A Collection of Essays Themes

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A Collection of Essays Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on A Collection of Essays by George Orwell.

Imperialism is Untenable

Several of the essays included deal with England's Empire and the form of government known as Imperialism. Even in essays where imperialism is not the primary focus, it is briefly discussed or indirectly referenced. All of the included essays were written during a period when England's Empire was in a state of decline and loss, in large part due to World War II. Orwell's primary objection to imperialism lies in the gross inequities which arise because of the system - England profits and the Empire suffers.

In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell notes that he served as a police officer in Burma for several years during a period of English rule. He found the gross inequalities extremely troublesome and his personal experience provides irrefutable facts and strong opinions that are difficult to argue against unless one has similar background. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell discusses methods used by English politicians to obscure the truth about the reasons for maintaining the empire. In Reflections on Gandhi, Orwell considers some of the events surrounding the eventual independence of India from British rule. Finally, in Marrakech, Orwell examines some of the mechanisms that allow imperialism to persist. Several other essays include brief discussions of the evils of empire or anecdotes about problems or corruption caused by imperialism.

Orwell primarily discusses the English Empire, but his writing makes clear that his objection is to imperialism and empire in general not to the specific English implementation. Indeed, he occasionally appears to state that the qualities of England allow for a gentler and softer imperialism, but one that is nevertheless fundamentally tainted by greed, corruption, and power-worship. Orwell's final assessment that empire is evil and imperialism is untenable proved to be largely correct. Within his lifetime, the English Empire and other world imperialist powers had suffered huge political losses to numerous local independence movements. This decay would continue for many years until ultimately the European concept of imperialism would be thoroughly discredited and nearly completely abandoned.

Literature is Political

In Why I Write, Orwell states that all literature springs from four principle compulsions: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers are inspired in some degree to all four compulsions, though for most writers of what is termed literature it is the fourth principle - political purpose - that is minor. For example, in Inside the Whale, Orwell discusses at length Henry Miller's marked reticence to consider overtly political purposes in his contemporaneous fiction.

Orwell differs from the norm because nearly all of his writing, especially including his two novels, is highly political in nature. Orwell is often criticized or praised for the overt political nature of his works. Nearly every essay in the collection deals with a particular political opinion or situation. Some essays, such as Looking Back on the Spanish War, are nearly entirely political. Given his highly political focus, it is remarkable that Orwell's work has persisted as long as it has; most political writings are fairly short-lived and are intended to serve an immediate political purpose rather than persisting as social criticism beyond the events described. The enduring quality of Orwell's work, however, arises because of, not in spite of, Orwell's political views. Orwell was primarily motivated by his political sensibilities, and his approach to writing nearly required that he be outraged or amused about some aspect of politics.

In several essays, Orwell points out, however, that even writers who are not overtly political are still unable to produce literature that is entirely free of politics. Examples of this are found in the essays Charles Dickens and Boys' Weeklies; the long-running serialized stories discussed in the latter essay are quite interesting as Orwell points out that, despite a deliberate attempt to avoid politics and current events, the fictional pieces establish quite obviously a conventional conservative atmosphere. Thus, all literature - particularly prose - is to some degree political.

Direct Experience Trumps Conventional Wisdom

Every society is based upon conventional mores and understandings that are widely held even if they are not well examined. Orwell points out many of the conventionally English characteristics of Great Britain in his essay, England Your England. One such characteristic, for example, is the essentially gentle nature of the English people. This self-stated gentleness does not fit particularly well with the expansive Empire held through force of arms, and resulted in most of the world considering England to be full of hypocrisy; while English people enjoyed their gentle lives at home, the English army and navy were claiming new conquests for the Empire through force of arms. While the English commoner did not think too much of imperialism, he or she certainly had no direct contact with it and therefore had no method to contextualize political statements that imperialism was somehow for the benefit of the so-called savage, non-Christian, and conquered lands. Thus, the conventional wisdom about the essentially gentle nature of English life is, in fact, untenable and wrong.

Orwell, in Shooting an Elephant, briefly describes his personal experiences as a police officer in India while that nation was under British rule. He observes that he was hated because he was symbolic of the conquering and controlling Empire. He also observes that he came to hate his job and his position as a cog in the great mechanism of English imperialism. Fortunately for the reading public, Orwell eventually gave up being a police officer and began to write. He produced essays such as Reflections on Gandhi and Looking Back on the Spanish War which, in some measure, directly contradict the conventionally held opinions of his time. He stated directly that Empire was evil, that imperialism was inequitable, and that the ruling class was in a state of remarkable decay of ability. Orwell's direct personal experience with these aspects of life allowed him to write strong critiques of conventionally held opinions based on facts and actual experience. Orwell's stated goal in writing was to be overtly political - that is, to change the ideas of readers. He was able to successfully accomplish that in large measure because of his ability to present facts gathered from personal experience to refute generally accepted political positions espoused by those in power.

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