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There’s more to George Orwell than politics

As ever, it was his political legacy that garnered the most attention. Alongside examinations of the novel’s power from literary perspectives, both the left and…

As ever, it was his political legacy that garnered the most attention. Alongside examinations of the novel’s power from literary perspectives, both the left and the right used his ideas to illustrate their opinions of the problems in modern society.

This treatment of Orwell is understandable: after all, he himself wrote, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” The motive behind his writing was always intensely political.

Nevertheless, Orwell should not be read purely as a political writer. It was his fiction that secured his reputation, and he relied on his characters as much as any other author. Unfortunately, competing against such powerful concepts as Big Brother, Newspeak and Thoughtcrime, Orwell’s protagonists are all too often ignored. Today, on the 60th anniversary of his death, they also deserve to be celebrated, especially as they form one of literature’s most striking collections of miserablists.

Orwell’s male leads are particularly compelling. John Flory, Gordon Comstock and George Bowling, along with Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “small, frail” Winston Smith, would probably just shrug their shoulders if they were told how often they are overlooked. Like the creatures in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, their incessant melancholia only makes them all the more endearing. Self-pitying, downtrodden, unattractive and all neurotically well aware of it, you couldn’t hope to meet a more wonderful bunch of losers.

With Orwell a keen follower of Dickens’s habit of making characters’ internal weaknesses manifest in their appearance, they’re a pitiful bunch in physical terms, too. Comstock of Keep the Aspidistra Flying shares Winston’s frailness and can only sigh as girls in the street pass him by, their “cruel youthful eyes” going “over him and through him as though he had not existed.” Flory of Burmese Days is consumed by shame at the dark blue birthmark running down his face. And although Coming Up For Air’s Bowling insists to readers he really is a rather cheerful fatty, the defining image of him comes while he is having his morning wash: “No woman, I thought as I worked the soap round my belly, will ever look twice at me again, unless she’s paid to. Not that at that I moment I particularly wanted any woman to look twice at me.”

This sense of inadequate masculinity and constant self-awareness – the kind that makes Bowling picture himself walking down the road with his fat face, false teeth and vulgar clothes – is a huge part of what makes Orwell’s novels so readable. Just look at how Winston greets Julia’s advances with a classically Orwellian self-assessment. “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got false teeth,” he tells her. “What could attract you to a man like me?” Who could resist that for a chat-up line? Had he been around in the real 1984, Winston would surely have been a fan of the Smiths.

When it comes to self-deprecation, however, John Flory takes first prize. “Sneaking, idling, boozing, fornicating, soul-examining, self-pitying cur,” he tells himself at one point. “All those fools at the Club, those dull louts to whom you are so pleased to think yourself superior – they are all better than you, every man of them. At least they are men in their oafish way. Not cowards, not liars. Not half-dead and rotting.”

It almost seems unfair to lump Dorothy Hare of A Clergyman’s Daughter in with this lot; although her hair is her only “positive beauty”, she is at least “just pretty enough” to receive male attention. The only trouble is that, in an inevitable twist, she doesn’t want their attention. After catching sight of her parents indulging in “all that” in bed as a nine-year-old, she is firmly asexual, meaning even her slight attractiveness is in fact a disadvantage to her. Trust Orwell to have come up with that.

It’s true that the pathetic nature of his characters was far from unpolitical on Orwell’s part. After all, his tales of repression wouldn’t work quite so well if they were delivered via handsome gentlemen and elegant ladies strolling around being suave and poised. But whatever the calculation behind their creation as portraits of inadequacy, his characters make for great reading in themselves.

Culled from the Guardian, UK

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