You read Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm in school. Maybe you read both. In either case, you came away from your mandatory exposure to Orwell with an appreciation for him as a writer of fiction, capable of crafting a fine dystopia or allegory. Nine times out of 10, the word “Orwellian” is immediately followed by “dystopia.” But if you venture beyond the high school curriculum, you’ll find that there is much, much more to George Orwell than these fictional worlds. In fact, the majority of his writing was non-fiction, or at least heavily based on his own life. It’s that side of Orwell I’d like to tell you about here.
Around the same time that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were living lives of splendor in Paris, Orwell was working in the overheated kitchens of the city’s worst restaurants. This experience forms the basis for the first half of Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s first published book. As a read, it can feel like a 15 hour workday at times; the impoverished lives, while harrowing, are not thrill rides. It becomes hard to distinguish one dreary lodging house in England from another, and Orwell doesn’t seek to awe with his prose. But in the rare reflective passages, where Orwell contemplates the societal attitudes that perpetuate the struggles of the lower class, Down and Out is insightful. Conditions have vastly improved in the decades since, but I don’t think Orwell’s words have become obsolete.
“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”
In the late 1930s, when civil war broke out in Spain, Orwell felt compelled to be there. Originally he intended to be a reporter, but he ended up fighting on the side of the socialists. Homage to Catalonia is the product of his time on the front as well as his insight on the complicated politics of that war. The politics actually end up providing the firepower in Homage; Orwell’s time on the front is characterized mostly by cold nights in the trenches and bullets that never hit their target, while the politics are in constant flux. The ideal of a classless society, which Orwell came to love, is gradually sacrificed to the war effort. Orwell was on leave from the front line in Barcelona when street-fighting erupted between the communists and socialists—who were supposedly on the same side.
“I suppose there is no one who spent more than a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree disillusioned.”
Upon returning to the front line, he was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper. The couple pages that describe this—it says a lot about Orwell that a bullet going clean through his throat receives only a couple pages—are brutal and haunting. I know we aren’t allowed to be picky and choosy about our deaths, but please don’t shoot me in the throat. Reading about it was more than enough. For a couple minutes, he fully expected to die, and that’s not a mindset whose story gets to be told very often. Orwell’s time in Spain ended abruptly, before he could fully recover from his wound, because his party was outlawed by the communists—again, allies in the fight against the fascists. This was a complicated war, and those readers with access to Wikipedia will recognize that Homage is the rare piece of history written from the loser’s perspective. This book could be taught in a history class, let alone its English value.
High school English teachers are in some ways historians, keepers of the literary flame. They are tasked with introducing a new generation of students to the ideas written before their time. I do not begrudge fiction in the least, but Orwell’s essays and other books have shined a new light upon Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The conclusions he reaches in those books have their foundations in his non-fiction. But in high school we are given his truth without ever being provided clues as to the thought process and experience behind it. And the same could be said for any author. What is anything without context?