Several things went through my head when we were told that Orwell was next up on the long list of books required to read this year. The first thought being not another essay! My first experience with a book length essay was in grade 10 when we read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and, contrary to the title that essay nearly bored me to death. Therefore it astonished me when I found myself actually enjoying reading Orwells essays. One thing in particular that kept the pages turning was Orwell’s use of thought provoking themes. These themes touch upon fundamental aspects of society and human nature, inviting readers to critically examine their own beliefs and the world around. Two of these themes resonated within me more than the others, the first was social injustice and dehumanization, the second being imperialism and the abuse of power.
Orwell’s essays, particularly The Spike and How the Poor Die, eloquently depict the social injustices and dehumanizing treatment inflicted upon the marginalized. In The Spike, Orwell’s first-hand experience in a workhouse reveals the harsh reality faced by the destitute. He highlights the appalling living conditions and total disregard for human dignity through his powerful language and moving descriptions. Unlike many others Orwell does not merely report on the topics of poverty and homelessness he experiences them. It is perhaps this quality which makes his writings so intriguing. The Spike by George Orwell serves as a stark reminder that the moral character of a society can be seen in how it treats its most vulnerable members. Orwell writes that “the cells measures eight feet by five” (p.13), referring to the living quarters of the workhouses, prison like. This encapsulates the social injustices of it all, resonating deeply, emphasizing the urgency for societal change and compassionate reform.
Similarly in How the Poor Die, Orwell draws attention to the striking disparities in healthcare access between the wealthy and the poor. He condemns a system that places profit ahead of human life, causing the poor to unnecessarily suffer from inadequate medical care. Orwell’s resolute depiction of the experience is persevered by the devastated highlights of foundational foul play sustained by cultural disregard. The devastating impact of poverty, in which individuals are denied the opportunity to improve their circumstances and enter a cycle of despair, is captured in the line, “A few feeble protests that I uttered got no more response than if I had been an animal.” (p. 278). Through these expositions, Orwell illustrates his treatment as one of the “poor” and urges perusers to stand up to the dehumanization of the minimized, provoking us to take a stab at a more fair and sympathetic culture.
My personal favourite of the Orwellian essays was Shooting an Elephant which delves into the idea that if one possesses power they might be inclined to abuse it. The essay itself discusses Orwells role as an imperial police officer in the heart of colonial Burma. He exposes the moral dilemma faced by individuals tasked with upholding oppressive systems. Through the metaphor of shooting an innocent elephant to appease the crowd, he unveils the inherent violence and degradation inflicted upon both the colonized and the colonizer. Orwell’s insight, “And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at,” (p.37) compels readers to examine the corrosive impact of imperialism on both the oppressed and the oppressor. This essay was, to me, masterful. Subtly exploring the destructive nature of imperialism while at the same time depicting yet another of his many adventures. When tied with the essay A Hanging, which discusses punishments in the context of imperialism, the two illustrate perfectly how power can be abused and the legitimacy of systems which perpetrate that same abuse.
These few essays from Orwell had me asking so many questions and reflecting upon myself. Orwell has me questioning what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is unjust. Never before have I read such thought provoking pieces of writing or heard of a man with such a transient life. I can only aspire to write like Orwell or live half the life that he did. After reading just some of his writing I find myself wanting to seek out more, wanting to read another one of his essays or books which will undoubtedly be written with the same passion, the same sense, the same…everything.