Why I Write by George Orwell: A Summary and Analysis
Why do authors write? What is their purpose? Do they want recognition, money or other things? Is there anything common among writers? Orwell answers such several questions about writers and reading that boggle readers’ minds in ‘Why I Write’. Starting from his early childhood to the time he became a mature writer, Orwell tells readers about things that fuelled his creativity. According to him childhood emotions and taste play a central role in the making of a writer. Orwell was a democratic socialist. His strong distaste for totalitarianism is visible in most of his works. However, there are several more beautiful things about the essay including imagery, clarity and flow. He also provides a simplified account of his life and career and the strong drive he felt since childhood to write.
George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ is an autobiographical journey from his childhood to the time he became a mature writer. It records the influences and motivations behind his career as an author. Apart from a brief glimpse of his troubled childhood, the piece sums up his career and youth and how he returned to an old and forgotten art after a long stint as a police officer in his life. Orwell’s connection with literature and word-craft was old. As a child, it was his favourite escapade from loneliness and boredom. Orwell’s life had taken several turns till finally he started voicing his concern against totalitarianism. As a child, he was influenced by characters like Robinhood that fascinate almost every young kid. Before he became 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 very modest on the one hand, it is bold and penetrating on the other.
There are several motivations for any 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. Orwell had two siblings; one was five years older than him and another five years younger. The writer inside him had started taking shape when he was just five or six years old. He tried to find a career in other fields and to lose the idea of being an author in adolescence. 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 struggled 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 spectacular knack to face the reality, what if unpleasant. This made him the king of his private world where he could think in peace and meditate over his private failures.
Orwell did not write much as a kid except trying to find inspiration in works of writers like William Blake. The poem he wrote at the age of five was still 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 which was again incomplete. The author remained engaged in literary activities throughout this period. He would write comic poems and help edit the school magazine which was an uninteresting work according to George Orwell and which he compared 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 as in a diary. Hero of his own story, he made stories about himself. All the chaos around him could not reduce his respect for himself. He believed he too was a Robinhood.
As he grew up and became more aware of the contemporary scenario, he too could not remain disconnected from reality. 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 grew stronger. Everything he had read inspired him and he wanted to write just as well as the authors he had 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 feel Orwell’s restlessness and how difficult he might have found to control his excitement till he was mature. His dream came true with his writing of ‘Burmese Days’ which was the kind of book he dreamt of 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 lets us have a peep into his mind and heart to show how someone becomes an author. An author is also shaped by the conditions around him and the road is not as straight as mostly described. There are twists and turns that keep bringing you back to your purpose till you have grown mature, serious and steady. It took Orwell a lot of time to find his focus.
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 his 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 proportion of each varies, it is because the writers are working in different environments. So, what are the 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 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 an original account of events.
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 a highly political claim. Art and politics cannot remain disengaged.
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 of the four. 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 crisis 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 the essay 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 reduce 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 written then to record his dilemma. The poem basically records his anguish and disgust over how nations were willing to sacrifice peace to exert power and authority. The poem records the same distortion brought by war.
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 how the beauty of the world vanished with war. The happiness and peace he cherished were eternally vanished and he could not expect to find them back. It was an era of fear when dreams were killed. He was not born to live in 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. Orwell notes, “And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”. He knew one could maintain his aesthetic and intellectual integrity and still act politically if he was 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 write since 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. It was an era of darkness but would that stop the independent minded from seeking light. To find a balance between the political and the 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 one to two 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 Orwell had not put forth the truth he 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 are possessed by the 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 the 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 filled with purple passages and humbug.
In this way, Orwell constructs a full picture of himself as a writer. Despite the political crisis of his times and often changing course of life, the writer in him remained strong. With time, he found his focus back and grew into the writer, world remembers him as. Orwell does not hide his motivations and it proves writing was his best means of expressing himself. With time, his writing kept growing more and more perfect. Now, as we read Orwell, his works are also a great scale to weigh history upon. He has connected the various dots to create a strong picture of an ideal writer. Orwell does not lay bare only the core of the writer but also his brain and limbs.