Literature

A Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Politics vs. Literature’

‘Politics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels’ is a 1946 essay by George Orwell (1903-50). In the essay, Orwell explores Swift’s depiction and view of humanity in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a novel we have analysed here.

You can read ‘Politics vs Literature’ in full here, but below we offer a short summary, and analysis, of Orwell’s argument. Like all of Orwell’s best essays, ‘Politics vs Literature’ sees Orwell considering potential paradoxes or problems – here, in relation to our enjoyment of literature which offers a moral and political view we disagree with – and unpicking them in a clear, level-headed way.

The main focus of Orwell’s argument, as the title ‘Politics vs Literature’ conveys, is the apparent gulf between two things: the greatness of Gulliver’s Travels as a work of literature and the less-than-great political outlook of its author, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Orwell considers a number of illuminating examples from Swift’s book, exploring how they demonstrate Swift’s negative opinion of the human race.

For instance, Orwell argues that in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift depicts totalitarianism, but because Gulliver (and, presumably, by extension, Swift himself) approves of the Houyhnhnms’ society, Swift admires the idea of a totalitarian society in which dissident opinion is unacceptable. This is clearly something which Orwell himself, and the majority of his readers who have just lived through a world war which opposed a regime which was totalitarian in its nature, would find it hard to agree with:

This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of society. In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.

This is extraordinarily perceptive of Orwell, and his point about how totalitarianism is the most stringent and most powerful when public opinion rather than government edict affect individual behaviour is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in 1946, during the age of Stalinism and just after the fall of Nazism. Yet Swift, through Gulliver’s acceptance of this society (coupled with what we know about the man himself), promotes this as a good thing.

As Orwell goes on to explain, Swift does not appear to have been a curious or good-natured person, despite his other manifold gifts, so it probably struck him as natural to disregard any difference of opinion, because everything has already been settled and we already know everything that’s worth knowing.

Although Swift was a ‘rebel’ and an ‘iconoclast’, he cannot be labelled as left-wing, Orwell argues; although, going against the prevalent opinion of his age, and anticipating proto-feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft by over half a century, Swift did argue that women should receive the same education as men. And his ideal society, the utopia of the Houyhnhnms, is, in Orwell’s word, ‘dreary’, based on Reason but little else. Ultimately, it is rather joyless:

The aim, as usual, is to humiliate Man by reminding him that he is weak and ridiculous, and above all that he stinks; and the ultimate motive, probably, is a kind of envy, the envy of the ghost for the living, of the man who knows he cannot be happy for the others who – so he fears – may be a little happier than himself. The political expression of such an outlook must be either reactionary or nihilistic, because the person who holds it will want to prevent Society from developing in some direction in which his pessimism may be cheated.

So, for all that, Swift’s mockery of man – in casting them as the loutish Yahoos, in stark contrast to the rational and civilised Houyhnhnms – is puritanical, not because Swift believes mankind could be better than we are but we fall short of our potential (what we might call the ‘romantic’ view of humanity) but because we are all bodies that excrete, have sexual intercourse, and act in ways which are sometimes impulsive and spontaneous, but ultimately free.

Swift dislikes this freedom: the Houyhnhnms, as Orwell mentions, have two children each to keep the population at a stable level, but thereafter, they simply lose interest in sex and don’t take part in it, even for recreation, for fear of adding any more offspring to the population. As Orwell concludes, Swift’s political views were, on the whole, ‘reactionary’: he was against social progress or reform, as the stable consistency of the Houyhnhnms demonstrates.

Of course, all this seems at odds with George Orwell’s own political outlook, and indeed Orwell readily acknowledges that he disagrees with Swift both morally and politically. Yet he considers Gulliver’s Travels a classic book which Orwell would even list among the half-dozen books to be preserved, if all others were lost. As Orwell puts it, this raises the intriguing question: what is the relationship between enjoying a book and agreeing with the author’s opinions?

As Orwell observes, we can easily (with a little detachment) perceive merit in a writer with whom we disagree, but enjoying their work is a different matter. If a book angers us because we disagree with the views its writer is putting across, we cannot really ‘enjoy’ it. Yet there are some books which are so enjoyable that the enjoyment makes us forget any disagreement between us and the writer, and Gulliver’s Travels is such a book.

Orwell attempts to explain how we reconcile Swift’s unpalatable view of ourselves with our enjoyment of the novel:

Swift falsifies his picture of the world by refusing to see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness, but the part which he abstracts from the whole does exist, and it is something which we all know about while shrinking from mentioning it. Part of our minds – in any normal person it is the dominant part – believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence.

In other words, Swift’s disgust at his fellow humans with their dirty bodies and dirty appetites may be extreme, but even those of us who think of humans as something nobler than the Yahoos will detect some grain of truth in Swift’s caricature of us as uncultured brutes.

Orwell concludes ‘Politics vs Literature’ by acknowledging that, whilst it’s wrong to say that great art is always written by progressives (rather than conservatives, or even reactionaries like Swift), some degree of ‘sanity’, to use Orwell’s word, is necessary for ‘great art’ to be produced. Swift’s vision was extreme but just sane enough for his novel to qualify as great art.

3 Comments

  1. I read this essays twice before, but because I had never read “Gulliver’s Travels”, I couldn’t feel Orwell’s brilliance as much as if I had read the book. LOL. Still I don’t think I have the appetite for Gulliver.

    • I am rereading Orwell’s long essay on Dickens now, and am once again struck by how clear-headed he is about countering accepted narratives around Dickens’s politics. Orwell really does repay rereading. Gulliver’s Travels is brilliant, but it has its long, slow passages!

      • Yes, his essay on Dickens is also brilliant. LOL. I never read Dickens–wait, I did read Little Dorrit and didn’t like it– but I watched many Dickens movies and TV series..