Inside the Whale and other essays was first published in this format in 1957, but the individuals essays are drawn from across Orwell’s most productive journalistic years, 1936 to 1947. There are nine essays in this collection – first date of publication shown in brackets:
Inside the Whale (1940) starts as a discussion of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, but uses this topic as a springboard to roam far and wide across the literature of the first half of the twentieth century;
Down the Mine (1937) originally formed a chapter in The Road to Wigan Pier and is what is says it is, a description of the physical hardships involved in working down a coal mine;
England Your England (1941) is a discussion of nationalism in the context of the early years of the second World War;
Shooting an Elephant (1936) – in this well-known essay Orwell describes the possibly fictional experience of shooting an elephant while serving in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police, where he went immediately after Eton instead of the more traditional route of university;
Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947) is a discussion of Tolstoy’s essay on Shakespeare;
Politics in Literature (1946) is an extended review of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels;
Politics and the English Language (1946) is a surprisingly conservative discussion of how debased the English language has become due to the declining political situation;
The Prevention of Literature (1945) works well as a companion piece to the previous essay as it discusses the impact of totalitarianism on literature;
Boys’ Weeklies (1940) which is a more light-hearted review of the comics published for boys in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Each essay had previously been published elsewhere and had also been collected in different formats. They work well together in this collection, completing one another and giving a examples of some of Orwell’s best journalism of this his defining period.
Taking these essays as a whole, my first impression was how incredibly interesting Orwell must have been as a person to speak to. His mind jumps across so many different topics and he always has a contentious, well-framed position. He never sits on the fence. Some of the positions he sets out here, such as his arguments about the use of plain English in political writing, have stayed with me since I first read them in the 1970’s. You might not agree with what he says – and sometimes I think he is just adopting a position to be controversial for its own sake – but it’s always interesting. It’s also possible to open a page at random and find dozens of thoughtful comments on an important issues. Here are some examples – but the book is absolutely full of them, and choosing some representative examples was incredibly difficult:
It was an age of eagles and of crumpets, facile despairs, backyard Hamlets, cheap return tickets to the end of the night. Inside the Whale
“He (Henry Miller) is fiddling While Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, is fiddling with his face towards the flames“. Inside the Whale
“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.” England Your England
(On the impact of imperialism on the ‘white man with his gun’) “He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it” Shooting an Elephant.
These essays are very specific to the time and place from which they were published – the end of Empire and the outbreak of the second World War; the rise of the dictators and for a while what looked like it might be the end of civilisation as we knew it. They are dominated by the oppressive political climate in which internationally things looked very bleak, the war loomed and then broke, and progressive ideas struggled to survive.
“While I have been writing this essay another European war has broken out. It will either last several years and tear Western civilisation to pieces, or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war which will do the job once and for all.” Inside the Whale.
It is interesting how little Orwell seemed to have celebrated or been inspired by the election of the radical Labour Government at the end of the war. Although he obviously wrote about these events none of his great journalism touches upon the creation of the NHS, the nationalisation of swathes of British industry, and the introduction of the modern welfare state, even though these steps were an attempt to address many of the social injustices he had written about in, for example, The Road to Wigan Pier. His focus by then was the international situation, and in particular the spread of Soviet Communism. The extent to which Orwell was rehearsing themes that would come to dominate his last two great novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1950) comes across very strongly in these essays. For example in The Prevention of Literature he speculates on what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. “Perhaps some kind of low-grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum? It would not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery.” This theme was brought more vividly to life in 1984 with the creation of the ‘ficdep’ and ‘pornosec’ departments. That’s one of the great strengths of these two masterpieces – they bring together complex political ideas that Orwell had been writing about for some time, and express them in a wonderfully clear way.
I think it’s appropriate that the collection ends with Boys’ Weeklies. This is a class based analysis of boys’ comics, with particular reference to the Billy Bunter Greyfriars stories. It was originally published in the monthly literary magazine Horizon, and argues that the rigid structure these stories employ was needed because “a series lasting thirty years could hardly be the work of the same person every week. Consequently they have to be written in a style that is easily imitated — an extraordinary, artificial, repetitive style, quite different from anything else now existing in English literature.” While Orwell was unquestionably right about the repetitive style the stories used, he was completely wrong in his speculation that the author – Frank Richards – was a pseudonym used by a series of writers. The following month Horizon published one of the most devastating ripostes to an essay I have ever seen which includes a line by line reply to virtually every point made, plus this magnificently understated take down:
“Mr Orwell finds it difficult to believe that a series running for thirty years can possibly have been written by one and the same person. In the presence of such authority I speak with diffidence: and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three people”
I highly recommend reading Richards’ reply in full (to be fair it was included in Orwell’s collected essays letters and journalism when they published by Penguin in four volumes a few years/decades back) as an example of how to write a dignified demolition of what to be fair was just an attempt to write something interesting about a light-hearted subject.
Finally, I wanted to close on Down a Mine. Orwell has rightly been condemned in recent times for his casual homophobia – he often used homophobic language to describe gay men in particular. But even he was not immune to the attractions of the male form:
“It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads.” Down a Mine.