Saturday, 16 April 2016

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell Review

George Orwell is best remembered for his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four and allegorical novella Animal Farm but he was also an extremely gifted essayist. Shooting an Elephant collects some of his finest essays (along with some less than sparkling ones). 

The Spike and How The Poor Die are good accompaniments to his excellent work of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, focusing on the lives of tramps and their horrific treatment in the dingiest of hospitals (which he experienced first-hand). 

Such, Such Were the Joys is one of his most famous essays, a vividly-recalled memoir of his time at St Cyprian’s, a private Edwardian school he won a scholarship to. He’s bullied by an older boy, beaten by the headmaster, “Sambo”, and threatened with violence by the headmaster’s wife, “Flip”, after he wets the bed on his first night – she’ll sic the Sixth Form boys onto him if he doesn’t stop with that (yikes)! It’s also a critique of a teaching style that places emphasis on recitation of facts over understanding of them, obfuscating actual knowledge and learning.

Some of the best essays focus on Orwell’s love of literature. Why I Write is short but succinct and inspiring and Politics v Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels is an informative review of Jonathan Swift’s politics and worldview through the prism of his best known work. 

Politics and the English Language shows a canny understanding of the nuances of language and how it can be manipulated: “Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In The Prevention of Literature he underlines how art cannot exist in a regime that censors freedom of thought: “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox”.

There are some less weighty essays mixed in here too that are especially fun if you’re a bibliophile like me. Bookshop Memories recalls Orwell’s time working in a bookshop and the batty customers he dealt with; Good Bad Books celebrates the guilty pleasure of reading trashy novels; and Confessions of a Book Reviewer paints a very accurate picture of being a professional book reviewer (most of which still rings true today). In Defence of English Cooking is also a charming appraisal of the uniqueness of English cuisine which continues to enjoy some pretty antiquated notions from foreigners.

Not all the essays are brilliant though. Shooting an Elephant is an essay where Orwell, as a young man in Burma, had to shoot a rampaging elephant which is surprisingly dull to read about. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad just makes some mundane observations on springtime, My Country Right Or Left is Orwell drearily stating that he loves his country whichever political party is in power, and Books v Cigarettes is Orwell pedantically working out the cost of buying books over more expensive habits like cigarettes, beer and gambling for working class people (they must read more!! yawn). 

Some essays are instantly forgettable like Boys’ Weeklies, The Sporting Spirit, and Looking Back on the Spanish War (which ends with an awful poem - Orwell may have been a helluva novelist and essayist but a great poet he was not). Others are interminably long like his essay on Charles Dickens (ironically, one of his critiques of Dickens is that he takes an age to say something quite simple!) but in every one he manages to say at least one thing that’s thoughtful and interesting. 

I’ve highlighted some of the essays that stood out for me and said a little something about them but this summary really doesn’t do them justice. The majority of the essays are really great and are bursting with layers of intelligence and wit that, despite communicating complex, nuanced ideas, are written in a clear, fresh and accessible style. Orwell was a sharp observer and brilliant thinker who knew how to put across his ideas impeccably through the written word. 

A number of Orwell’s novels are worth reading for anyone but I’d also urge those same readers not to forget his essays where you can see him develop the ideas that would become immortalised in his fiction as well as gain a strong impression of the author himself and the fascinating times he lived in.

Shooting an Elephant

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