Why Orwell Matters

July 24, 2010 • 9:34 am

I’ve just finished Christopher Hitchens’s short book, Why Orwell Matters, and will say a few words about it for readers who might be interested.  My verdict: it’s worth a read, but only if you a) like Christopher Hitchens and, more important, b) have read a lot of Orwell.

If anyone has served as a role model for Hitchens, it’s Orwell.  Orwell (born Eric Blair) was a man of action who served as a policeman in Burma and fought in the Spanish Civil war, was a wonderful writer with a clear and direct prose style (Orwell is to the essay what Hemingway was to the short story), and had a deep interest in politics, presenting uncompromising—and usually liberal—views to the public.  Orwell had a keen ear for bullshit (just read his essay “Politics and the English Language”), constantly alerting readers when their leaders were duping them.  You’ll recognize these as qualities of Hitchens as well.

Orwell has fallen into disrepute among some writers and intellectuals, and Hitchens’s book is his attempt to refurbish Orwell’s reputation.  Much of the book lays out critics’ gripes against Orwell—critics who include some of Hitchens’s friends, like Salman Rushdie and Edward Said—and then dismantles them.  Here Hitchens is on solid ground: many of the critics either haven’t read Orwell closely enough, or pull the disreputable stunt of putting the words of Orwell’s characters into his own mouth. There are ten chapters, each defending one aspect of Orwell’s writing—the left, the empire, women, America, and so on.  Most are good, but some (e.g., “Deconstructing the Post-modernists”) are thin and tendentious. He freely admits Orwell’s problems, which include his wavering between conservative and liberal stands, but defends him ably, disposing of the charge that Orwell compiled a list of communist intellectuals for the British government.

For Hitchens, then, Orwell matters because he was a man of clarity and principle.  As he says in the last chapter:

The disputes and debates and combats in which George Orwell took part are receding into history, but the manner in which he conducted himself as a writer and participant has a reasonable chance of remaining as a historical example of its own.

But I think it’s fair to add, and it’s not a slight on Hitchens, that for him Orwell matters because Hitchens matters—and vice versa.

To benefit from this book, though, you’ll have to have read a lot of Orwell, or you’ll have no context for Hitchens’s analysis.  And by “a lot of Orwell,” I mean at least Animal Farm, 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London (or The Road to Wigan Pier), and a good dollop of Orwell’s collected essays.  Surprisingly, I found a lot of these online for free.  Hitchens does take up Orwell’s fiction, but most of it, save 1984, is decidedly inferior and can be skipped.  I highly recommend all the books I’ve just listed, as well as the four volumes of Orwell’s collected essays, which many, including myself, consider his finest writing.  The best essays are also online for free, but I especially urge you to read these (click the links to see them):

A Hanging (has one unforgettable scene)

Boys’ Weeklies (Orwell loved to write about popular culture, and did it well. See also The Art of Donald McGill, about Britain’s bawdy postcards)

Charles Dickens (some of the best stuff ever written on Dickens)

How the Poor Die (from Orwell’s time in a French hospital)

Inside the Whale (perhaps his most famous essay on politics and literature)

Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool (Orwell wasn’t good at fiction—except for 1984 and Animal Farm—but he was a great literary critic. Here’s an example.)

Politics and the English Language (my favorite Orwell essay, it’s about how to write clearly and how politicians don’t—on purpose.  I give this piece to my students to teach them how to write)

Reflections on Gandhi (Orwell at his most curmudgeonly, taking the mickey out of an Indian saint.  I disagree with much of what he says here but recommend it nonetheless). Note that in the link the title is wrong and “Gandhi” is misspelled. This makes me worry about these online essays and recommend that you take them from the library.)

Shooting an Elephant (from Orwell’s days as a policeman in Burma. Superb prose here!)

Such, Such Were the Joys (Orwell’s analysis of his horrible days at boarding school.  A classic)

The Lion and the Unicorn (a wonderful piece on English politics)

The Spike (a “spike” is a temporary lodging for vagrants and hobos. Posing as a tramp, Orwell took to the road and produced this famous report)

and, finally, Why I Write (Orwell’s manifesto)

If you’re still dubious about Orwell, just read the short piece Shooting an Elephant.  If you don’t want more after that, there’s no hope for you!

Surprisingly, Hitchens doesn’t mention one of the most important reasons why Orwell matters: he was one of our finest prose stylists.  He had a great respect for the English language and used it to write some of the finest essays ever produced in that tongue.  Reading Orwell will not only give you the pleasure of many lascivious sentences, but, if you pay attention, will do wonders for your own writing.

49 thoughts on “Why Orwell Matters

  1. What, no Homage to Catalonia? As for Down and Out in Paris and London – a wonderful book; for me one of the best of Orwell’s.

    1. Now, see, I read that and was left wondering whether it conveyed the author’s state of mind or a state of mind that the author wished to convey.

  2. Indeed, Orwell’s “lesser” fiction is exactly that. 1984 and Animal Farm are moving in ways very few books are moving, but the rest of his fiction largely suffered from the fact that it was just not as inspired as his non-fiction. Like so many of today’s fictioneers, Orwell was a better essayist than a sculptor of fiction (no shame in that, as this can be said of many of our finest writers—James Baldwin, Emerson—who was a better essayist and speech-writer than a poet—Gore Vidal, Joan Didion).

  3. Homage to Catalonia aside from being a fine book is essential to understanding Orwell’s politics.

  4. Well… From a purely literary point of view, even the best of Orwell’s fiction is not really outstanding. This is an author one reads for the message, not for the story. I admit I only finished Animal Farm because it’s so short, and never got around to read 1984 in full.

    1. 1984 is his only fiction that I’ve read. It’s frightening because it always seem to be about to happen.

      I’ve read bits of his essays, and it sounds like I need to read a lot more.

  5. “Politics and the English Language”


    Like E.B. White before him, Orwell is an example that being able to write well does not in any way confer upon an author any objective knowledge of the English language whatsoever. Stuck up, ignorant peevoligists.

    (Just bough 1984, though, as it happens.)

    1. ‘toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line’

      I saw this one just the other day!

      I don’t understand what you don’t agree with.

    2. “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

      The very first line of “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell breaks Rule #4) “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Huzzah!

      (Still love him tho.)

  6. I’m not so quick to disregard his other books. As a student, I found Animal Farm painful (but since have re-read it and enjoyed it). Over the past decade I think I’ve read most of his novels (I didn’t know he served in Burma, but that would explain his in-depth description in Burmese days).
    Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air both remind me of H. G. Wells’s stories (another writer I really enjoy)… etc
    They might not be relevant to Hitchens’s book, but those mentioned above and others are wonderful works.
    I haven’t read any of his essays (I found old book in a 2nd book story that had a few of them, but it was expensive), so cheers for the heads up on those – I’ll be reading through them asap. 🙂

  7. Here Orwell is on solid ground: many of the critics either haven’t read Orwell closely enough, or pull the disreputable stunt of putting the words of Orwell’s characters into his own mouth.

    I think you meant Hitchens is on solid ground, no?

  8. One thing to note is that Hitchens is a much better writer than Orwell. Orwell was a very good plain writer, but Hitchens is well beyond that. Hitchens is in a league with Hazlitt, and Orwell isn’t.

    1. I disagree strongly. Hitchens has never written anything as moving as this:

      It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

      It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working –bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

      That is simple prose, but it is simple, eloquent, and moving prose.

      1. quite agree with a thoughtful commentary about Mr Hitchens prowress as a writer. Orwell was-is-a genius. Mr Hitchens shows hues of geniality, as many do, without achieving it.

      2. Are you sure Hitchens has never written anything as moving as that? Can you show me the place where he hasn’t?

        :- )

        Anyway – I don’t disagree that that’s a great passage, or that Orwell is great in some ways. I was a huge fan in my yoof, when the four volumes were first published – I read and re-read them obsessively. But Hitchens has more strings to his bow, and he really is a demon stylist. Simple prose isn’t necessarily the best prose, and Orwell is often just…pedestrian. I’ve never seen anything pedestrian from Hitchens.

        1. Not sure why but the word “youth” has always been unsatisfactory to me. Now, “yoof”, that is a jolly word that is full of frolic.

          Yoof of the world, unite! 🙂

  9. Orwell’s works are also available in ebook format at the University of Adelaide site, here. Hope the link works. All the collected essays are there, I think. If you’ve got a Kindle, you’ll need Calibre. to turn it into mobi format (which can be read on the Kindle). It’s free. (Hint: If you want it to be properly formatted, click on “Structure Detection”, then click “Preprocess input file …” and clear the box marked “Insert page breaks before …” This will make the title page and credits land on pages instead of being crowded together with the text.)

  10. I am interested in your comments on Orwell’s essay on Gandhi. I think he is very acute in his criticisms, though he apparently did not know of Gandhi’s very strong, and even disgraceful, racist attitude towards South African blacks. Nor, it seems to me, has he adequately taken Gandhi to task for his Hindu primitivism (a primitivism which may be thought to have achieved its Muslim form in Mawdudi, whether in conscious response to Gandhi I do not know.). In fact, I think it very likely that Gandhi’s Hinduism was to some extent, at least, responsible for the partition of India, which has brought only heartache. I was particularly moved by this insight: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.” This seems to me so true that it ought to be recalled wherever sainthood is discussed. “Mother” Teresa is a good example of the principle, and she certainly did not demur when treated with all the reverence due (in the pious imagination) to a saint.(Gandhi is spelt correctly in the Adelaide edition.)

    1. I agree. Actually, I didn’t find his comments on Gandhi to be “curmudgeonly”. Rather, I took it to be a worldly humanist’s honest look at a saint. Look at how he closes, for instance:

      But if, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi’s personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading
      political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.

      For me, at least, that’s oddly touching, especially when you realise it’s Orwell who wrote it.

      1. ”Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

        Brilliant – just brilliant!

  11. Has Orwell’s reputation benefited from his relatively early demise? Many pro-Communist thinkers of his day felt compelled to defend the creeping and overt totalitarianism that arose from the Soviet, Chinese and other regimes that had shown much promise for socialist democracy in the early part of the century. We’ll never know if Orwell would have broken ranks with other Marxists of his era who grew to be apologists for Stalin and Mao, and thus Orwell remains an enigmatic hero of both the left and right wing today.

    1. And we’ll never learn what Solzhenitsyn thought about gulags or Primo Levi thought about concentration camps.

  12. We’ll never know if Orwell would have broken ranks with other Marxists of his era who grew to be apologists for Stalin and Mao, and thus Orwell remains an enigmatic hero of both the left and right wing today.


    1. Well, Orwell was such a vociferous critic of any political chicanery in the “Free World” that he must surely have been a devout acolyte of Stalin. Don’t listen to that guy with the bad teeth – he says that British politicians are full of shit – obviously a commie.

  13. … or, more politely but still sarcastically: yeah, it’s a real shame Orwell died before he had time to make clear his opinions on Stalinism! We know he stood for democratic socialism, but would he have felt compelled to defend totalitarianism in Russia and China if he’d lived a bit longer? It’s all a bit of an enigma. We’ll just never know.

      1. Wull, not to mention the fact that he became something of a pariah on the left as early as Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia made him officially a pariah. Gollancz and the New Statesman both considered him a traitor, because he was a sworn enemy of Stalin and Stalinism. Orwell was allied with Trotskyists for years after the Barcelona purge.

  14. Shooting an Elephant is one of my all-time favorite Orwell essays. It really helped me see how power traps the people on both sides of the equation.

    1. … yeah, I have the same reaction to “1984” (a dystopia).

      In fact, I haven’t read any of Orwell and likely will not because of that ‘funny’ choice of subject.

  15. Actually, there is too much piling on about how bad Orwell’s fiction was. Coming Up For Air, e.g., is pretty good, and there are many places in the story where he evokes a chuckle. The book also reproduces fairly well the paranoid atmosphere of Britain in the waning days of interwar peace.

    1. I would say Coming Up For Air is interesting rather than good. Fiction just didn’t fit Orwell; his voice was that of an essayist. He would have been a great blogger.

      That’s more a compliment than a criticism, by the way. I don’t think fiction is “higher” than essays.

  16. I wouldn’t compare Hitchens with Orwell – I can only see trivial similarities.

    I don’t understand why Hitchens feels a need to write a book to defend Orwell though – have the revisionists really rewritten Eric Blair’s history that much?

    While I think Orwell really was a great essay writer, I never had an attraction to Hemingway’s stories.

  17. I followed a similar trajectory a couple of months ago. I began with Hitchen’s book and then started to delve into the essays and lesser known works, many of which I find brilliant. Also like you I see a little of Hemingway in the bare bones yet brutally honest writing style.

    I was glad to see someone above defend his fiction with the example of Burmese Days. Although thin in parts I very much enjoyed it overall.

    One criticism that I do believe has merit is that Orwell has trouble writing compelling women characters.

  18. In high school I generally hated the non-science subjects I took. I failed German, scraped by in French because our female teacher was cute, etc.

    The only reason I passed English Lit was because Animal Farm was one of the assigned books. After that I checked 1984 out of the school library. My English teacher was suitably impressed.

  19. Orwell had a keen ear for bullshit (just read his essay “Politics and the English Language”), constantly alerting readers when their leaders were duping them. You’ll recognize these as qualities of Hitchens as well.

    None of you fanboys noticed that apparently this doesn’t apply to Iraq?

    Orwell was a lower middle class Englishman with enormous common sense (although as a polemic essayist, he could be terse, and cut short discussions that should have been longer, but he was just giving opinions in short form in magazine pieces, so whatever). Hitchens on the other land is a silver spoon who daydreamed about Trotsky at Oxford, and feels a bit of noblesse oblige to teach the “unsophisticated” Yanks to be more like liberal Europeans (although with his own brand of military romanticism thrown in). Very different people, Orwell and Hitchens, I think.

      1. I still think they’re very different people though. Orwell came into the 30’s and earnestly came by his political views as a solution to intractable problems (as many people did), then was disillusioned, and was very insightful about that. Hitchens OTOH went to Oxford as a privileged romantic and fantasized about Trotsky, and saw a model in Orwell as a famous literary polemicist.

        Very different people.

        Check out Josh Marshall’s essay on the Orwell Temptation:


  20. Different people, and living at very different times. Things were much more desperate and earnest for Orwell. Orwell is read now, 60 years after his death. I don’t think Hitchens will be, though I’m a great fan of his work.

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