Friday, 14 March 2014

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell Review (Penguin Great Ideas)


This is an excellent collection of George Orwell’s essays spotlighting some of his simplest pieces among his more thoughtful. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad is a very straightforward essay celebrating the joys of Springtime in England while A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray discusses Orwell’s views on gardening and its rewarding spiritual value as plants endure over time. In Defence of English Cooking is a slightly humorous look at foreigners, and Britons’, perceptions of British cooking, talking about its uniqueness in the world and some of his favourite dishes. 

This was the first time I read his famous essay Shooting An Elephant and felt somewhat underwhelmed by it. It’s a memoir of the time Orwell was in Burma as a police officer and had to shoot a tearaway elephant in front of hundreds of native onlookers. I’m currently reading Burmese Days and the essay is a good accompaniment to the novel as it affirms the tense relationship between Imperial Britain in the colonies, particularly the natives’ perceptions of British rule. But it’s a surprisingly simplistic essay – he shoots an elephant. 

The most entertaining essay was Benefit of Clergy which is Orwell’s review of Salvador Dali’s autobiography. Entertaining because I knew nothing about Dali and was shocked to discover what a lunatic the man was! When he wasn’t assaulting women of all ages, he was indulging his morbid sexual tastes like necrophilia! The details of his life are extraordinary in themselves but Orwell turns his review into an argument for appreciating art but disliking it at the same time – recognising the talent and value of art but also acknowledging that some of it, especially Dali’s, is disgusting and vile, as well as the way the public will give Dali the benefit of the doubt because he’s a great artist. 

His essay, In Defence of PG Wodehouse, discusses the bizarre scandal that led to Wodehouse’s exile from Britain from the Second World War to the end of his life. Wodehouse had been captured by the Nazis in 1941 and, for a few days during his imprisonment, he was allowed to write and broadcast a series of comedic observations on the radio which were picked up in Britain. This led to the belief that he was somehow colluding with the Nazis and the British government branded him a traitor as a result. 

Orwell looks at the matter, explaining Wodehouse’s innocence due to his naivety and outdated worldview as shown in his quaint but archaic novels, as well as how Wodehouse could’ve been so stupid to have done this in the first place. It’s a fascinating, clear-minded look at something that was blown out of all proportion by an hysterical public. 

His review of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was erudite and insightful as he used the book to look at Swift’s politics and worldview and how humanity is portrayed in his famous novel. His essay on Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool is probably the best in this collection. It examines Tolstoy’s pamphlet critiquing Shakespeare’s play King Lear whose poorly made arguments Orwell proceeds to pull apart. Orwell then goes on to look at the similarities between Lear’s life and Tolstoy’s when he wrote the pamphlet, particularly Tolstoy’s extreme religious outlook (which was vastly hypocritical – advocating strict celibacy when vigorously practicing the opposite!) and then takes a broader look at religion itself, giving us gems like:

“The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life”

And

“Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of heaven or nirvana”

Orwell’s essays are always worth reading for their insight, intelligence and wisdom, and whether or not you’re interested in the subject, Orwell is able to make you care about it and do so in a clear, approachable and understandable way. This collection is no different and contains some fantastic gems that make this book well worth picking up.

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad (Penguin Great Ideas)

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