Why did George Orwell write the way he did?
July 25, 2013
He was born as Eric Arthur Blair, but the world would know him as George Orwell, a man who would stun them and shake their vision of the future with a dystopian novel – 1984 – and an allegorical novella – Animal Farm.
He was, after all, the brilliant writer and journalist who told us: People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf and if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
His writings may have been inspired and triggered by politics.
But their strength stemmed from Orwell’s stylistic prose. It has been said that George Orwell, along with Ernest Hemingway, probably influenced the writing of prose more than anyone else in the first half of the twentieth century.
His literary style was crisp.
It was clear.
It offered no frills.
And every word was carefully chosen for its effect on the reader.
Much of his brilliance as a writer came from the opening sentence he crafted for his works.
In 1984, he wrote: It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
For Marrakech, he wrote: As the corpse went past, the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.
In Reflections on Gandhi, he wrote: Saints should always be judged guilty until they re proved innocent.
George Orwell was a prolific writer, penned two classics, which together have sold more than eleven million copies, and died far too young at the age of forty-six.
He was once asked why he wrote, and this was his response:
“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious — i.e. seriously intended — writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had ‘chair-like teeth’— a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake’s ‘Tiger, Tiger’. At eleven, when the war or 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem, which was printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the death of Kitchener. From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished ‘nature poems’ in the Georgian style. I also attempted a short story, which was a ghastly failure. That was the total of the would-be serious work that I actually set down on paper during all those years.
However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff, which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote VERS D’OCCASION, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed — at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week — and helped to edit a school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
George Orwell’s thoughts on writing continue tomorrow.