Great Ideas Collection: George Orwell

In the first of a new series exploring the works which make up Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ …

Published in 1946, Orwell opens his essay with the fact he knew he should be a writer from an early age. He recounts a “somewhat lonely” childhood, detailing early attempts at writing – his first poem was constructed aged four or five and dictated to his mother; and he would often make up stories and hold conversations with imaginary people the way children do. Despite a brief period between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four, in which he temporarily abandoned writing ambitions (mixing literary dreams with feelings of being isolated and undervalued), he realised his true calling had always been that of a writer.

He provides this background information due to a belief you cannot “assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development.” After detailing his own journey, Orwell states the following reasons why anybody would write anything:

  1. Sheer egoism
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
  3. Historical impulse
  4. Political purpose

He explains each reason “exists in different degrees in every writer”; our writing will change as we grow, learn and witness new things. Orwell himself became more political after working with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and living in the age of both world wars. However, Orwell ends this short essay emphasising to the reader not everything he wrote was political or public-spirited and writes his most quoted words:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand…”

Alongside Why I Write, the book contains three other essays written by Orwell: The Lion and the Unicorn, A Hanging, and Politics and the English Language.

The Lion and the Unicorn (first published in 1941, during the Second World War) breaks down to three parts: England Your England discusses typical English traits and England as a nation. The second, entitled Shopkeepers at War, looks at capitalism and the eagerness to make money, “while England in the moment of disaster proved to be short of every war material except ships, it is not recorded that there was any shortage of motor cars, fur coats, gramophones, lipstick, chocolates, or silk stockings…”. In the third ‘The English Revolution’, Orwell expresses his view of an outdated British class system hampering the war effort; he expresses a need for a socialist revolution, a new kind of socialism opposed to the oppressive soviet model. Orwell creates a genuine, full-hearted view of wartime Britain, captures the mood and a call to improve it.

The Lion and the Unicorn is followed by A Hanging, a short description of the hanging of a prisoner in Burma where Orwell was a police magistrate. This event drastically changed his views on death and killing; “This man was not dying… All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming”, Orwell stopped seeing these men as prisoners and instead as the human beings they were. Indeed, Orwell here discovers his conscious: he expresses guilt in leading a man to his death, while he returned to some sort of normality, laughing and drinking whiskey with other magistrates and prison guards.

The final essay Politics and the English Language states “the English language is in a bad way”, and in which Orwell accuses some written text as having staleness of imagery and lack of precision.

While The Hanging points out absurdities and personal realisations, The Lion and the Unicorn, and Politics and the English Language, are more politically inclined and do not appear to have aged. Indeed, the topics of these essays are still relevant today: capitalism and class divides still exist, and political texts remain littered with tired clichés and worn-out metaphors. It is easy to understand Orwell’s point today – this is not some archaic past society you could not possibly imagine, but relevant now.

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