Why I Write by George Orwell: A Summary and Analysis
What do authors write for? What is their purpose? Do they want recognition, money or something else? Is there something common among all writers? Orwell answers several such questions about writers that frequently boggle readers in his ‘Why I Write’. Starting from his early childhood to his becoming a mature writer, Orwell tells readers about the things that fuel writers’ creativity. He also tells about the role of childhood emotions and taste in the making of a writer. Orwell was a democratic socialist. His staunch distaste for totalitarianism is visible in this work. However, there are several more beautiful things about the essay including its clarity and flow. He also provides a simplified account of his life and career and the strong drive he felt since his early days to write.
George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ is a very special and distinct autobiographical piece which sums up his journey to becoming a mature writer and records the influences and motivations behind his writing. Apart from a brief glimpse of his troubled childhood, the piece also sums up his career and youth and how he returned to an old and forgotten craft after a major detour in his life. Orwell’s connection with literature and word-craft was old. As a child, it was not just his favourite escapade but also his tool to fight loneliness and boredom. Orwell’s life had taken major turns till finally he started voicing his concern against totalitarianism. As a child he too was influenced by characters like Robinhood that fascinate almost every young kid. Before he could become a full fledged author, he had tried various forms of compositions including poems. Orwell’s writing keeps you spell bound by its lucidity and depth. While modest on the one hand, it is also strikingly bold on the other.
There can be several motivations for an author to write. Orwell starts from his childhood while trying to discover the motivation that directed him towards writing. He was the second child of his parents. Right in the middle of his two siblings, he was 5 years apart from each. The writer inside him had started taking shape when he was just five or six years old. He had tried to find a career in other areas and lose the idea of being an author in adolescence but as he grew older, the dream became difficult to abandon. A lonely childhood and lack of father’s care had made Orwell cultivate ill manners. At school, his schoolmates hated him. He remained an odd creature and even in youth had to struggle to find a stable life and career. Serving the Indian Imperial Police did not bring him any satisfaction but churned the writer inside him. There were ghosts and goblins in his life too as a kid and he too talked to imaginary friends to overcome his loneliness. His isolation and loss of self esteem may have hindered his literary ambitions at first. Orwell had no one to lean upon but himself when he felt undervalued and overcome by a sense of failure. Despite these things, Orwell did not miss to appreciate his peculiar underlying knack to face the reality even if unpleasant. This made him the king of his private world where he could rest in peace and meditate over his private failures.
Orwell did not write much as a child except trying to find inspiration in others’ works like that of William Blake. The poem he wrote at the age of five was a good one and the tiger he described in the poem had ‘chair like’ teeth. He wrote patriotic poems during the First World War and on the death of Herbert Kitchener which were both printed in the local newspaper. Orwell admits that his initial works were no major successes. Between eleven and fifteen years of age he attempted a few poems which were just a poor imitation of Georgian nature poems and tried to write a short story that was again incomplete. The author however, remained engaged in literary activities throughout this period. He would write comic poems and help edit the school magazine which was a particularly uninteresting work according to George Orwell and which he compares with cheap journalism. While all this was taking place, the thinker and author inside Orwell was also taking form. He analysed his private life and kept noting things in his mind like in a diary. Hero of his own story, he made stories about himself. All the clumsiness around him could not keep him from respecting himself. He believed he too was a Robinhood.
As he grew he too could not remain disconnected from the real world and grew more cautious of the things and events taking place around him. Orwell’s struggle with literature continued and inside his mind, he would keep trying to perfect his grasp. By the time Orwell grew sixteen, his association with words had grown stronger. Everything he had read inspired him and he wanted to write just as well as the authors he read. In his own words,”I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their own sound.” One can easily feel how restive Orwell’s mind was and how difficult he might have found to control his excitement till he grew maturer. His dream came true with his writing of Burmese Days which was the kind of book he imagined writing. Through his own account Orwell shows the association between an author’s works and his personal life. He also shows how the political, social and economic environment of his times can affect an author’s works. The author’s account of himself is highly engaging and he lets us have a peep into his mind and heart to show how an author is made. He is also shaped by the conditions around him and the road is not so straight. There are twists and turns that keep bringing you back to your purpose till you have grown mature and serious.
Do childhood emotions affect your writing? Yes, they do. Orwell shows that before he had become a writer he had acquired an emotional attitude which would last till end. This is true about every writer. The emotional attitude he cultivates in his early age remains with him forever. Orwell lived in a tumultuous era and political environment which had certainly affected all the writers of his age. Self training is a writer’s job and he must train himself, but to escape his emotional attitude completely will remove the motivation to write. Orwell’s lucidity captivates at every stage. He clearly explains how he nurtured the dream of writing since his early childhood and with growing maturity grew bound by the dream. Having explained his childhood and how his dream grew, Orwell clarifies the motives that inspire someone to write. Except for a desire to earn, there can be four different motivations to write. These four motivations are bound to be found within a writer and even if the proportions of each may vary between writers, it is because they are working in different environments. So, what are these motivations that keep a writer going?
Recognition is a great motivator and Orwell recognises it in his work that every writer writes for recognition. It’s a writer’s method to fight against identity crisis and to build an identity so strong through his writing that others can find light in it. It is absolutely useless to pretend that a writer does not want recognition. This is not just a writer’s motive but the entire top crust of humanity finds a strange delight in it including businessmen, leaders, lawyers, soldiers and even scientists. A large number of human beings are not so selfish but live for others having abandoned their sense of individuality once they have crossed thirty. Otherwise they suffocate themselves under the weight of menial work. Writers on the other hand are hardbound animals who live their own life from the first page to the last. This is strongly true about the serious writers who are even strongly bound by their identity or what Orwell calls emotional attitude. Less motivated by money than the journalists, they are truly motivated by their own truth. Most imminent writers are misunderstood to be highly vain or utterly simplistic but to peep into their hearts is no easy exercise for they are like walls with a strong foundation that grows stronger as they mature.
It is also a writer’s job to appreciate beauty and to define the beauty he sees around him in his words. The firmness of a prose and rhythm in a story gives him a different pleasure. A strong desire to portray beautiful experiences in words and share its pleasure with others also keeps a writer going. Aesthetic beauty may not be a strong concern for most writers but still even a pamphleteer finds satisfaction in ornamentation. So, apart from your Yellow pages and rail chart, there is hardly a book free from these aesthetic concerns.
Why do you think have the authors kept writing for generations? Do you think it was because they could not find another job. Their motivation was to record facts as they saw them so the coming generations could also have a first hand look.
Being rid of political bias is not a writer’s duty. He continuously pushes the society to become what it should be. An author desires to push his world in a certain direction where it can find meaning and light. So, he cannot remain politically uninfluenced. To say that art must not relate with politics is itself a highly political claim.
So, these are the main motives behind being an author. The proportion may differ from author to author and one of these impulses may strongly resist another. Time and era can also cause variations. Orwell notes that political purpose was not a strong force within him, at least not as strong as the first there. Had he lived in a peaceful age unlike one ravaged by the world war his writing might have been more ornate or descriptive. Might be he would have liked to write romantic novels but the time he lived in was not romantic at all. Orwell’s dissatisfaction at the political situation of his time is evident in his work and had it not been for the war, he would have remained unaware of his political loyalties. As he notes in the later parts of this essay that he is a democratic socialist and the political situation of his time had given birth to staunch distaste for totalitarianism against which most of his fury remained directed all his life. His works speak against totalitarian rule and in the favour of democratic socialism. Orwell had found his job as an ‘Imperial Police Officer’ absolutely detestable which led to growing disillusionment followed by poverty and failing morale. Orwell had felt the political chaos of his time creeping into his personal life. His job in Imperial police made him loathe imperialism and every form of authority that tried to ruin his freedom. while he had gained some understanding of Imperialism from his job in Burma, he could still not gain a clear political orientation. Facing a dilemma, he felt lost as more chaos spread around the world with the arrival of Hitler and the Spanish Civil War. Orwell quotes a poem he had then written to record his dilemma. the poem basically records his anguish and disgust over how nations were willing to sacrifice peace just to exert power and authority. The poem records the same distortion with clarity that war had brought.
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;………(You can read the entire poem on orwell.ru website)
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
The poem records the pain Orwell felt at how fast times had changed and the beauty of the world vanished because of a silly war. The happiness and peace he cherished were eternally vanished and he could not expect to receive it back. It was an era of fear and dreams were being killed. He was not born for such an era and neither anyone else. No one deserved what totalitarianism had given the world but had to bear it all out of fear.
Things changed in Orwell’s life after the Spanish war and every piece he wrote since then was against totalitarianism. It was difficult to avoid it in his age and everyone was writing about it in one way or another. Irrespective of the approach one follows, one can act politically and not even sacrifice his integrity, aesthetic and intellectual by being conscious of his political bias. Since the early 1940s Orwell had been trying to perfect political writing into an art. What inspired him to write was the injustice and partisanship in his society. He did not sit to write because he wanted to produce a work of art but because he wanted to expose a lie or bring some fact to light. His main concern was to bring some issue to public attention and doing that while also creating an aesthetic experience. Even when he was writing downright propaganda, there would be a lot that was irrelevant to a full time politician. As Orwell had already explained it was difficult for him to shake off the taste he had acquired in his early childhood. Even with all the war, chaos and instability around him, he could not abandon what was truly his. His age had forced darkness upon him but he could not stop loving light. To find a balance between the political and he personal is difficult. It is difficult because apart from language and construction, you have to care for truthfulness.
Orwell quotes his book about Spanish civil war “Homage to Catalonia”. Even with its political focus, this book was written with a concern for literary form. Orwell had tried his best to tell the entire truth without freeing himself of his literary boundaries. This book had a major chapter with quotations from a newspaper to defend the Trotskyists who had been accused of having plotted with Franco. Once the purpose is solved such chapters lose their relevance for any ordinary reader and grow obsolete within 1-2 years. So, a critic friend lectured Orwell over why he had ruined the flavour and turned a great book into journalism. The critic’s words were true but there was no meaning in writing the book if he had not put forth the truth Orwell knew. He knew the innocent people were being targeted and accused falsely. It was natural of him to bring the truth before the public. There was no other reason to have written that book. This problem raises its head again and again. Writing is not as simple and Orwell tried to strike a balance between the political and the artistic in his ‘Animal Farm’. The author had tried to remain more precise and less picturesque in the later part of his career. Orwell notes that by the time you have perfected a form you have outgrown it but then a writer would stop writing if he has grown satisfied.
Orwell’s ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ came in 1937 and seven years later he published his ‘Animal Farm’. He worked on propaganda for the BBC between 1941 and 1943 and became literary editor of the Tribune in 1943. Before the publication of his Animal Farm, Orwell had become a prolific journalist and was writing articles, reviews and books. His most incredible ‘1984’ came four years later than the publication of Animal Farm and became a major hit (BBC). The author’s health had started failing by now and a year later he expired of Tuberculosis. ‘Why I Write’ was first published in 1946. In this essay Orwell recalls his previous writings have made him look like an angel who writes for others. However, that is not the case and neither would he want to let that remain his final impression. Orwell thought writers were vain and selfish and under their selfishness lay a kind of mystery. Writing is like cancer and unless you were a possessed spirit you would not undertake this exercise. It’s the same drive that is stronger in the writers. However, you cannot write anything unless you are willing to peel off the layers of your own personality. Good prose is like windscreen and keeps you safe from blowing wind. At the end, Orwell asserts he could not discover which one of his motives was the strongest but he knew the ones worth following. At last he shows that while the first three of his motives were the stronger ones, it was still the last – political purpose that helped him inject meaning and life into his books. Political purpose was something that added soul to his writing which would otherwise be full of purple passages and humbug.