Most critics tend to focus on Orwell’s fascination with failure. But let’s not forget his humorous side, argues Richard Lance Keeble
George Orwell was a very complex character full (like most of us) of contradictions. Critics of his life and works have tended to associate him with failure, pessimism, guilt and the terror of torture. The very word ‘Orwellian’ has come to be associated, in part, with the gloom, authoritarianism and oppressiveness of the Big Brother society where the state invades the most private aspects of the individual’s life.
His novels certainly tend to end rather gloomily. As Alok Rai comments in his significantly titled text, Orwell and the Politics of Despair (1998: 148): ‘It is of course remarkable that every single one of Orwell’s novels is about failed rebellions, secessions.’ Indeed, Flory, in Burmese Days (1934), ends up disgraced and committing suicide. Dorothy, the anti-heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), escapes from her prison to a new dawn only to find herself back in the soul-destroying routine from which she thought she had freed herself. George Bowling, in Coming up for Air (1939), ends his trip down memory lane finding the pond where he used to fish built over – and the site of a rubbish dump. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) ends with the terrible rat torture scene and with Winston Smith meekly submitting to his torturer, O’Brien, and these grim words: ‘He loved Big Brother.’
Géraldine Muhlmann even highlights the way in which Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) ends in the failure of his remarkable exercise in participant observation: ‘I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of the plongeurs and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty’ (2008: 201).
But Orwell knew that stories which conclude on a down-note are far more likely to provoke thought than those which end up-beat. Stories with happy endings (as Hollywood knows only too well) so often leave you feeling OK with the world, the status quo. Orwell constantly challenged and questioned the status quo. And he knew instinctively that society was largely built on narratives of success, finding it difficult to confront and speak about failure. For Orwell failure was an intrinsic, important part of life.
At the same time, Orwell was, indeed, a great humorist and deeply interested in witty writers. Much of Homage to Catalonia (1962/1938), his brilliant account of his time on the frontlines in the Spanish civil war of 1936-1937 (which actually sold only 700 copies during his lifetime), is infused with a droll, self-deprecating humour, military cynicism mixed with military know-how. Of his time on the frontline fighting for the Trotskyite POUM militia against Franco’s forces, he wrote: ‘It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy’ (ibid: 21). On the Russian gun he wrote: ‘Its great shells whistled over so slowly that you felt certain you could run beside them and keep up with them’ (ibid: 83). Of the fat Russian agent, he says: ‘I watched him with some interest for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists’ (ibid: 135).
And notice his brilliantly down-beat, anti-heroic description of being shot through the neck on 20 May 1937, a model of journalistic clarity and conciseness drawn from personal experience: ‘The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail. … Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. .. Not being in pain I felt a vague satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought, she had always wanted me wounded which would save me from being killed when the great battle came’ (ibid: 177).
He assumes he is about to die and continues: ‘It is very interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well’ (ibid: 178). He adds: ‘No one I met at this time …failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all’ (ibid). He describes a cathedral as ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. ‘I think the Anarchists showed bad faith in not blowing it up when they had the chance’ (ibid: 214).
I personally cannot read the eighty wonderful ‘As I Please’ columns Orwell contributed to Tribune, the leftist journal, between 1943 and 1947 without constantly smiling at his wit and high spirits (see Anderson 2006). For instance, on 24 December 1943, he critiqued ‘the pessimists’: there was Petain preaching ‘the discipline of defeat’, Sorel denouncing liberalism, Berdyaev ‘shaking his head over the Russian revolution’; Beachcomber ‘delivering side-kicks at Beveridge in the Express’. Above all, he denounced ‘their refusal to believe that human society can be fundamentally improved’.
His tone was constantly shifting – from irony, droll self-effacement to de-mystification. In his 7 January 1944 column, he mocked the ruling classes in this way: ‘Looking through the photographs in the New Years Honours List I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst a tax-collector with a duodenal ulcer.’
And he continued: ‘What I like best is the careful grading by which honours are always dished out in direct proportion to the amount of mischief done – baronies for Big Business, baronetcies for fashionable surgeons, knighthoods for tame professors.’
Many of his ‘As I Please’ columns are idiosyncratically witty. On 4 February 1944, for instance, he chose to link a comment on trouser ends (of all things) to the war effort in this highly original way: ‘Announcing that the Board of Trade is about to remove the ban on turn-up trouser ends, a tailor’s advertisement hails this as “a first instalment of the freedom for which we are fighting”. If we are really fighting for turned up trouser ends I should be inclined to be pro-Axis. Turn-ups have no function except to collect dust and no virtue except that when you clean them out you occasionally find a sixpence there.’ He continued: ‘I would like to see clothes rationing continue until the moths have devoured the last dinner jacket and even the undertakers have shed their top hats. I would not mind seeing the whole nation in dyed battledress for five years if by that means one of the main breeding points of snobbery and envy could be eliminated.’
Moreover, humour was a constant theme for Orwell in his writings. For instance, there’s ‘Funny but not vulgar’ (from the Leader, 28 July 1945), ‘The art of Donald McGill’ (Horizon, September 1941), ‘In defence of P. G. Wodehouse’ (Windmill, July 1946) and in his studies of novelists such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift. In ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ (1947), Orwell celebrates Shakespeare’s exuberance, his vitality and love of life, bawdy jokes and riddles – comparing all that with Tolstoy’s dull puritanism.
Orwell also had a bright side to his personality. In his ‘Introduction’ to George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Peter Davison (2011) recalls how David Astor, Orwell’s great friend and editor of the Observer, had told him how he would telephone Orwell when he felt depressed and ask to meet him in a local pub because he knew he would make him laugh and cheer him up.
Failure, as Terry Eagleton says, was Orwell’s forte. But then so too was fun.
Davison, Peter (ed.) (2011) Orwel1: A Life in Letters, London: Penguin
Muhlmann, Géraldine (2008) A Political History of Journalism, Cambridge: Polity Press
Rai, Alok (1988) Orwell and the Politics of Despair, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Orwell, George (1947) Lear, Tolstoy and the fool, Polemic, No. 7, March.
• Richard Lance Keeble is chair of the Orwell Society (orwellsociety.com) and editor of George Orwell Today (Abramis, Bury St Edmunds, 2012). He is currently editing George Orwell Now!, a collection of essays following a symposium he organised at the University of Lincoln in June and writing on Orwell’s humour for a collection, Seriously Funny: Humour in Journalism, he is editing with David Swick.