Orwell: From Dickens
His fellow writer Arthur Koestler praised George Orwell’s “uncompromising intellectual honesty,” and for much of his life Orwell played the role of societal conscience. A fly in the ointment, he relentlessly buzzed hard truths his contemporaries didn’t want to hear. This map places Orwell in context with social-reforming Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, who inspired his unflinching cultural critiques, and shows how Orwell’s polemics in turn inspired the social critics of our time.
George Orwell admired Charles Dickens and wrote a lengthy essay about him in 1939. Incidents in both writers’ early years manifested as themes in their writing decades later. Dickens’s lifelong criticism of workers’ conditions grew from his personal experiences of stinging poverty and child labor; his father had been thrown into debtors’ prison, and 12-year-old Charles was forced to work to support his family. Orwell’s service as an instrument of British power on the imperial police force in Burma forever soured him on the inequity and abuses of empire building. These experiences also hardened both men to their critics’ barbs.
Orwell’s essay notes that Dickens could be considered a radical: “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.” How did he pull it off? “The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral.... There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown.... For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’”
The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s exposé of abysmal conditions in the British mining industry, recalls novels by Charles Dickens, who took a crusading, moralistic look at the treatment of Victorian England’s working poor. Wigan Pier’s methodical reportage echoes Dickens’s exposition in Hard Times (1854), in which Dickens strengthens his case for better working conditions by making his characters symbolically either cruel or saintly. Factory owner Josiah Bounderby is dishonest and uncaring, while mill worker Stephen Blackpool is eminently virtuous.
“Ground in the Mill,” a short article in Dickens’s weekly magazine Household Words, appeared along with a serialized installment of Hard Times and enumerates three years of English factory accidents. Dickens largely kept gruesome details out of his novel, perhaps wanting the fact and fiction pieces to be read side by side. The article describes a factory boy holding a belt, who is “suddenly snapped up by it, whirled round a hundred and twenty times in a minute, and at each revolution knocked against the ceiling till his bones are almost reduced to powder.” Orwell uncovered similar degradations in the mines nearly 100 years later.
The publisher of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London printed a brief introduction on the first edition’s front cover: “This is, in our view, an extremely forceful and socially important document. The picture drawn by the author is completely convincing; and though it is quite terrible (as, of course, it is meant to be) it holds the attention far more closely than do 90% of novels.” Orwell describes his days in Paris, where he worked in a hotel restaurant as a dishwasher, and in London, where he tramped around and slept in quarters for transients. The book could be called creative nonfiction, because while it is a close re-creation of Orwell’s deliberate descent into poverty, it uses some of fiction’s narrative devices. Orwell acknowledged his characters were “intended more as representative types,” and although the Paris section occurs first in the book, some of the London events happened before Orwell’s time in Paris. Down and Out was his first long-form published work and marked the first time he used the pen name George Orwell. Before this, the author had taught at a small West London school and was known by his real name, Eric Blair.
Upon its publication in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was compared to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Both books take the form of undercover reportage by middle-class authors. Orwell took a job as a plongeur—a hotel dishwasher and kitchen porter—in Paris in the late 1920s and lived as a tramp in London. Ehrenreich, in order to see how the welfare reform law of 1996 might affect the working poor, lived in three cities in the U.S., taking on menial jobs, such as maid, waitress, Walmart employee and nursing home aide, at each locale. Both writers were ultimately surprised by the long hours they had to put in to make ends meet, the backbreaking nature of the work and the low pay. The cycles of poverty encountered by Orwell in the European capitals in the late 1920s and early 1930s and by Ehrenreich in American towns and cities in the last years of the 20th century seem equally hopeless and intractable. Poverty of pocketbook, it would seem, begets poverty of mind, body and spirit.
Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great (2007), and Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Nickel and Dimed, have fearlessly debunked conventional wisdom while slaying sacred cows. Hitchens called Catholic icon Mother Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud,” while Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America debunks Pollyannaism. Hitchens’s contrariness is on full display in his review of the book: “Barbara Ehrenreich scores again for the independent-minded in resisting this drool and all those who wallow in it.”
In Nickel and Dimed Ehrenreich destroys the common belief that any job provides dignity, happiness and productivity, arguing that many low-paying service jobs do the opposite; slinging burgers, cleaning toilets and stocking shelves make workers feel hopeless and exploited. Most resounding is Ehrenreich’s conclusion about the philanthropy of the “working poor”: “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.”
In his book Why Orwell Matters (2002), polemicist Christopher Hitchens makes a convincing argument for the British writer’s continued relevance more than 60 years after his death. Hitchens was a freethinking contrarian, often called a gadfly of the left, and it’s easy to see why he admired George Orwell. Both men were iconoclastic in their political thought, and though both leaned to the left, they were not afraid to take their fellow leftists to task. In his youth, Hitchens was a left-wing activist and great admirer of communist radicals from Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx to Che Guevara. In 1989, when Iran put a fatwa on British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, calling for his death, Hitchens felt his colleagues should have unconditionally supported Rushdie and not made excuses for Iran’s stance. And though he defended the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq following the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, Hitchens wasn’t sympathetic toward all policies of President George W. Bush and his administration. Hitchens respected Orwell’s brave, independent thinking, as well as his fearlessness, as a committed socialist, in criticizing communism with such books as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.