The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. The Role of Language in George Orwell’s Works

Thesis (M.A.), 2015

76 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Early Novels
2.1 Burmese Days
2.2 A Clergyman’s Daughter
2.3 Keep the Aspidistra Flying

3 A Turning Point: Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War

4 Theoretical Works
4.1 Overview
4.2 Language
4.3 Totalitarianism

5 Animal Farm

6 Nineteen Eighty-four
6.1 The Role of Language in Nineteen Eighty-four
6.1.1 Overview
6.1.2 Language as the Ultimate Tool - Why?
6.1.3 The Mechanisms of Power - How?
6.1. Conclusion
6.2 A Hopeless Fight?

7 Orwell Today
7.1 The Orwellian Prophecy
7.2 Examples for Orwellian Aspects of Contemporary Life
7.2.1 Overview
7.2.2 Newspeak and Doublespeak
7.2.3 Altering the Past and Surveillance
7.2.4 Concluding Remarks

8 Conclusion

List of Works Cited


1 Introduction

George Orwell was unarguably one of the, if not the, most influential political writers in English of the twentieth century, “the cultural icon and mythic figure who is probably more quoted and referenced than any other modern writer” (Rodden, Preface x). Today as well as when he was alive, Orwell was more than a novelist and essayist, but he produced writing in every possible form: reportages, poetry, film and book reviews, opinion columns. Yet, Orwell today has become more than a writer: during the seven decades since his death, he has become a cultural icon, a “mythic literary and public personality” (Rodden, Preface xi) who is not only canonised in school books but who has also become some sort of intellectual hero. The main reason for this is most probably Orwell’s literary integrity or, what is sometimes called, “a sense of decency,” (Atkins 1) which he displayed throughout his whole life. He was, above all, a moral writer and well aware of that:

My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. (Orwell, Why I Write 424- 425)

His natural sphere of activity was hence politics. And indeed, from the very beginning, everything he wrote had a “political slant” (Rees 9); he was “a political animal,” a man “who could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry”, as his friend Cyril Connolly once remarked (345). His topics comprised nearly everything that a writer during the twentieth century could write about: poverty, the decline of the middle class, the clergy, Left-wing politics, Socialism, Imperialism, Britishness, etc.; he even wrote about toads, how to make good tea, and English cooking.

However, the majority of people who know Orwell do so through Nineteen Eighty- four, which indeed is by far his most famous and most cited book (McLaughlin 165).1 But the book did not appear out of nothing, as a spontaneous act, but it was the result of a long and painful process that permeated Orwell’s whole life. He was one of these writers whose works cannot be understood if the circumstances they were written in are not taken into account, i.e., man and work cannot be separated here. In one of the few essays in which Orwell sheds light on his own approach to literature, he himself justifies this approach:

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. (Why I Write 421).

Therefore, the concepts and apprehensions concerning language and its potential abuse presented in Nineteen Eighty-four will be much better understood when taking into account their development throughout Orwell’s life work.

Orwell, then still known as Eric Blair, started out his literature career with social journalism, uncovering and writing against social injustice, according to himself to expiate “an immense weight of guilt” he had accumulated during his work on the oppressors’ side as imperial policeman in Burma (The Road to Wigan Pier 180). At that time and until he came back from the Spanish Civil war he had joined in 1936, his writing was fully concerned with social evils, such as the rigid English class system, Imperialism, or the effects of poverty. However, the twentieth century soon proved to be dominated by politics rather than social problems. The rising threat of Totalitarianism in particular was of greatest concern for Orwell, and he spent most part of his mature literary years with writing against totalitarian forms of government, notably Fascism and Communism. Orwell would become increasingly aware of the fact that such regimes do not mainly rely on the oft-cited rubber truncheons and prison cells (though these surely do play a part), but that they safeguard their power through manipulating the masses by corrupting language.

Hence, the purpose of this thesis is to explore the role that language as a theme plays in George Orwell’s works. It will show that for Orwell the modern totalitarian state reigns not trough violence but through the manipulation of language, that is, physical means of suppression become subsided by psychological horror.

The first part will demonstrate this by looking at Orwell’s early fictional works and demonstrating that language and its potential abuse always played a role. He did not start out as the gloomy prophet of despair so many critics like to see him as from Nineteen Eighty- four; instead, he began by perceiving the dire consequences that miscommunication can have (Burmese Days), showed first signs of disgust of the media’s falsifications in A Clergyman ’ s Daughter, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying will examine the role of advertising, that is, the manipulation of words at its worst, in the modern world. However, not before Homage to Catalonia will Orwell’s work begin to show the familiar themes and general atmosphere most readers know him for. His time in Spain gave him first-hand experience with totalitarian propaganda, and from then on his mind was set to uncovering the mechanisms of control and manipulation in Totalitarianism. From that point onwards, this will be the central topic in all of Orwell’s works to come, and this is what the general reader identifies him with.

The gradual shift of focus towards abuse of language in Orwell’s works does not only show in his fictional works but also in his theoretical ones. Orwell wrote many essays throughout his whole career; indeed, he only achieved the height of his success when he abandoned trying to write realistic novels (such as Burmese Days) and let his political ideas clearly show through in his books, creating “adulterated novels”, their hybrid nature being their major strength (Wykes 100). It will therefore be useful to have a closer look at some of his essays, especially the ones that explicitly deal with language and its abuse, e.g., the wellknown Politics and the English Language, The Prevention of Literature and Literature and Totalitarianism. In these essays, Orwell’s core ideas regarding language in general as well as its potential abuse for mass manipulation can be found.

With these ideas concerning language in mind, we can finally examine Orwell’s final fictional novels, his two great totalitarian works Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. Both books have acquired a “mythical reputation” in the Western world (Wykes 46); one does not even have to read either of these books to know the household word (and its adaptions), “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, or to know what Big Brother or doublethink is. These sayings and terms have long since entered the English language and testify to the continuing influence Orwell’s work still has today.

We will first look at Animal Farm, the book in which Orwell, according to himself, finally managed to “fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” (Why I Write 426), and which would place him “among the most famous writers of his day” (Rees 89). This is not mainly for chronological reasons but rather because Animal Farm anticipates most concepts and ideas that Orwell later included in Nineteen Eighty-four, though in a much more sombre way.

After that, the famous Nineteen Eighty-four will be examined, the book that was the culmination of Orwell’s life work. Much could be - and has been - said about the book, its influences, its interpretations, the multitude of themes in it. However, for the current purpose the focus will be exclusively on why the Party, Oceania’s totalitarian ruling organ, chooses language, rather than physical methods, as the primary means to subdue the population. The concepts that deserve particular attention are Newspeak, doublethink, and the alteration of the past.

The last part will deal with several examples taken from various areas of contemporary life in order to show that Orwell’s work is highly relevant today. It was not difficult to find these examples and often (though not always) daily experience or a brief research in current media events were enough to find a multitude of cases that, as a recently appeared film titles it, would make Orwell “roll in his grave” (Blackburn and Pappas).

2 Early Novels

2.1 Burmese Days

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, and many critics simply see it as an attack against imperialism, the British Raj in particular, which chronologically forms the first subject of Orwell’s writing (Atkins 67; Lee 1). Though anti-imperialism and political comment definitely forms a large part of the novel, it also shows first hints of what will later be one of Orwell’s main topics, the corruption of language. First, it is necessary to outline the setting and main character of the novel before exploring the role of language in it.

The novel’s action takes place in Kyauktada, a small colonial outpost in Burma, and centres on the timber merchant Flory. Everything that happens in the quite straightforward plot - including various subplots - is directly or indirectly linked to his actions or thoughts. All of Orwell’s ‘heroes’ are different from the rest of society and excluded from it in varying degrees (consider, for example, Winston Smith or Gordon Comstock) (Börner 52); this is no different for Flory. In contrast to what is expected from him by his countrymen, who are a bunch of drunkards, lechers and bullies, and forming Kyauktada’s all-white European Club, Flory is highly intelligent and observant of his surroundings. He is on friendly terms with the Burmese people, trying to accept and understand their ways. Thus, when the British government orders that in every colony a native be admitted to the club in order to ease the tense relation between colonisers and colonised, he suggests his native friend Dr Veraswami as member. Apart from Flory being even more shunned by the other club members, this causes the ambitious magistrate U Po Kyin to threaten Flory and intrigue against him since he wants to be elected as first non-white member to the club.

However, when not looking at the novel from a purely political, i.e., anti-colonial perspective, the aforementioned plot is only secondary to the action that revolves around Flory’s (non-)relationship with Elizabeth Lackersteen and the other club members. It is in this exclusively white community that the destructive potential of language becomes visible in the novel. Several decisive plot instances might illustrate how the failing of language contributes to the novel’s tragic events, ending in the death of Flory.

First, in crucial moments, things that -at that moment, at least- are understood between the characters are not articulated and, thus, are not binding since they are not codified by social norms. Two very important instances are the brief scenes when Elizabeth puts aside her disdain for Flory’s ideas and behaviour. The first one occurs during the hunting trip when Elizabeth manages to shoot a pigeon; agitated by this, Elizabeth is “conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him” (172). They then continue the hunt and finally manage to kill a leopard, in a scene that is highly sexualised, with Elizabeth and Flory touching and sweating in “the ironic equivalent of post-coital state” (Lee 8). Subsequently, “it was understood between them that they would meet. Also, it was understood that Flory would ask Elizabeth to marry him, though nothing was said about this either” (180). Here for the first time, language fails as a means of communication; shortly after this scene, Elizabeth will pretend not to know anything about the intimacy shared with Flory during that scene as soon as she meets the attractive officer Verrall. The second instance is shortly after Flory has just heroically rescued the club members from an unorganised, yet seriously dangerous, attack by the villagers on the club. His heroic deed restores him in the eyes of the other club members and Elizabeth. Then, as soon as she discovers that Verrall has simply left town “for good” without telling her, Flory seizes his final chance:

There had been no need to say anymore. He had simply taken her by the arms and drawn her towards him. She came willingly, even gladly - there in the clear daylight, merciless to his disfigured face. For a moment, she had clung to him like a child. It was as though he had saved her or protected her from something. He raised her face to kiss her, and found with surprise that she was crying. There had been no time to talk then, not even to say, “Will you marry me?” No matter, after the service there would be time enough. Perhaps at his next visit, only six weeks hence, the padre would marry them. (Burmese Days 281)

Here again there is the crucial mistake that no commitment is made; the promise of marriage is not pronounced and, thus, not binding according to the white society’s rules. In both scenes, simply expressing what was implicit would probably have prevented much of the novel’s tragedy.

Ironically, there are other instances when exactly because certain things are articulated, catastrophe ensues. For instance, shortly after the hunting trip, Flory tries to pluck up the courage to ask for Elizabeth’s hand, but the more he talks, the more she is confused and impatient. Ironically, his talking actually prevents proper communication. Finally, he manages to utter, “Answer me this. Will you—“, but an earthquake prevents him from finishing the proposal (187). Again, he fails to make language work. Yet, the most prominent example is the one that once and for all dooms Flory’s hopes of marriage and proper integration in society, namely the scene in the church towards the novel’s end. Instigated by U Po Kyin, who wants to prevent Dr Veraswami’s election to the club by discrediting Flory, Veraswami’s only supporter, Flory’s former mistress Ma Hla May enters the church. It was well known to all but Elizabeth (who appears to be either too ignorant or too naïve to understand the realities in a colony) that most white unmarried men in the colonies had native mistresses, and Flory was no exception. He had split up with her when things with Elizabeth had gotten more serious, though much to the dislike of Ma Hla May. She makes an ugly scene in the church, insulting and accusing Flory in front of all the others. She makes very clear to everybody of what nature the relationship between her and Flory was; still, she only spells out what almost everybody was familiar with. The only person who could be expected to react disgusted should hence be Elizabeth, but “everybody was upset by it[,] even Ellis was disgusted” (285-286). This scene illustrates very well the corruption of the club with all its hypocrisy and its ties to the topic of corrupt language (Lee 15). It is no problem if everybody knows about wrongdoings, just as long as nobody says it aloud and thus, by translating it into society’s code, makes it ‘real.’ In an ironic twist, the very same act that means disaster for Flory would have avoided all problems for him if only he himself had committed it earlier. After this scene, Flory is even more the pariah than before; having no more chance of marrying Elizabeth and having lost the few acquaintances he had, he simply goes home and shots first his dog and then himself.

Looked at from this angle, Burmese Days “is not anticolonialism, but the failure of community - of two persons and of society” (Lee 19). The main cause for this is the failure of communication, which in turn manifests itself through corrupt(ed) language. It would surely be wrong to say that Burmese Days is not about anti-colonialism at all and that the failing of language is at its core. Yet, it should have become clear that language does play a crucial role in the novel, which foreshadows the dominant role it will play in Orwell’s later works. Here, language is ‘only’ a symbol, a metaphor, for the difficulties in human communication and its proneness to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The topic is by far not as fleshed out as in Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-four; yet, the abuse of language and its role as the root for totalitarian oppression of the individual in Orwell’s later works is simply the next logical step as well as an “enormous leap” (Lee 22) after Burmese Days. Already as early as here, Orwell seems to have had a rather precise notion of the nature of language and the role it plays in corrupting society.

2.2 A Clergyman’s Daughter

In 1935, only one year after Burmese Days, Orwell published his second novel, A Clergyman ’ s Daughter. It is the most contested of his books and many critics gave it a poor assessment, ranging from calling it Orwell’s “poorest novel” (Wadsworth 97), over it being “a hotch-potch” (Atkins 84) to simply “a failure” (Brander 92). Apparently, even Orwell himself was of this opinion and refused its republication, even going so far as to buy all copies he could find and destroying them (Hollis 58). The novel’s main fault is usually seen in being a limitation to a less patterned development of topics and themes that were already present in Burmese Days (Lee 23).

Still, for the first time, there is in this novel a rather specific foreshadowing of a topic that will occupy Orwell until the end: the condemnation of the newspapers and their wilful misreportage of facts. Miscommunication in A Clergyman ’ s Daughter is different from the one in Burmese Days. In the latter, communication fails because of the circumstances: people do not want to miscommunicate, it simply ‘happens’ because at crucial moments things that should be said are not uttered or because it is a social convention not to speak about certain things. In the end, miscommunication is not intentional. The case is different with the newspapers in A Clergyman ’ s Daughter, where there clearly is intent to mislead. The worst example for this is Pippin ’ s Weekly, “the dirtiest of the five dirty Sunday newspapers” (122). Upon discovery of Dorothy’s disappearance, many local newspapers had written about the “Rector’s Daughter Mystery” (123) but had dropped it when nothing new was to be written. Pippin ’ s Weekly, however, cared little “whether its news was new so long as it was spicy” (123), and so it does its best to spice up Dorothy’s case by giving it headlines ranging from “Passion Drama in Country Rectory” over “Parson’s Daughter and Elderly Seducer” to “White-haired Father Prostrate With Grief” (128). To illustrate, one of the ‘reports’ goes like this:

Rumour, as yet unconfirmed, states that she was recently seen with a male companion in a hotel of evil repute in Vienna Readers of Pippin ’ s Weekly will recall that the elopement took place in dramatic circumstances. A little before midnight on the twenty-first of August, Mrs Evelina Semprill, a widowed lady who inhabits the house next door to Mr Warburton’s, happened by chance to look out of her bedroom window and saw Mr Warburton standing at his front gate in conversation with a young woman. As it was a clear moonlight night, Mrs Semprill was able to distinguish this young woman as Miss Hare, the Rector’s daughter. The pair remained at the gate for several minutes, and before going indoors, they exchanged embraces which Mrs Semprill describes as being of passionate nature. About half an hour later they reappeared in Mr Warburton’s car, which was backed out of the front gate, and drove off in the direction of the Ipswich road. Miss Hare was dressed in scanty attire, and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol It is now learned that for some time past Miss Hare had been in the habit of making clandestine visits to Mr Warburton’s house. Mrs Semprill, who could only with great difficulty be persuaded to speak upon so painful a subject, has further revealed—— (A Clergyman's Daughter 128-129)

Anyone familiar with the novel will quickly realise that every word here is a heavy distortion of the truth or an outright lie. Dorothy is so frigid that any man touching her is “terrifying and repulsive to her” and that the mere thought of “all that”, i.e., anything sexual, makes her shudder (80-81). The “embraces of passionate nature” was a simple kiss on the cheek, and even that against Dorothy’s will (admittedly, one could perceive her struggle as passionate when seen from the distance, as Mrs Semprill would have). Finally, the idea of Dorothy -a bastion of virtue and conservatism- wearing “scanty attire” is ridiculous and her driving off (alcoholised!) into the night with Mr Warburton is simply a lie since she walks home alone. In this context, it is also interesting to recognise the role of the reading public in the matter since the newspapers’ lies cannot work without readers who believe in it. Dorothy’s chief activity throughout her days is to go around the town and help people and doing community work, be it by giving foot massages to old women or by working the whole night making papier-mâché armour for theatre plays. Everybody should know that she would never do such things as to run off with a man (who is also known to be a lecher and to have illicit children). Finally, and most importantly, it is a well-known fact that Mrs Semprill spends her days with spinning intrigues and thinking of new rumours to spread and that several people in town have had their life undeservedly ruined by her false tales. That she would “only with great difficulty” be moved to speak about Dorothy’s case is a bad joke. Yet, in spite of that knowledge, when Pippin ’ s Weekly prints these stories everybody, even Dorothy’s father, believes in them.

These distortions of the truth are the chief reason why Dorothy cannot simply go home after she recovers her memory. When it dawns on her that this “horrible, lying story” is about her, she feels “such a pang that she wanted to cry out as though in physical pain” (130). She suddenly realises that her biggest problem is not raising money for going home but that she would have to face the consequences of the libellous stories, in “a town of two thousand inhabitants where everybody knows everybody else’s private story and talks about it all day long” (130). The only person who could set the record straight is Mr Warburton (which he will indeed do near the end of the novel), but he has left the country. She still decides to write to her father and beg for help, but when he finally decides to answer her letters, she has been in the streets already for several days and the letter does not reach her. Here as well the newspapers play a role since it is mainly due to their stories that the rector waits so long with answering Dorothy’s letter. Although he does not really believe what the articles say, he is furious at Dorothy because she -at least in the rector’s eyes- is responsible for making him “enjoy a horrible notoriety”, with headlines such as the Spyhole ’s “Down in Suffolk Rectory a broken old man sits staring at the wall” (189). He refuses any interview, thus making Mrs Semprill’s version the only available, and simply decides to wait until the newspapers drop the case. His inaction ultimately leads to months of hardship for Dorothy; without the press’ lies, their “indifference to facts” (Lee 25), matters would have been much less complicated and maybe Dorothy would not have had to endure what she did.

Miscommunication here is clearly not an accident and in his depiction of the events, Orwell assigns a large part of the responsibility of what happens to Dorothy to the different scandal sheets. The wilful manipulation of facts through language may be much less central here than in Animal Farm or, ultimately, Nineteen Eighty-four, but it should have become clear here that certain aspects definitely are present already.

Thus, A Clergyman ’ s Daughter, together with Burmese Days, anticipates the large role that language will play in Orwell’s subsequent works, and so these early works give some sort of outline of what will become important in Orwell’s later works.

2.3 Keep the Aspidistra Flying

One of Dorothy’s main problems was the permanent lack of money and debts that threatened her and her father. Orwell’s social novels (notably The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London) to a large part deal with poverty in the working class and lower middle class and its social and psychological effects on people. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is no exception and is usually read in the context of lower middle class poverty. The novel’s main theme is money or, to be more precise, the lack of it. The theme and its main character are very closely linked, and much of the book’s criticism has, therefore, centred on the character of Gordon Comstock. Gordon has much in common with Flory and Dorothy and can be seen as their “logical continuation” (Lee 49). Like Flory, Gordon despises the norms and values of the society he lives in and just as Dorothy, Gordon “experiences the sub-worlds of England in the 1930’s” (Lee 49). However, unlike these two, Gordon does so willingly and actively strives for isolation and poverty. In the end, the novel revolves around the question whether or not to accept society, which Gordon eventually will.

The aspect of the novel that has often been neglected, however, and has only been hinted at in Burmese Days and A Clergyman ’ s Daughter, is the theme of the deliberate corruption of language. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, this motif is much more present throughout the novel than in Orwell’s earlier two books. Certainly, Gordon’s main reason for his self-chosen isolation is his hatred against the money-god; for Gordon, “all is money” (14). Yet, money is just a part of the bigger picture; Gordon’s hatred goes much deeper. What he really hates is modern life in general, and the “most eminent agency” for it is the perversion of language, advertising (Lee 51).

To the dismay of his family and friends, Gordon one day quits his job at the New Albion, an advertising firm, and decides to leave ‘respectable life.’ Yet, he also makes it very clear that it is not only any work per se he rejects but that it is advertising in particular he hates:

The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit. There was hardly a soul in the firm who was not perfectly well aware that publicity —advertising—is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” (Keep the Aspidistra Flying 55)

By that he means the hitting of the bucket filled with household garbage a farmer feeds to pigs; just like a Pavlov’s dog, they get trained to associate the rattling noise with food. What revolts him is the perversion of language that is part and parcel of the profession of advertising, for advertising is Gordon’s symbol for the “accumulated evil” of the modern world (Lee 53), which he refuses to enter by quitting his job and equally refusing to go back to it. One scene in particular makes very clear the symbolic character of advertising for the corruption of language: while working at the book store, he can see the ad-posters in the street, of “Slabs of Vitamalt” and one where “Corner Table enjoys his Bovex” with the face of a self-satisfied rat, “a docile little porker . . . sitting in the money sty” (14):

He gazed out at the graceless street. At this moment it seemed to him that in a street like this, in a town like this, every life that is lived must be meaningless and intolerable. The sense of disintegration, of decay, that is endemic in our time, was strong upon him. Somehow it was mixed up with the ad-posters opposite. He looked now with more seeing eyes at those grinning yard-wide faces. After all, there was more there than mere silliness, greed, and vulgarity. Corner Table grins at you, seemingly optimistic, with a flash of false teeth. But what is behind the grin? Desolation, emptiness, prophecies of doom. For can you not see, if you know how to look, that behind that slick self-satisfaction, that tittering fat-bellied triviality, there is nothing but a frightful emptiness, a secret despair? The great death-wish of the modern world. Suicide pacts. Heads stuck in gas-ovens in lonely maisonettes. French letters and Amen Pills. And the reverberations of future wars. Enemy aeroplanes flying over London; the deep threatening hum of the propellers, the shattering thunder of the bombs. It is all written in [Corner Table]'s face. (Keep the Aspidistra Flying 16)

As is typical for him, Gordon overdramatises and indulges in self-pity; still, this scene shows that advertising symbolises the modern world he hates so much, him making “the metaphorical equation from Bovex to bombing planes, and the image of the ‘thunder of bombs’” (Lee 52). This already hints at a development that will become clearer in Orwell’s later works, namely that physical destruction is preceded by the corruption of language and, thus, the mind.

All the time while Gordon lives in poverty and isolation, he could simply walk back into the office at the New Albion and get back his old job, but on grounds of his ‘rebellion’ he does not. However, Gordon cannot keep up his resistance: when faced with the decision of taking the responsibility for his and Rosemary’s baby by going back to his ‘decent work’ in his old advertising firm, or whether he should just go on with sinking deeper and deeper in society, he opens a newspaper and is disgusted by the advertisements in it:

He opened the paper. Flick, flick. Britons never shall be slaves! . . . Flick, flick. Get that waist-line back to normal! She SAID 'Thanks awfully for the lift,' but she THOUGHT, 'Poor boy, why doesn't somebody tell him?' How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Prompt relief for feeble kidneys.

Silkyseam—the smooth-sliding bathroom tissue. Asthma was choking her! Are YOU ashamed of your undies? Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Now I've a schoolgirl complexion all over. Hike all day on a slab of Vitamalt! . . . To be mixed up in THAT! To be in it and of it—part and parcel of it! God, God, God! (Keep the Aspidistra Flying 263)

He then gives up his resistance and goes back to the New Albion. Ironically, as if to mock his earlier stubborn resistance, he is now all the readier to embrace his recovered ‘old’ new life; thus, Gordon is outstanding at this work. When he works on a project for the “Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co.”, he comes up with “P.P.”, standing for “Pedic Perspiration”, thus making the campaign a huge success. In this respect, it is worth noticing that Gordon is not very successful with his poetry, and he never even manages to finish it; his advertising slogans, on the other hand, are outstanding and recognised by everybody. This could be taken as a hint by Orwell, though maybe not consciously, what the role of honesty and sincerity in language is in society of his days, i.e., whether honest or deceiving language are more successful.

All in all, it should have become clear that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is another step in the development of Orwell’s works. Apart from being a comment on social life in Britain in the 1930s and the all-importance of money in it, the book also serves as further illustration of Orwell’s increasing awareness of the problematicness of language and its susceptibility to corruption and manipulation. The ensemble of Burmese Days, A Clergyman ’ s Daughter, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying show that there always was a being conscious of how important language is in human society, though it never was one of the main themes and always was limited to one individual’s fate. His next great novel, Homage to Catalonia, will go into a new direction, representing a shift of focus in Orwell’s works and, finally, making the corruption of language a central theme.

3 A Turning Point: Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War

In 1936, Orwell went to Spain to write about his impressions of the Civil War for Secker and Warburg, who gave him an advance to finance the undertaking. As soon as he arrived, however, he joined the fight against Fascism and enlisted in the Republican army.

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of what happened during that decisive time in Spain. He writes: “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do” (2). He was to stay in Spain until June 1937, after fights at the front, being shot once and barely escaping the internal struggles of the different Republican parties and organisations. Homage to Catalonia is still today widely regarded as the best single account of the Civil War in Spain (Lee 66) and has truly become “inseparable from the Spanish war” (Stansky and Abrahams 194).

More importantly, Homage to Catalonia is also the turning point in Orwell’s artistic development: it is the first time that the problems of communication, corruption of language, and wilful distortion of facts are not examined in the context of an individual’s fate (such as Flory’s or Dorothy’s) but on a much more extended level, i.e., a whole society (Spain’s). It is here for the first time that Orwell makes a very clear connection between misrepresentations of facts and history and politics. The distortion of truth through language, rather than physical violence, will be the central dilemma of the twentieth century. In Homage to Catalonia, and its connected work Looking Back on the Spanish War, we can find the core ideas of Orwell’s work concerning language that he will later develop in his great anti-totalitarian works Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

Having related the experiences of skirmishes, cold and hunger in the first four chapters, the fifth chapter, prefaced with an apology for its “digressive” character and moved to the appendix in the final edition, focuses on the political side of the war. Here, he shifts focus from describing the facts to examining the political implications of what is happening:

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely this purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war. No event in it, at any rate during the first year, is intelligible unless one has some grasp of the inter-party struggle that was going on behind the Government lines. (Homage to Catalonia 188)

When first coming to Spain, he does not care much for politics; his “attitude always [is], ‘Why can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’” (189). However, Orwell is quick to realise that the ‘political nonsense’ actually is the primary war and that its consequences for society are more important than the military part. The first sign that not military but political issues are at the heart of it all is the factionalism and “petty distinctions” (Lee 67) of the different parties: “the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names - P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T., - they merely exasperated me” (189). One event in particular makes him readjust his slightly naïve attitude of ‘being on the right side’: a haphazard, failed attack on Orwell’s position is reported by the Republican press as “a tremendous attack with cavalry and tanks (up a perpendicular hill-side!) which had been beaten off by the heroic English”, teaching him for the first time to “read the war news in the papers with a more disbelieving eye” (44). From that point onwards, he more and more comes to realise the scope of the language problem and its dreadful implications for the interpretation of the war’s events.

The chief culprit for the corruption of language is by far the press, be it in foreign countries or in Spain. To begin with, what happened in Spain “was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution”; to obscure this fact had become the “special business” of the “anti-Fascist press outside Spain” (192):

In England, where the Press is more centralized and the public more easily deceived than elsewhere, only two versions of the Spanish war have had any publicity to speak of: the Right-wing version of Christian patriots versus Bolsheviks dripping with blood, and the Left-wing version of gentlemanly republicans quelling a military revolt. The central issue has been successfully covered up. (Homage to Catalonia 192)

The devastating effects that distortion of language can have on the individual have been demonstrated above for Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman ’ s Daughter and Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Here, however, Orwell is much more explicit in condemning the news media and journalists.2 When speaking of a Russian agent trying to breed discord in the P.O.U.M., he says, “it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies - unless one counts journalists” (Homage to Catalonia 121, my emphasis). Indeed, we should “believe nothing, or next to nothing, of what you read about internal affairs on the government side. It is all, from whatever source, party propaganda - that is to say, lies” (Looking Back on the Spanish War 161). Furthermore, “[n]early all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance, and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading” (Homage to Catalonia 130).

Orwell is known for doing his best to provide readers with the objective truth, as much as possible free from political colouring, and this is not different here; he wanted to “set down the truth as he saw it”, unlike the other writers of the left (Carr 64). Thus, though well-known for his socialist, i.e., left-wing attitudes, he makes no difference between Left and Right when it comes to falsifying history:

One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right. I do earnestly feel that on our side—the Government side—this war was different from ordinary, imperialistic wars; but from the nature of the war-propaganda you would never have guessed it. (Homage to Catalonia 208)

The issue is further complicated by extensive censorship that all non-Communist newspapers in Spain were subjected to, but also the Left-wing papers that did not follow the official government course, especially the papers of the Anarchists and the P.O.U.M. Orwell was a member of:

La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored almost out of existence, and Solidaridad and the other Anarchist papers were also heavily censored. There was a new rule that censored portions of a newspaper must not be left blank but filled up with other matter; as a result it was often impossible to tell when something had been cut out. (Homage to Catalonia 150)

Yet, as important as the fight between Fascists and Communists is the internal struggle within the various Left-wing parties. The longer the war drags on, the more the fighting shifts from the military to the political stage and the main parties in Barcelona (C.N.T., P.S.U.C. and P.O.U.M.) fight each other with slogans rather than bullets. Orwell became more and more aware of the ways in which the P.O.U.M. was falsely depicted as “fascists in disguise” (Stansky and Abrahams 201).


1 The ranking is based on the number of citations in individual works between 1996 and 2003. Nineteen Eightyfour leads with 149 citations, followed by 62 for Animal Farm, and The Road to Wigan Pier with 49; all other works have not more than 24 (McLaughlin 165). For an exact statistic, see McLaughlin 164-165).

2 He would later sum up his opinion of journalists in this short poem: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist/ Thank God! the British journalist:/ But seeing what the man will do/ Unbribed there’s no occasion to” (As I Please, 7th July 1944) (he attributed the poem to Hilaire Belloc, but actually it was written by Humbert Wolfe).

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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. The Role of Language in George Orwell’s Works
University of Tubingen  (English Department)
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Orwell, Media, Manipulation, Arthur Blair, 1984, Animal Farm
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Gregor Schönfelder (Author), 2015, The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. The Role of Language in George Orwell’s Works, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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