George Orwell is without a doubt one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His novels such as Animal Farm and 1984 have been cited countless times over the past 80 years and you need only read them to see why. Orwell gained his fame through his outspoken stance on topics such as the evils of fascism, communism, totalitarianism, and government censorship. His novels Animal Farm and 1984 explore these subjects in great detail, with the deft and nuance of a writer who personally fought against some of these evils during the Spanish Civil War. When you look around at our modern world and understand what it is like in Russia or especially China, it doesn’t take a professor of literature to dissect why Orwell’s novels are still relevant in our current climate.
After reading his collection of essays, Shooting an Elephant, I cannot understand why Orwell is most famous for his novels. He is without a doubt an even better essayist than he is a novelist. His essays range from discussing watching a man be hanged, to his thoughts on the common toad, to a defense of English cooking. The themes discussed in his essays are just as relevant to modern society as any of his books and are much more diverse than the themes of totalitarianism and censorship that feature hugely in his novels.
Take for example his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. In this essay Orwell writes what is, essentially, a rant about the decline of modern English. He cites the use of dying metaphors, operators (padding out sentences with extra syllables or taking simple verbs and extending them into phrases), pretentious diction, and meaningless words as the culprits for this downfall. This topic may seem pretty uninteresting and a product of its time at first glance, however, Orwell makes the connection between the decline in language to the decline in political transparency. It’s oddly comforting to know that even back in the early 1900s, people were complaining about politics and politicians the same way that we are today. Modern politicians are undoubtedly guilty of extensively abusing the deadly sins of the English language in order to create the vacuous, meaningless statements that are force-fed down the throats of the public every single day. It astounds me that so many people, especially political journalists, allow for an atmosphere where world leaders can talk for hours at a time without saying anything meaningful whatsoever.
This idea of political accountability is explored further in one of his much longer essays, ‘Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War’. As well as covering his usual topics of fascism and totalitarianism, Orwell takes aim at the British right-wing for enabling the fascist win and allowing Nazi Germany a foothold in Spain in the upcoming World War. One of the greatest lines Orwell ever put on paper comes from this essay: “Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time.” However, what I think is most important and also unusual about this essay is Orwell’s clear disappointment at the British left-wing at this time. This is particularly odd as you would assume, being a democratic socialist himself, that Orwell would refrain from criticizing his own side. This is exactly what raises Orwell above his contemporaries; he was an obvious crusader for truth, regardless of which side was right or wrong.
He takes aim at the hypocrisy of the left at the time; those who had denounced all war as a waste of life were suddenly singing of the glorious Republican fight against the Spanish Government. As someone who had fought in the war himself, Orwell came back to Britain and was appalled at not only the (predictable) right-wing denials of the Spanish Government’s war crimes but more surprisingly by the lefts complete denial of the atrocities of the Republicans, Orwell’s own fighting side. He notes that not a single newspaper ever reported the war truthfully, even going as far as to make up whole battles between the government and republicans that never even happened. It is this idea of there being a subjective truth depending on whose side you were on that Orwell hated the most, and he was right to. Not even 10 years later, the use of subjective truth was abused extensively by the Nazi party to isolate and persecute the Jewish people, citing differences between things like ‘German science’ and ‘Jewish science’ with German Science being held as superior and used to dehumanize the Jews. Orwell would doubtlessly be disappointed with the same idea of subjective truth being pushed by the Daily Mails and The Mirrors of today.
It is common now to read those newspapers or watch news stations where we are told of wars from far off lands with death tolls being read off like Premier League scores. It is this idea that “death happens to other people” that Orwell explores in his essay ‘The Hanging’. For me, this is Orwell’s most poignant essay as it marks his realisation from “death happens to other people” to “death happens to people who rationalize, love and hate the same way that I do”. Orwell talks about his time in Burma and one particular experience where he had to escort some prisoners to the gallows to be hanged. Whilst escorting the prisoners, Orwell witnessed one of the men step aside slightly in order to avoid a puddle so he didn’t get wet. This simple act of reasoning kick-starts Orwell’s brain to realize what it means to “destroy a healthy, conscious man”. Someone who is perfectly healthy, and without intervention would go on to live a long life is now dead, his neck snapped in two using a rope and a plank of wood.
The realization that death is not just an abstract concept but that behind every number you might see on the news is a real, conscious human being is incredibly important. The current pandemic highlights this poignantly. You cannot just say that pre-emptively opening schools would ‘only’ kill a few hundred more people or that one country ‘only’ had X amount of deaths compared to another country. Every death is a tragic end to the life of a real, conscious person. I think this is something that has been widely forgotten or at least is no longer acknowledged.
Obviously, these are only three essays of many that Orwell wrote, but I think that I need only dissect three in order to prove my point. Orwell’s essays ranged infinitely farther than his 1984 topics of fascism and censorship or his Animal Farm allegory to the dangers of communism. Most, if not all of his essays have some lessons for modern living and it will be an enormous injustice if his writing doesn’t remain influential for the century to come.
Words by Olly Singleton
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