George Orwell (1903-50) is known around the world for his satirical novella Animal Farm and his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was arguably at his best in the essay form. Below, we’ve selected and introduced ten of Orwell’s best essays for the interested newcomer to his non-fiction, but there are many more we could have added. What do you think is George Orwell’s greatest essay?
‘Why I Write’. This 1946 essay is notable for at least two reasons: one, it gives us a neat little autobiography detailing Orwell’s development as a writer; and two, it includes four ‘motives for writing’ which break down as egoism (wanting to seem clever), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking delight in the sounds of words etc.), the historical impulse (wanting to record things for posterity), and the political purpose (wanting to ‘push the world in a certain direction’).
‘Politics and the English Language’. The English language is ‘in a bad way’, Orwell argues in this famous essay from 1946. As its title suggests, Orwell identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation: Orwell sees modern political discourse as being less a matter of words chosen for their clear meanings than a series of stock phrases slung together. Orwell concludes with six rules or guidelines for political writers and essayists, which include: never use a long word when a short one will do, or a specialist or foreign term when a simpler English one should suffice.
‘Shooting an Elephant’. This is an early Orwell essay, from 1936. In it, he recalls his experiences as a police officer in Burma, when he had to shoot an elephant that had got out of hand. Orwell extrapolates from this one event, seeing it as a microcosm of imperialism, wherein the coloniser loses his humanity and freedom through oppressing others.
‘Decline of the English Murder’. In this 1946 essay, Orwell writes about the British fascination with murder, focusing in particular on the period of 1850-1925, which Orwell identifies as the golden age or ‘great period in murder’ in the media and literature. But what has happened to murder in the British newspapers? Orwell claims that the Second World War has desensitised people to brutal acts of killing, but also that there is less style and art in modern murders. Oscar Wilde would no doubt agree with Orwell’s point of view!
‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’. This 1946 essay makes book-reviewing as a profession or trade – something that seems so appealing and aspirational to many book-lovers – look like a life of drudgery. Why, Orwell asks, does virtually every book that’s published have to be reviewed? It would be best, he argues, to be more discriminating and devote more column inches to the most deserving of books.
‘A Hanging’. This is another Burmese recollection from Orwell, and a very early work, dating from 1931. Orwell describes a condemned criminal being executed by hanging, using this event as a way in to thinking about capital punishment and how, as Orwell put it elsewhere, a premeditated execution can seem more inhumane than a thousand murders.
‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Subtitled ‘Socialism and the English Genius’, this is another essay Orwell wrote about Britain in the wake of the outbreak of the Second World War. Published in 1941, this essay takes its title from the heraldic symbols for England (the lion) and Scotland (the unicorn). Orwell argues that some sort of socialist revolution is needed to wrest Britain out of its outmoded ways and an overhaul of the British class system will help Britain to defeat the Nazis. The long essay contains a section, ‘England Your England’, which is often reprinted as a standalone essay, written as the German bomber planes were whizzing overhead during the Blitz of 1941. This part of the essay is a critique of blind English patriotism during wartime and an attempt to pin down ‘English’ values at a time when England itself was under threat from Nazi invasion.
‘My Country Right or Left’. This 1940 essay shows what a complex and nuanced thinker Orwell was when it came to political labels such as ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. Although Orwell was on the left, he also held patriotic (although not exactly fervently nationalistic) attitudes towards England which many of his comrades on the left found baffling. As with ‘England Your England’ above, the wartime context is central to Orwell’s argument, and lends his discussion of the relationship between left-wing politics and patriotic values an urgency and immediacy.
‘Bookshop Memories’. As well as writing on politics and being a writer, Orwell also wrote perceptively about readers and book-buyers – as in this 1936 essay, published the same year as his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which combined both bookshops and writers (the novel focuses on Gordon Comstock, an aspiring poet). In ‘Bookshop Memories’, reflecting on his own time working as an assistant in a bookshop, Orwell divides those who haunt bookshops into various types: the snobs after a first edition, the Oriental students, and so on.
‘A Nice Cup of Tea’. Orwell didn’t just write about literature and politics. He also wrote about things like the perfect pub, and how to make the best cup of tea, for the London Evening Standard in the late 1940s. Here, in this essay from 1946, Orwell offers eleven ‘golden rules’ for making a tasty cuppa, arguing that people disagree vehemently how to make a perfect cup of tea because it is one of the ‘mainstays of civilisation’. Hear, hear.