Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Orwell: The Writer

Concerned More With Ideas Than With Form or Style
George Orwell always wrote to a purpose outside writing itself, so that the form of a literary work was never for him an end in itself, and he never indulged in stylistic experimentation for its own sake. Even in discussing other writers, he did not show much interest in the formal aspects of their work. He was much more concerned with the ideas and the moral impulses found in the works of an author.

The Importance of Words and of Description in His Eyes
One important aspect of Orwell as a writer is that he attached a great importance to the words and to description. He tells us that, in reading Paradise Lost, he all at once "discovered the joy of mere words, that is, the sounds and associations of words," and he goes on to say: "As for the need to describe things, I knew all about it already." And then he goes on to show how this double preoccupation with words and with description determined the kind of books he wished in his youth to write:
I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound.
Words in his case are intended to play a dual role as evocative sounds and as the means not only to exact description but also to argumentation and moral-political discussions. This double movement of Orwell's prose can be seen most effectively in the kind of autobiographical, polemical reportage which he developed as his most characteristic form of writing. The structure of such works is essentially, a logical rather than an organic structure.  In each book of this kind, Orwell catches our attention by a fine descriptive piece which serves as a kind of introduction.  We enter Down and Out in Paris and London to the sound of the morning squabbles in a certain locality; we slide into the world of slums and unemployment in The Road to Wigan Pier through the seedy entrance-hall of the Bookers' lodging house; and the whole heroic tone of Homage to Catalonia is set by the high-keyed moment of Orwell's meeting with the Italian militiaman in Barcelona on the eve of his own joining the fight for the Republican cause. The alternation of narration and argument that follows can be observed in Down and Out. Basically the same form is followed in both the other books which have been named above. In each case we have a simple and unsophisticated form of construction.
One of the Best Writers of Reportage
Another point to be noted is that, while Orwell is always anxious, like a good journalist, to provide an opening that will immediately create the reader's interest, he is so little concerned about the endings that he generally closes a book with an anticlimax. The last chapter of Down and Out is pointlessly pathetic, while The Road to Wigan Pier ends in a stale joke. Only in Homage to Catalonia is there an increase in tension towards the end, when Orwell and his wife flee across the frontier from Barcelona to France. This way of writing is quite appropriate to books of this nature where the material of real life needs only the minimum of arrangement, and where the sheer quality of the prose can carry the subject-matter and the argument. This is why Orwell, with his love of description and his love for words which give the right feeling to a scene or a thought, is one of the best writers of reportage.
A Weakness in the Characterization
But the writing of novels is a different matter altogether. Here Orwell suffers from several weaknesses in characterization and structure. Orwell could admirably sketch a person whom he had met in real life and observed from the outside. Bozo the screever in Down and Out is an obvious example. But Orwell found it very difficult to create a fictional character, observed from within. Every major fictional character drawn by Orwell has the same attitude as Orwell himself had, even to the point of using the same language which Orwell himself was in the habit of using, and also expressing Orwell's own most characteristic thoughts. Only one fictional hero, namely George Bowling (in Coming Up For Air) develops enough vital autonomy to live in our minds as a credible character, though even he has his improbabilities. Orwell's characters are, in fact, extremely passive: all the important things in their lives happen to them, and whenever they themselves try to take action, which is usually in the form of rebellion against their passive role, their attempt always ends in futility.
Minor Characters, Drawn More Effectively
As in the case of Dickens, it is usually the minor characters who are the most effective in Orwell's novels. Orwell has successfully drawn characters like Mrs. Creevy, the proprietress of the evil   Ringwood   Academy; Ellis in Burmese Days, the fanatical hater of anyone with  a coloured skin; and even, in a way  George Bowling, who is really a   comic   minor   character magnified and seen from the inside. If Orwell failed to create if thoroughly convincing major characters, it was partly because of their passivity, partly because of their futility, and partly also because these characters are never really defined in their relationships with other people. Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying has three major personal relationships—with his sister, with his friend Ravelston, and with his girl Rosemary. But in no case does the relationship come alive. The reason is partly because Gordon is a highly self-centred man but mainly because there is no real individuality about the other characters and consequently nothing which can strike out against his egotism. In the other novels, the characters come to life only where there is a touch of comedy or incongruity to strike a spark. An example   is   Dorothy Hare's friendship with Mr. Warburton in A Clergyman's Daughter, which is much more credible than the love-affair between Gordon and Rosemary (in Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and the love-affair between Winston and Julia (in Nineteen Eighty-Four). The only marriage in Orwell's novels that really arouses the reader's interest is that of George and Hilda Bowling. In Burmese Days there is one very convincing and moving relationship, that between Flory and Dr. Veraswami with all its lovable misunderstandings, and with the pathetic loyalty all on one side. This novel contains another relationship which has an important bearing upon the partial nature Orwell's success as a novelist. Orwell was of the view that the true novel always contains at least two characters, probably more, who are described from the  inside  and on the same   level    of probability. Burmese Days is the only of Orwell's novels which meets this requirement. Both Flory and Elizabeth Lackersteen are seen from the inside. It is true that no kind of intimacy is ever established between them, but such is the author's own intention. What does take place is a confrontation in which they act upon, and define, each other, even though they are always at cross purposes on account of Flory's chronic romanticism and Elizabeth's chronic selfishness.
Each of the Six Novels, Representing a Different Type
Orwell's failures in characterization are closely connected with failures of general structure in his books. He never arrived at any satisfactory "form" for a large work of fiction. He was always searching for form. The result is that the six works of fiction which he wrote represent almost as many different types. Burmese Days can be accepted as a true novel in the tradition deriving from the French writer, Flaubert. But it was followed by A Clergyman's Daughter which is a loose picaresque with the elementary structure of a number of episodes hung on the thread of a journey. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is certainly not a novel in the traditional sense, and may be described as a burlesque. Coming Up For Air is a kind of prose dramatic monologue held together mainly by the charm of George Bowling's memories. It is a book almost without construction. Animal Farm, which Orwell described as a fairy tale, is really a fable, and it is also the only one of his novels possessing a perfectly tight economy, largely because it was built round an actual historical incident, the Russian Revolution and its betrayal. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a utopia. Here, again, Orwell took much pains over the construction, though not with the same success as in Animal Farm. The main flaw of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it has two centres, a political and theoretical one, and the other a human one. These centres come together when Winston is confronted by O'Brien in the Ministry of Love. This is the point where Winston meets the power of the Party in all its inhumane force. But Orwell fails at this crucial point to fuse the dual purposes of the book.
Orwell's Descriptions; His Polemical Arguments;
and His Style
As against Orwell's weaknesses in characterization and in structure, there are his achievements which are conspicuous. His descriptions are magnificent. His polemical arguments are always highly readable. Each one of his books contains episodes which not many writers can equal. His style is inimitable. Not since Swift has there been a prose more lucid, flexible, exact, and eloquent than Orwell's. But Orwell goes beyond Swift because he can speak in the tone of humour as well as that of satire; he can sound the lyrical and the elegiac notes, besides the urbane and austere ones. And his style is capable of many variations. The tone in which he writes of Wigan, for example, is quite different from the tone in which he writes of Aragon ; and the style in which he argues is different from that in which he describes. In his novels, there are different forms of the Orwellian style. In Burmese Days, for instance, Orwell's style is somewhat ornate but by no means inappropriate to its rather exotic subject. In Coming Up For Air, there is an immense gain in vigour, and the language is far more colloquial. In Animal Farm, Orwell reaches the ultimate point of simplification. This style is a model of direct, clear writing. The language of Animal Farm is Orwell's highest literary achievement because it is appropriate to that particular story and would not be appropriate to any other kind of story. More than any other writer of his time, Orwell learned to "let the meaning choose the word," which meant to let every meaning choose its word and the tone of its word.

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