(1) "DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON"
An Autobiographical Book
Down and Out in Paris and London is an autobiographical book recording some of the actual experiences of the author in the two important cities of
and Paris during a brief period of time. In the spring of 1928 Orwell left London for Paris in order to live cheaply as he was almost penniless at the time and in urgent need of work. He stayed in Paris till the end of 1929 and then went back to London where for some time he earned his living mainly by teaching and partly by writing. In a preface to this book, Orwell wrote: London
As for the authenticity of my story, I can affirm that I have exaggerated nothing, except in the sense that every writer exaggerates: in selecting. I did not feel I was obliged to relate the events in the order they occurred. But everything I have described really happened at some time or other I should also add that this book does not pretend to give a complete picture of life in Paris and London, but only to describe one special aspect of it.
The Exploitation of the Poor and the Needy
Orwell's main purpose in writing this book was moral and political. He wanted to reveal the condition of a certain segment of society and to suggest who was responsible. It is a seminal book. As in most other books by Orwell, the main character here begins in complete ignorance and simplicity and proceeds to knowledge. The effectiveness of the book arises from the fact that Orwell portrays this movement from naivete to knowledge, thus giving to the reader a feeling of discovery. Orwell's simplicity is seen particularly in regard to the manners, morals, and living conditions of the poor. In his effort to get a job in Paris, he finds that the sense of honour, which the poor people were supposed to possess, had already become something out-of-date. Unemployed and hungry, he loses the opportunity of getting a job because he does not tell a lie about how long he will stay in Paris. On being asked by the prospective employer how long he will stay in Paris, Orwell replies that he might leave very soon. The result of his telling his prospective employer the truth is that he is not given the job. Boris, the Russian immigrant, who had found this opportunity for Orwell, scolds Orwell for having told the truth. When Orwell says that he had simply tried to give an honest reply, Boris says:
Honest! Honest! Whoever heard of a plongeur being honest! Mon ami, man ami; you have worked here all day. You see what hotel work is like. Do you think a plongeur can afford a sense of honour?
Orwell also learns about those who exploit the plongeurs and the tramps. The pawn-shop owner, the hotel managers, and even the hotel operators, all use and de-humanize the poor and that outcast. Yet the narrator's initiation into the lowest class of society and into the under-world is never total. He remains the middle-class Englishman to the end. His complete identification with poverty is impossible because there is always the alternative of his getting a teaching job in England and there is also a friend in the background ready to lend him some money. Throughout the narration, Orwell seems to be in a constant state of amazement. He is continuously surprised by his experiences, and his curiosity never diminishes. Whatever he undergoes, whether two or three days without food, whether working as a plongeur, whether tramping from place to place, he always remains somewhat detached from the experience itself.
A Re-creation of the Experience of Physical Corruption
Orwell's experiences may be regarded as a moral encounter in modern society, an initiation into the knowledge of good and evil. While Bozo's and Boris's defiance and their will to survive have an exhilarating effect on Orwell, the dominant and unifying theme of the book is one of decay. For instance, our first vision of Paris is of "a very narrow street, a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in act of collapse" In London too, everything appears in the state of decomposition. Indeed, the chief value of Down and Out is the author's re-creation of the experience of physical corruption. His descriptions show the city life of the poor as inhuman, monstrous, and destructive. His use of vivid detail sustains the reader's indignation and suggests the spiritual barrenness of society. The portrayal had its source in Orwell's own moral horror, which was transferred into a desire to inform, convince, and educate. His primary purpose was to communicate his message to the reader. The boob illustrates to a great extent how the propaganda motive can inform and strengthen the aesthetic effect.
Characterization: Paddy and Boris
The characterization in this book seems to have been greatly influenced by Dickens. Orwell's companion on the tramp is Paddy Jaques. He is the only one of the three major characters who might be called typical or average. Boris and Bozo, on the other hand, are eccentrics. Boris, the son of a rich man, was an officer before the Russian revolution. He is a comic figure who combines the manners of an aristocrat with the appearance of a beggar. He is individualized by his humour and cunning. He also assumes the role of the narrator's first mentor, who teaches him how to behave in the underground society and how to survive there. Subsequently, Paddy and Bozo complete the narrator's education in England. Paddy teaches him how to endure physically, while Bozo teaches him how to endure intellectually and artistically.
Bozo is a pavement artist. (Such an artist is known as a "screever"). Bozo represents the independent artist. Like Boris, he has come down in the world. After having suffered an injury to his foot, he could not get a regular job and so has taken to drawing political cartoons on the Paris pavements. He impresses Orwell with his fluency in the French language and with his wide reading. Bozo also has an idea of personal and artistic integrity. He satirizes various politicians and parties through his cartoons. But of more importance to Orwell is Bozo's attitude toward poverty. Bozo believes that a man can live cheerfully with books and with ideas even if he is poor. As long as a man is intellectually free, it should not matter to him if he is poor in the financial sense. Bozo demonstrates the way a man and an artist can live without the money and the ethic of the middle-class. Orwell has realized the moral and intellectual corruption which conformity to middle-class society produces, but he has been in doubt about the effects of poverty. Now the way of the life of Bozo and Boris shows to Orwell a means of maintaining integrity beyond the limits of society. Furthermore, Orwell understands that the attitude of these two men is not simply a negation or a glorification of failure. Bozo, for instance, has neither fear, nor regret, nor shame, nor self-pity. Bozo has faced his position and made a philosophy for himself.
A Contrast Between the Characters and the Setting
The characters in this book are, then, largely drawn as representing a contrast to the setting. Paris and London are depicted as corrosive and debilitating cities, while the people like Boris and Bozo manage to retain their humanity and identity. In this way Orwell achieves a double purpose: he reveals the decaying condition of society, and he shows that the lower classes possess an internal energy and strength to survive. The quality of the characterization also indicates that propaganda was not Orwell's only motive; for his creations are often seen as more than victims and never presented with the sentimentality which could mar the portrayal of working men. Besides, the narrator is quite capable of criticizing the outcasts for their lack of gratitude and their vindictiveness.
No Depth of Feeling or Thought in the Characterization
At the same time, it must be admitted that, although the characters in this book are vivid because of the author's careful use of detail and dialogue, they are closer to caricatures than personalities. They exist entirely on the surface; their gestures and speech do not indicate any depth of feeling or thought. The author's failure in characterization, in fact, shows what Orwell had himself admitted: a lack of any thorough knowledge of poverty. But even in his later books Orwell does not achieve any greater success in creating characters. It is only in a few of his protagonists (such as Flory, Dorothy Hare, and Gordon Comstock) that he is able to suggest something of an inner life. This inability to create characters of any depth is Orwell's chief limitation as a writer.
Flaws in the Technique
Besides. Down and Out is marred by certain flaws in the technique. The book falls roughly into two parts, the first dealing with Orwell's experiences in Paris and the second with his experiences in London. At the end of each part, Orwell steps out of the role of a narrator's character and comments upon, and interprets, the action. For instance, at the end of the first part he writes:
A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him. I say this of the plongeur because it is his case I have been considering; it would apply equally to numberless other types of workers.
Not only does Orwell fall occasionally into this kind of political moralizing, but he also adds an inappropriate discussion of the underworld slang and language in one of the chapters. This discussion has been introduced without regard for narrative integrity. This discussion shows Orwell's failure to have exercised his critical judgment, because he has introduced an experience which has no precise relevance to what he is doing.
The Unnecessary Gloss
The political moralizing is a flaw because it is for the most part superfluous. The dramatic episodes, which occupy most of the space in the book, have already conveyed the author's point to the reader and have, in fact, done so much more convincingly. Orwell initially realizes the greater effectiveness of character and situation, but once into the work he decides that a gloss is called for. This problem occurs not only in this book but in several others by Orwell.
The Great Merit of This Book
In spite of these weaknesses, Orwell shows in his first book an ability to depict and convey the ugliness and depression of poverty. His characterization certainly lacks depth; the structure of the book is unsteady; but his descriptions are extraordinarily convincing. His powers of observation and the use of detail to depict the substratum of the modern European city make this book more than a simple tract. Throughout the book there is an underlying moral horror. Throughout the book we perceive the presence of a highly sensitive conscience reacting to a diseased society. No writer of Orwell's generation was able to record his experience of the city better than Orwell did. Although Orwell spent only a short time in the slums of Paris and London, what he saw made a lasting impression on his mind. What he saw occurs again and again in his works. His portrayal of the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, was most probably derived from those early experiences. Down and Out also reveals the maturing of a social conscience which might never have emerged if he had not gone through these early experiences in city slums. Ultimately his experiences of the lowest sections of society gave him a moral purpose for his life and a subject-matter for his art.
An Early Review of This Book
It would be worth while quoting here an early review of Down and Out:
Poverty is an unnecessary and disgusting waste of human life; the author makes this point clear. George Orwell is an Eton graduate. In the beginning, his interest in poverty was impersonal, but he found himself penniless in Paris. He pawned his belongings, foraged for food and work, and was finally employed as a plongeur (dish-washer and handy man) in a smart Parisian hotel. There he slaved ten hours a day and longer in a dim, filthy cavern behind the glittering dining-rooms of the establishment. His wages barely kept him alive. He escaped, only to be forced, for a period, into living a tramp's life in England. Again he met with degradation, hopelessness, squalor.
His account is genuine, unexaggerated, and intelligent. Possessing a sense of character, Orwell adorns his narrative with portraits and vignettes that give the book interest and concreteness. In addition, he contrasts poverty in France and England, and his contrast tends somewhat to reveal the differences between the two nations. And with humility he suggests as a final word that his study is only a beginning in understanding this problem.
(2) "THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER"
A Political Tract; a Piece of Left-Wing Sociologising; and an Autobiographical Work
This book was written as a consequence of an assignment given to Orwell by an organization called the "Left Book Club" for a report on the conditions of the unemployed in the north of England. To the editors of a series of documents published by that organization, Orwell's book appeared as above all a political work. In fact, one of the editors was sufficiently impressed by Orwell's criticism of the prevalent conditions to think it necessary to write some introductory pages refuting Orwell's accusations. Certainly there is a strong basis for regarding the book both as a political tract and as a piece of left-wing sociologising. But to see it exclusively or even primarily in these terms is to make an unsound approach to it. Orwell's political criticism and proposals are all derived from his personal experiences; and the conditions prevailing in England at the time as presented in this book are much more convincing as an index to Orwell's own emotional state than as an account of a particular phase of English social and political life. The sociological reporting also seems to be very much a secondary item in the book. The very structure of this book shows a conscious effort on the author's part to subordinate this aspect of the work to more urgent autobiographical concerns.
Two Parts of the Book, Only Superficially Related
By accepting the commission of the "Left Book Club", Orwell provided himself with an opportunity to test as well as to express his beliefs in socialism. No doubt, he felt competent to write such a book because he had done something similar in Down and Out. Yet the result of his expedition to an industrial town in the north of England was not quite satisfactory. Not only did he fail to define socialism in concrete and definite terms, but the book is itself not quite coherent. Properly speaking, it should not be judged as a single book but as two separate essays which are only superficially related. For the most part, the first section is a detailed account of his experiences among the industrial workers. But the vividness and instant appeal of this section are unfortunately diminished by the statistical tables which were introduced by Orwell and which are interesting only to the social historian. The second part of the book is mainly a record of Orwell's ideas and feelings in regard to socialism, which he concludes by defining what he believed it should be and what direction it should take. The most effective passages in the book are those where Orwell narrates what he himself saw and felt : for example, his stay at Brooker's lodging-house and his descent into a coal-mine, one of the very best descriptions in modern literature.
Images of Decay and Disintegration.
The Plight of the Working Class
The Plight of the Working Class
Like many of Orwell's works, The Road to Wigan Pier opens with an image of decay and disintegration in the description of Brooker's lodging-house. Subsequently, Orwell decides to quit this lodging-house when he finds a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table. But it is not merely the filth which prompts him to leave but, as he says, "the feeling of stagnant, meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles." This is followed immediately by an image of a young housewife whom Orwell sees from the train. This woman stands as a symbol of industrialization. Here are the relevant lines:
At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.
In descriptions of this kind Orwell creates a convincing picture of the working-man's problem, much more convincing than any list of statistics or denunciatory polemic.
Orwell's Recognition of the Good Qualities
of Working Men
of Working Men
But Orwell found the working men to be not only degraded and de-humanized, but also possessing qualities of heroism, dignity, and a basic decency. He depicts the coal-miners as men of great strength and endurance; and he says: "All of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal-dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel." And everywhere he goes, into homes and mines, he is received with extraordinary courtesy and good nature.
His Recollections of His Life in Burma
A good deal of space in this book is devoted to Orwell's period in Burma. After all, that period marked the most important stage in his adult life. It was in Burma that he became permanently convinced of the deadening effects of English middle-class style and of the imperial order which formed part of it. And it was there that he rejected what he called an evil despotism and became conscious of the "immense weight of guilt I had got to expiate". His sympathy for the natives of Burma emerges clearly when he says that he did not find them physically repulsive. Indeed, Orwell in this book makes a detailed comparison between the attractiveness of the Oriental body and that of the body of the white man. Admittedly, he says, the white races throw up a few individuals what are supremely beautiful; but, on the whole, they are far less comely than Orientals. It seems likely that this new ability in Orwell to see sensuous beauty in man helps to explain Orwell's guilt at being a part of the imperial administration. We may even say that Burma had a strong and curative effect on his longstanding disgust at man's physical nature. For it was in Burma that he learned both to admire the human body and to be horrified at the sight of its suffering under the callousness of English imperialism. Indeed, the main significance of The Road to Wigan Pier is that it is a rewriting of personal history in such a way as to confirm both Orwell's release from existential nausea and the possibility of restoring emotional integrity to him.
His Proposals For a Unity in Social and Personal Life
In the later chapters of this book Orwell offers a set of proposals for a wider reconciliation between the middle-class and the working-class. It is to this that he refers when he speaks of "socialism". Yet these chapters, coming after the long essay in autobiography, strike us as something more than political proposals. They are really proposals for a unity in social life that will be an extension of the personal, psychological unity considered by Orwell earlier in the book. The same holds true for the account of contemporary literary culture which Orwell gives in the later part of the book and which too is a prominent feature of it. Orwell finds a lack of emotional range and depth in modern writing. Here he is faced with the same problem which underlies his political proposals, namely his sense of the compartmentalization and emotional restrictedness of English life as a whole.
A Comment on This Book
The following comment by a critic on this book is noteworthy:
The great strength of The Road to Wigan Pier is that the economic injustices are always described in human terms. A slum to Orwell implies warped lives and ailing children. Orwell's moving theme is a fervent plea for human dignity and compassion, and against "the frightful doom of a decent working man suddenly thrown on the streets after a life-time of steady work, his agonized struggles against economic laws which he does not understand, the disintegration of families, the corroding sense of shame." He attacks Corporation housing because it is soulless and unhumane, and erodes both family and communal life; he criticizes the Means Test because it cruelly breaks up families; and he exposes the deadening effect of unemployment. His images of human degradation are the most powerful: the desolate drudgery of the exhausted young woman kneeling beside the blocked waste-pipe; the blank and aged grandmother with the yellow cretinous countenance; the worn skull-like face of the slum mother; and the dumpy shawled women crawling in the cindery mud in search of coal chips. (Orwell's contrasting image of human affirmation is the pavement-artist Bozo in Down and Out, who gazes at the stars and is a free man in his own mind: "Rich or poor you can still keep on with your books and your ideas"). Orwell's emphasis throughout the book is on the "ordinary decent person": and the sense of human waste, shame, and debasement that he conveys is overwhelming. As Orwell wrote during the War: "I hate to see
either humiliated or humiliating anybody else. I wanted to think that the class distinctions and imperialist exploitation of which I am ashamed would not return." Though Orwell writes, "I have seen just enough of the working-class to avoid idealizing them," and dissociates himself from a belief in the superiority of the proletariat, he yet idealizes the manners, temperament, stoicism, family life, and democracy of the working-class. This is partly because he is intensely dissatisfied with his own middle-class origins and wants to transcend them. But, more importantly, he feels that the working-class incarnates some deeply meaningful myth of suffering, and that in its emancipation lies the general salvation of mankind. England
(3) “HOMAGE TO CATALONIA”
A Record of Orwell's Experiences in Spain
Orwell went to Spain in December 1936, five months after the outbreak of the Civil War in that country. He went thither as a newspaper correspondent to report the fast-moving and exciting events which were taking place there. But, instead of writing reports for newspapers, he joined the ill-equipped Trotsky. POUM militia in
because it seemed to him that at that time and in that atmosphere it was the only conceivable thing to do. After a week or so of hasty military training, he became a soldier in the revolutionary army and fought with the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.) contingent on the Aragon front in north-east Spain. He went through the almost static trench warfare in a freezing climate until on the 10th May, 1937 he was hit by a bullet fired by a Fascist sniper and badly wounded in his neck. When he began to recover from this wound in the following month, he volunteered to return to the battle-front. But the militia known as POUM was suddenly declared by the government to be illegal. Orwell now became a suspect in the eyes of the government. The Communist police began to look for him in order to arrest him, but he barely managed to escape across the French frontier. The book called Homage to Catalonia was written by Orwell as a record of his experiences in Spain during the period which he had spent in that country. His experiences there marked a crucial turning-point in his political beliefs. In this connection he wrote: "I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in socialism, which I never did before." Barcelona
A Political Book with Undoubted Literary Merits
Homage to Catalonia is a frankly political book, but it has undoubted literary merits which include brilliant descriptions of Catalan landscape, of the emotional atmosphere of a revolutionary militia, of Barcelona in different phases, the account of being wounded almost to death, and of being hunted like a criminal. In connection with this last-mentioned episode, Orwell wrote: "We started off by being heroic defenders of democracy and ended by slipping over the border with the police panting on our heels."
Orwell's Fight Against Fascism and Totalitarianism
Orwell went to Spain for very good reasons. He believed that Fascism was the greatest threat at the time, and he thought that in Spain there was a chance that the rising tide of Fascism might yet be checked. He went there to serve the cause of democracy with his pen, but he felt it necessary to become an active soldier to fight on the side of freedom and democracy and against totalitarianism. During the period that he remained in Spain, he tried to understand the military and political situation prevailing there, but he found it very difficult to understand exactly what the situation was, because the atmosphere there was thick with rumours, propaganda, lies, and local feuds. In Homage to Catalonia he tries to tell us whatever he had been able to understand about the situation as it then existed and as he observed it. The book contains an eye-witness's account. The book is interesting insofar as it shows how Orwell’s Spanish experience at the front and the rear helped to shape the political ideas of his subsequent books—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and also of some of the essays. But it also remains one of the few books which are important and interesting as historical accounts of the Spanish Civil War.
Orwell's Self-Confessed Bias
Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia is also consistently a personal narrative, an account of Orwell's own responses to the events he describes. The two subjects are not artificially separated, as they were in The Road to Wigan Pier, but are here kept continuously present. The very title suggests the importance of the personal element: "homage" rather than description; "Catalonia", where Orwell was actually stationed, rather than Spain as a whole. In the book itself, Orwell twice warns the reader to take into account the author's bias:
I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes.
And again in the final pages of the book he writes:
Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.
Two Narrative Strands in the Book
Homage to Catalonia thus has two narrative strands, one concerned with external events, and the other with the author's internal feelings and reactions to those events. The external narrative records what happened in Catalonia between December 1936 and June 1937, and argues that during these crucial months the genuine socialist revolution, which had taken place there, was betrayed. The second narrative, the internal one, records the process of Orwell's own education, from the simple-minded and ignorant idealist of the early pages of this book to the hard-headed realist of the final pages. These two strands are inter-related in the book throughout. It is impossible to separate them because the external events directly contribute to Orwell's education, and this education in turn leads him to see a pattern in those events rather than merely regarding them as meaningless facts. The book constantly and very movingly describes Orwell's personal responses. Here, for example, is part of the description of his first impressions of Barcelona:
Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no well-dressed people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.
Orwell's Socialist Faith, Greatly Strengthened
Before going to Spain in December 1936, Orwell had not felt absolutely certain about the possibility of the realization of socialism. Perhaps his most powerful doubt about the implementation of socialism had been the result of his temperamental pessimism. He had never felt sure that human beings could really live in a state of equality. Class distinctions had so pervaded all of his previous experiences, whether at school, in Burma, or in England upon his return, that it was difficult for him to believe in the possibility of a classless society. His stay in Spain changed his whole outlook, and he now became a passionate believer in socialism. In Spain he saw the post-revolutionary society, in which "land had been seized by the peasants, industries collectivised, big capitalists killed or driven out, the church practically abolished. Barcelona, and the Aragon front where he was posted, gave him a feeling that human brotherhood had been achieved. His descriptions of this moment in Spain's history express his deep satisfaction. Here is an example from Homage to Catalonia:
Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss etc.—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-divisions of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England. One had been in a community where the word "comrade" stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.
Spain proved to Orwell that a classless society could work. Barcelona was a large, modern city which, despite its abolition of class privilege, was evidently still functioning properly. But the real test was the militia, the volunteer fighting force which had abolished all forms of inequality between officers and men. Here was an army in which "everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes and mingled on terms of complete equality." This policy of equality in the POUM militia had proved to be a powerful cohesive force.
The Reversion of Spanish Society to the Pre-Revolutionary Class Distinctions
Orwell's experience in Spain made his socialism a living and vibrant faith. At the same time, this experience also sowed in him the seeds of his strongest doubts because, although he had seen the establishment of a classless society, he also watched it die. When he returned to Barcelona after several months at the front early in 1937, he found that the city had reverted to its pre-revolutionary class distinctions. He found that the streets of this city were once again full of fat, prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars, and that the normal division of society into the rich and the poor, the upper-class and the lower-class, was coming back. Although there were acute shortages of food and tobacco, anything could be purchased if one had enough money. The fashionable restaurants had reopened, and the trains again had first-class coaches and dining-cars. In the armed forces, a similar pattern was evident. Even more disturbing to Orwell was the conflict among the parties supporting the government. The unity which had characterized the early days of the war was breaking down. Fierce internal struggles for power were destroying the vital unity of the Left. Orwell now became directly involved in this civil war within the Civil War when the party to whose militia he belonged, namely the POUM, was officially suppressed by the government.
Despair, Accompanied By Hope
Orwell watched all these happenings with a sense of despair. He says of the Barcelona fighting, for example, that "it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life. I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or finally, more nerve-racking, than those evil days of warfare." He began to fear that Fascism would triumph because the Left could not be united to fight it. Instead of using the external danger to strengthen their own unity, the socialist parties seemed to be spending most of their energies on the conflicts and rivalries within their own camp. Accusations and counter-accusations, lies and rumours, and open fighting—these had become common among the socialist factions. If such groups could not even unite among themselves when their cause and their lives were in danger, there could be no hope of creating an undivided society. And yet, with Orwell's sense of despair, went the hope that socialism would ultimately be achieved. The strange thing about Homage to Catalonia is that it ends optimistically. In spite of all the evil signs, he says, towards the end of this book:
When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough, the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.
The Betrayal of the Revolution in Spain
In spite of the words quoted above, Orwell did feel deeply depressed by the betrayal of the revolution which Orwell had witnessed in Spain. This betrayal was to obsess him for the rest of his life and was to lead to such pessimistic works as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. What had happened in Spain was merely the prelude to the world-wide triumph of tyranny.
The Truthfulness and Objectivity of the Book
Homage to Catalonia is distinguished from other books of the same kind by its truthfulness and objectivity, and by its frank portrayal of Orwell's helplessness and confusion. Despite his limited perspective and political ignorance, Orwell had created a meaningful work out of his immediate involvement in a contemporary event. Homage to Catalonia still stands as the most valuable English account of the Spanish War. In misery and horror, Orwell's experiences on the Aragon front surpassed anything he had previously suffered in Burma, or in Wigan, or while down and out in Paris and London. He tells us in his book that in war the physical details always outweigh everything else and that in Spain he was constantly submerged in an atmosphere of filth and chaos, excrement and decay, boredom and discomfort. The nightmare feeling is constantly emphasized, and rats appear frequently. When he was wounded, he found the medical treatment, to be absolutely crude. On returning to Barcelona he found the suspicion and hostility of his former comrades to be extremely depressing and disturbing. The most interesting things about his narrative, as already pointed out, are his exceptional honesty and the accuracy of his psychological responses. He admits that he was often frightened. When going to the front the first time, he lost his nerve completely. In the book he confesses that he was ineffectual in combat, deceived in a crisis, absurd as a smuggler, and self-indulgent on leave.
The Feeling of Comradeship and Solidarity
One of the fine things in this book is Orwell's faith in human decency and his description of the comradeship and solidarity among soldiers as symbolized by the moving hand-shakes of the Italian militiaman and the Spanish police officer at the beginning and end of the book. This idea of comradeship is at the very core of the book, and it is elaborated in many ways—humanistic, psychological, idealistic, and heroic. Orwell shares the concept of "the virile fraternity" with great writers like Melville, Conrad, and Malraux. The sense of comradeship and solidarity which Orwell experienced in Spain satisfied his deep-rooted psychological need. At school in Burma in Paris, in London, and in Wigan, he had been a lonely outsider, and this feeling of intense isolation is reflected in his fictional heroes—Flory, Dorothy, and Gordon. In Spain he was for the first time not isolated and alien. United in a common cause with the Spanish loyalists, he became deeply attached to them.