Arts/Literature

Words are hardly "such feeble things" in Orwell's literary journalism

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. (1937) — Orwell is best know for his dystopic 1984 and Animal Farm, but Orwell cut his chops as a journalist, and he understood the power of his pen. In Wigan Pier, he looks at the abominable Depression-era conditions of northern England’s working class. “I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealizing them,” Orwell says, yet he obviously admires them for somehow making due, lowering their standards of living rather than giving in to despair.  He also realizes their value in calling out the hypocrisies of the country’s middle class.

even now, if coal could be produced without pregnant woman dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence.

Orwell lives his story. “[B]y no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks,” he quickly realizes. He doesn’t just “tell,” though; Orwell is a master of the “show.”

It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.

Particularly in the context of the hard lives of the working class, Orwell suggests that his own trade seems soft. “Words are such feeble things,” he says.

It’s hard to take him at his word about that, though, because Orwell writes description about as well as any writer could dream of. His opening sequence, set in a boarding house, rolls right into it: “Hanging from the ceiling here was a heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was so think that it was like fur.” Suspicious tripe, coal-black fingerprints on slices of bread, crumbs so long unbrushed from the kitchen tablecloth that “I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day”—Orwell doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to setting scene.

The second half of the book grinds down into Orwell’s treatise on the pros and cons of socialism, although for this he can be forgiven. After all, Wigan Pier was written for the Left Book Club, and Orwell explicitly wrote his piece with the idea of social change in mind. “I would not do it if I did not think that I am sufficiently typical of my class, or rather sub-caste, to have a certain symptomatic importance,” he says. This portion of the book was, I admit, of less value to me as I look at the was creative nonfiction writers write about place, although I did go through it just for the sake of enjoying Orwell’s clarity of thought.

Orwell’s social consciousness and his sense of responsibility as a journalist went hand in hand—powered by incredibly literary skill. In Orwell’s hands, words are never such feeble things.

 

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