The Road to Wigan Pier (George Orwell)

I don’t know how any sensible person my age could possibly not relate to a sentence like this one from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier: “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it… Presently there may be coming God knows what horrors–horrors of which, in this sheltered island, we have not even a traditional knowledge.” How could this not make any one in this day and age drop their jaws, thump their chests, run their hands through their hair in nervous, twitchy recognition? Maybe I’m just feeling apocalyptic from watching the trailer of Will Smith roaming through an overgrown, decrepit Manahattan hunting deer. Maybe I’ve been feeling a little too much like the guy from “Into the Wild” in general, lately. I even read some parts of this book aloud, perhaps picturing myself–doing what? Giving impassioned semi-Socialist speeches to huddled groups of Catholic high schoolers sitting on the floor of the Salesian center, picking the dried concrete off their shoes… I guess.

What I found most interesting about this book is Orwell’s personal franknes, not not so much towards what he is revealing about his subjects, but what that act of revelation is revealing about himself, and his own class status, and all that messy stuff that comes with it that we don’t really want to talk about with our college mates. Class is one of those messy things that gets in the way like race (not so much for religion and politics, I feel), but Orwell deals with it in a way I almost want to call self-confessional. In my non-fiction creative writing class, we discussed how one of the main things you could do to make your piece more interesting would be to think of the dirty, shameful things you would be embarassed of sharing, and then go ahead and admit them in the most exposed way possible: writing it down with the intention and knowledge that other people will read it! Orwell admits a lot of things that the middle-class person today would have trouble with even mumbling at their feet. For instance, his main argument as to what lies behind the class distinctions of the West goes as such: the lower classes smell. This is obviously a (deliberate) oversimplification on Orwell’s part, but he gets his point across. This is something we don’t want to admit aloud. In Ecuador, I turned my head away from the little kids huggging me because of the alternatively rank dank burnt stale sweet salty scent of their scalps. The Catholic teenagers in Tijuana were advised in low voices by their adult leaders not to pat the little kids on the head, for fear of lice. Yes, poor people are dirty, and we are all a little bit afraid of that. It does good to admit that, to say it (write it) out loud. Such a sentiment can lead to dangerous territory, though… Don’t drink the water in Mexico, because the water will make you sick (because the people are dirty. Because brown people are dirty).

Orwell spares no words when describing himself either: he calls his fifteen-year-old self “an odious little snob” and never fails to remind his reader of the middle-class position from which he is writing from. I felt good reading these blunt admissions, as I’m sure it must have felt good for Orwell to write them. Overall, I highly admire Orwell’s no-nonsense approach to his subject and his own writing style. I even find myself now wanting to write this review in an Orwellian style: dry, self-reflexive, easy to understand and follow, simply stated–all writing qualities of Orwell’s that I greatly appreciated. I love his vocabulary and the humor that comes out of a well-chosen word. There are true gems in his book, such as his observation of newspaper canvassers: “Their job seemed to me so hopeless, so appalling that I wondered how anyone could put up with such a thing when prison was an alternative.”

The book stumbles a little bit in the second section when he goes into a long discussion of futuristic, mechanicized societies and the different results that this would have on the individual. It was interesting, but a bit long, and I wanted him to get back to Socialism, already. That being said, Orwell claims he’s playing the Devil’s Advocate for socialism in the first few chapters in order to properly defend it later, but he never quite gets around to doing that (maybe he does in another book? Maybe deep down inside he doesn’t believe his own defenses? Here’s where some biographical knowledge of the author would have come in handy for me). He suffers from what my Hum 411 class dubbed the hot-potato ending: he drops out without actually proposing anything concrete we (or the early 20th century British socialists, I should say) can actually DO. To be fair, he does list the necessity for the formation of a revolutionary Socialist party with simpler ideas that more people can relate to. It’s fair to concur that the actual “hows” and “whys” of doing so are a book in themselves.

On a scale of Marx to Weber, I give this a Lenin.

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Filed under books, non-fiction

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