By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Why I Write’ is an essay by George Orwell, published in 1946 after the publication of his novella Animal Farm and before he wrote his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The essay is an insightful piece of memoir about Orwell’s early years and how he developed as a writer, from harbouring ambitions to write self-consciously literary works to developing, in the 1930s, into the author of sharp political commentary in both fiction and non-fiction.
You can read ‘Why I Write’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s essay below.
‘Why I Write’: summary
Orwell begins by observing that he knew he should be a writer from a very young age. Although in early adulthood he tried to ‘abandon’ the idea, he knew it was his true calling and that he would eventually ‘settle down and write books’.
He tells us that he was a lonely child who would make up stories and hold conversations with imaginary people, and that his own desire to write is linked to this childhood loneliness. During the First World War, when Orwell was still a child, he had two poems published in the local newspaper, and that was the beginning of his publishing career.
In his youth, he continued to think like a writer, making up a ‘continuous “story” about myself’, but never writing it down. When he was in his twenties, he had ambitions of writing ‘enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound’. Orwell calls his first novel, Burmese Days (1934), this kind of book.
Orwell then outlines what he sees as four chief motives for anyone becoming a writer: 1) egoism; 2) aesthetic enthusiasm; 3) historical impulse; and 4) political purpose.
Egoism is the desire to be thought clever, be talked about when alive, and remembered after death. Aesthetic enthusiasm is the perception of beauty in the world around the writer, as well as the beauty of language. The historical impulse is a desire to see things as they are and present the facts to readers. Political purpose is the urge to change people’s views of the kind of society they want to live in.
This last one is a matter of degree, because Orwell argues that every writer adopts some kind of political position: ‘Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’
Perhaps surprisingly given he is principally known for ‘political’ writing, Orwell confides that by nature he is someone for whom the first three motives would usually outweigh the fourth. But when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Orwell knew where he stood. As he famously declares: ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’
Orwell concludes ‘Why I Write’ by stating that in the decade since 1936 he has tried to turn political writing ‘into an art’. Although he acknowledges that his impulse has not been entirely public-spirited but just as egoistic and ‘vain’ as it is in most writers, he knows that ‘one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.’ The political scene has helped Orwell to sharpen his own writing.
‘Why I Write’: analysis
Orwell’s essay is of interest as a piece of autobiography, but Orwell extrapolates from his own personal background and literary trajectory to make more universal statements about good writing, and the reasons why all writers choose to write for a living (if they’re indeed lucky enough to do it for a living: in his ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, also from 1946, he brilliantly outlines the absurd and stressful existence of struggling writers surviving on hackwork for newspapers and magazines, just to pay that month’s rent).
One of the key insights in ‘Why I Write’ is the link Orwell makes between his own efforts to become a successful writer and the broader political scene in Europe (and beyond) at the time. The Spanish Civil War, and the rise of Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism, all gave him a clear sense of what he should write about. As he puts it, all of his serious work written since has been ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’.
We find this even in an essay like ‘Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels’ (which, along with his analysis of Dickens’s art, shows what a fine and sensitive literary critic Orwell was), another 1946 essay, in which Orwell argues that in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift depicts what we would now call a totalitarian society. But because Gulliver (and, presumably, by extension, Swift himself) approves of the Houyhnhnms’ society, Swift admires the idea of a totalitarian state in which dissident opinion is unacceptable.
The point is that when he lacked a clear motivation for writing fiction, he churned out ‘lifeless’ work (much of which, such as his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, a kind of Joycean work in many ways, he later disowned, calling it ‘tripe’).
But once he realised what his subject-matter should be, this new-found ‘political purpose’ sharpened his prose. In a sense, the fourth of Orwell’s listed motives brought the other three into a new perspective. His clearest and most detailed account of what constitutes good political writing is his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (also from 1946), which we have analysed here.
In 1976, Joan Didion wrote her own essay called ‘Why I Write’, in which she acknowledged that she had taken her title from George Orwell. She also drew attention to the triple-assonance in Orwell’s title, the long I sounds of ‘Why I Write’.
Even Orwell’s title is itself an example of the clear-minded simplicity which he identifies as the chief feature of good writing at the end of ‘Why I Write’: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’ But as so often with Orwell’s work, he is not just writing about himself, but drawing attention to far more widespread truths about what motivates an author to devote their lives to writing.