nor tries to change it. He merely wants to rediscover the ground of happiness” (72). Bowling’s life is thus ensconced in a cloak of nostalgia and longing for the past. While it can sometimes be a temporary solution to distance oneself from the problems of reality, we spoke about how his attempts to return home and reclaim his childhood merely force him to come face-to-face with the horrors of the present warfare – thus obliterating his sheltered preconception that there is a set time and place in the past that he can return to at leisure.

I am interested to grapple with these issues more next week, especially in light of last week’s challenging question: why does Orwell “accept” one’s living “inside the whale” but produce such markedly political and propagandist works? I definitely think this question is one worth considering and revisiting as we finish up the semester, and I will definitely be thinking about it as I formulate my final paper topic. I feel that my reading of “The Lion and the Unicorn” pushes this question even further, as it is a clear example of Orwell’s preoccupation and direct involvement with politics and ideologies – an involvement that obviously does not reflect a lifestyle of one who lives “inside the whale.” What is the best way to reconcile these views? And what are we supposed to think of them based on the events that happen in his novels? Such questions demand further consideration…


Categories: Inside the Whale · Orwell · Orwell and England

Orwell: Inside the Whale

November 14, 2011 · 1 Comment

Rushdie’s claim is that we are all a part of the dialectic of history and to attempt to escape it is to escape reality. It seems as if he’s suggesting that it’s irresponsible and even foolish at best to try to extricate oneself from the political world. Thus, he supports the attitude of being ‘outside the whale’. It’s interesting that Orwell, a very political being by the nature of his writings, seems to be supporting the attitude by which you’re ‘inside the whale’. This was not something that happened all of a sudden, though, and this was not an attitude that he had started out having – he had initially been very determined to make a change in the world with his writing. He had mentioned how politics acts on a writer and forces his pen to write the way it does. His earlier works criticized various issues of his time, but as the years go by, disillusionment with the process of political writing seems to capture him. It is particularly his experience with the Spanish Civil War that does this to him. He sees how the structures of power control the sources of knowledge and how language is abused for political reasons, all at the expense of human lives. He personally witnessed how the POUM was vilified by the media and how its members were hunted down – all based on falsified facts and assertions. This experience left Orwell with little hope for change in the world for the better, and thus, his attitude towards political action changes. What is the point in trying to fight established institutions that are significantly more powerful than a solitary voice? How this attitude develops can only be determined by what his works post-Spanish Civil War are like. Coming Up For Air is colored by the disillusionment that Orwell feels.

George Bowling in Coming Up For Air seems to constantly be preoccupied with the potential onset of war. He’s always thinking about what the world will be like when bombs start raining from the sky and society is forced to change. He expresses much distaste towards the way society and the world has changed thus far – he feels that people have become disassociated from each other and disconnected, and that the world has become commercialized. He does not, however, seem to have much opinion or knowledge for the political atmosphere – this is not due to him being uneducated, however, but rather that he just does not care. Even his one stint with political involvement when he joined the military forces was spent distanced from actual fighting and the actual ideologies/reasons for there even being a war in the first place. All Bowling seems to be concerned with is a kind of blissful ignorance that one feels when they are young. This is a time when one feels like they cannot be touched by the world and one’s reality is as far as your home, your school, and where you play. It is a naïve attitude to take and Bowling comes to realize this when he goes back to his hometown to find that it too has changed. His hometown does not exist in a vacuum in time and also has been touched by historical processes of change. It has become modernized and developed. It is not immune to the touch of war and political tension, as noted by the fact that a bomb fell in its midst. This novel depicts the conflict with wanting to be inside the whale when we are all in fact outside the whale. As Rushdie put it, ours is a “whaleless world… without quiet corners, [and] there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.” (Rushdie 101) As much as Orwell himself might want to escape the political reality, he cannot, and that is why we see him continue to write.


Categories: Inside the Whale

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

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