Matthew's Reviews > Shooting an Elephant

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
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's review
Jan 11, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: essaysjournalism, history
Read in January, 2011

Lovely -- I can't believe I let this sit on my shelf for 3 years before getting round to it. I have not read Orwell before, save for Animal Farm as a teenager, and didn't realise what a sharp essayist he is; I certainly intend to read more. Certainly I'm no Orwell expert, but here are a few things I do notice from this collection:

1. How much he is a proletariat voice, despite his middle class family background and relatively elite education (admittedly on scholarship) -- witness his criticism of Dickens' lack of realistic empathy for the real working classes, his sensitiveness to the biases of the weekly magazines that then passed for cheap mass entertainment, his embedded journalism in the homeless shelter, the very title of "How The Poor Die", etc. His sympathies are entirely with the working class.

2. How against totalitarianism he was -- and yet how much this dates him (for which I remove a star); his specific political attacks seem hardly relevant now. What is relevant, though, and linked to his political commentary, is his attack on censorship and the politicization of knowledge/truth/writing. Interestingly, this was directed at his own Britain, where newspaper reporting was apparently politicized as a result of the wars; how he saw the politicization of knowledge inevitably means a malleable history, a malleable truth, a past that belongs to the elite.

3. What a sharp literary critic he was -- his essays on Charles Dickens and, separately, Swift's Gullivers Travels are brilliant. I like how he argues Dickens is a moralist -- his novels never critique the system, rather, the morality and behavior of people in the system -- and how he extends this to argue that there are always two views: how can you improve the system so as to improve human behavior, versus, you must first change human behavior for any system to work. (I confess myself very much of the latter view.)

4. The same qualities that make him a good literary critic, I think, make him an excellent biographical essayist -- he is reflective and sufficiently sensitive to his own internal reactions, that some of his best stuff are his reminiscences -- the titular essay, Shooting An Elephant, for example, is a rather tragic, honest self-accounting, while Such, Such Were The Joys, is a surprisingly vehement recounting of his days in boarding school. (I've not come across a single positive overall memory of the British boarding school system in the early 20th C...)

5. Simply what an entertaining writer he is -- I can read 3 or 4 of these at a go, even though they're full of insights, they read at a great pace.
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