‘Inside the Whale’ is a long essay by George Orwell (1903-50), published in 1940. The title of Orwell’s essay refers to the biblical Book of Jonah, in which the prophet Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (although, as Orwell notes, received wisdom tends to substitute ‘whale’ for ‘fish’).
The essay is one of Orwell’s most significant contributions to the debate about contemporary literature in the 1930s. Orwell’s argument is that authors of the 1930s who take refuge inside the comforting prison of the metaphorical ‘whale’, and seek to reflect the world without trying to change it, are more successful in the current political climate than writers with a more explicit political message or aim.
You can read ‘Inside the Whale’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Inside the Whale’: summary
Orwell’s essay is prompted by his reading of the American writer Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer, a book about expatriate Americans living in France. Miller’s novel, noted for its inclusion of material judged ‘obscene’, acts as a springboard for Orwell’s consideration of the differences between characteristic 1920s literature (especially as practised by modernists such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce) and literature of the 1930s.
Miller’s novel is more successful than most 1930s novels because it really belongs to the 1920s, and has much in common with a book like James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. Most writers of the 1930s are more directly political in their aims and message, and this damages their work.
Orwell looks back on the last couple of decades, since around 1920 to the current moment (Orwell’s essay appeared in 1940), reflecting on literary fashions and how they have changed. After considering the ‘adolescent’ outlook expressed in the poetry of A. E. Housman, which was essential reading for Orwell and his generation when they were teenagers just after the end of the First World War, Orwell considers the representative writers of the 1920s, such as modernists like Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce, as well as others like Aldous Huxley.
Orwell then turns his attention to the emblematic writing of the 1930s, remarking that the ‘Auden group’ comprising poets like W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, positioned themselves as more politically active than their modernist predecessors. However, Orwell argues that this clique of writers are prone to proselytise to their readers, and this mars their work.
Orwell singles out Auden’s use of the phrase ‘necessary murder’ in his poem ‘Spain’, about the Spanish Civil War (in which both Auden and Orwell helped out on the same side, Auden driving ambulances and Orwell engaging in combat). Orwell argues that writers of Auden’s generation, especially public-school educated intellectuals, can use a phrase like ‘necessary murder’ because they have been insulated from any real violence and hardship, and have probably never seen a dead body up close. As Orwell brilliantly puts it, ‘So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.’ He goes on to observe that Communism has become a belief system for many people following the decline of Christianity.
Orwell concludes, in the third and final part of ‘Inside the Whale’, that writers like Henry Miller who are ‘passive’ rather than politically engaged are more likely to endure. In this regard, Orwell refers to the most enduring books written about the First World War, which were written from a passive rather than active standpoint (Orwell cites E. M. Forster’s reading of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ during the war; the fact that Prufrock’s ‘protest’ against life was ‘feeble’ only made it all the more relatable to people feeling helpless during a world war).
Writers like Miller, then, are passive, like Jonah being protected while inside the ‘whale’ of the popular imagination. This passivity makes Miller more ‘human’ and, therefore, more relatable than the more politicised 1930s writers.
‘Inside the Whale’: analysis
Orwell’s essays remain so valuable and readable for a number of reasons, not least the clarity of his prose style and the related clear-headedness of his analysis. Of course, the fact that he so often seems to have prefigured our own world has helped to keep many of his arguments relevant.
But one of the other reasons why Orwell is such an important essayist, whether he’s writing about the Spanish Civil War or how to make the perfect cup of tea, is the element of surprise we often encounter in his work. He is both common-sensical and yet, frequently, arguing against the received ‘common sense’ of his time.
So when reading an essay like ‘Inside the Whale’, we might expect Orwell, who is perhaps the most famous political writer of the mid-twentieth century, to side with the Auden group and other left-wing political writers of the 1930s, many of whom were with Orwell in Spain during the Civil War. And we might expect to find Orwell condemning the modernists for their lack of engagement with the political issues of their time. Instead, Orwell effectively does the opposite, proposing that Miller’s belated 1920s novel Tropic of Cancer is more likely to last than the left-wing poetry of Auden, Spender, and others.
In the Jonah story the prophet is swallowed up by the ‘whale’ because he has refused to go to Nineveh and prophesy God’s imminent judgment of the city for its sins. So Orwell’s metaphor of the whale, itself derived from a comment made by Henry Miller about another writer, is not just about a writer insulating themselves from real-world political events, but from refusing to make pronouncements on those events. When Jonah is in the belly of the fish, all he does is sing and pray, rather than prophesy. He resists God’s command that he go to Nineveh and make a public announcement to the people of the city.
So, in ‘Inside the Whale’, we find Orwell – perhaps surprisingly – advising writers to stay away from political purpose and to be passive, even in the face of injustice and war. How come? It shouldn’t surprise us, in fact. Orwell stands out among the writers of the 1930s and 1940s for being prepared to speak out against harmful ideologies on both the right and left, when so many of his peers embraced Communism and far-left causes. Aside from Orwell’s scepticism about the political implications of this, he sees the effect on literature as corrosive, because it leads writers to adopt a didactic tone, and this mars the artistic qualities of their work.
Here we might compare ‘Inside the Whale’ with another of Orwell’s forays into literary criticism, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1939 essay about the various magazines for younger readers in circulation in the 1920s and 1930s. There, Orwell wonders why all of the major boys’ story magazines are right-wing and nationalistic in flavour, before concluding that left-wing or Communist-inspired magazines would be impaired by didacticism. In many ways, Orwell’s problem with much 1930s literature is the damaging effects of Communism on young writers, whose devotion to the cause leads them to become hectoring, delivering what almost amounts to a sermon in place of literature.