The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis
Commissioned fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the rise, Orwell must already have begun to glimpse the world which he was to envision with vigorous clarity in ‘1984’. This review is a dual review then, of ‘1984’ and of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.
Written ostensibly as a documentary-report on the life of the working classes in the industrial towns of England, Orwell uses his reportage to investigate two crucial questions:
1. Why class differences persist even when the means exist to destroy them
2. Why socialism is failing practically and intellectually even as its moral facet is irrefutable (to his mind, at least)
The reader has to be warned that The Road to Wigan Pier can seem a bit rambling at times but is in fact a tight composition worth engaging with.
The structure of the piece is quite elegant:
In the first section, Orwell provides a direct detailing of the life in the ‘industrial towns’, of the proletariat, of the toiling classes. It is evocative and reminded me strongly of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity in depth of detail and emotional involvement. It is a quick tour but captures the essential cruelties and degradation of life – rotten housing, lack of toilets, unemployment – and the complete hopelessness of it all. But just as Boo does later, Orwell also manages to convey that it is not due to the people, it is purely due to the conditions imposed on them. Orwell is very careful to drill this point home. It is the situations that make the classes.
This is exactly what I expected from the title of the book though I had also been resigned to some amount of political commentary, Orwell being Orwell. But the real purpose of the book starts to take shape as Orwell reveals the purpose behind his autobiographical excursions in the second part of the book. I have come to regard this second section as the most vital part of this work. It is a narrative technique which I am now starting to notice in a number of other authors trying to grapple with class differences, including Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, trying to come to terms with a riven Bombay.
So, in this second, and to me most important, section, Orwell exposes his own biases and prejudices through a frank autobiographical study. He opens up his own upbringing to show how prejudices creep in and establish themselves in our psyche and never let go no matter how hard we hammer at them. Situating himself as a symbol of the middle class, Orwell uses this sketch to convey how we are all prey to such class prejudices and that we need to work within our own limitations and especially of the one’s we are trying to convert to the cause (by we, I mean the Left Book Club – the intended audience of the book). He uses the pungent example of ‘lower classes smell’ as an irrevocable class barrier. This has come under much criticism but it is important to keep in mind that it is only an example, he could have gone with the ‘non-pronouncement of the ‘H’s’, or any other minor but hard to avoid detail. To criticize the choice of detail is besides the point.
Then comes the last section: the fulmination and the grand rhetoric. This section is the hardest to agree with and feels the most dated to the modern reader. Orwell tries to examine his second major point – Why is Socialism Declining? His answer is that it is because it is associated with mindless mechanized progress – due to the wrong instruments of propaganda which are turning away all the right sort of people and bringing only the ‘quacks’ into the socialist circles. Instead, to win the all-out and most important war against Fascism (which is, Orwell asserts, very much due), the Socialists need to forget class propaganda, accept that class prejudices will take longer to disappear (as elucidated in the previous section), and focus on the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, which Orwell is sure will usher all the moral and intelligent people into Socialism. Only by asserting this moral core of Socialism, stripped of class propaganda, can the scales be tipped in favor of Socialism and away from Fascism. Now the humanistic picture of the depravations of the first section are resurrected in another light and Orwell presents both the class-proletariats as well as the ‘economic-proletariats’ (i.e, people like himself, born to a higher class but earning only the equal of an industrial worker), as more likely to tend towards fascism, if for no other reason but self-preservation. Socialism needs to bring these classes into its fold. That is the crying need of the day.
“And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches (‘H’s).”
The Literary Lens / The 1984 Reappraisal
The conclusions advocated by Orwell must seem too simplistic to modern ex-post readers, but there is another angle to be explored here that is not political in nature. This arises from the fact that this exposition was published before either 1984 or Animal Farm, but after Brave New World. Orwell is quite clear that the Utopia (or Dystopia, or better, Utopia Caricatured) envisioned as the end goal of socialist progress in Brave New World is the very core of intelligent man’s revulsion towards Socialism – arising organically due to associations with ‘softness’ and degradation. Orwell needed to show the other extreme to turn this revulsion on its head.
We often compare Brave New World and 1984 as if they were alternate predictions and give marks to Huxley for having predicted better. But this misses Orwell’s point.
Orwell wanted to show the other extreme – the purely Fascist Dystopia – to bring around the people who were revolted by Brave New World and similar Utopian visions that were doing the rounds then (such as The Dream and Men Like Gods). Orwell calls these visions of the future that is based on mechanical progress as “the paradise of little fat men” – which he admits was “aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World”.
You can also think of the caricature in the Wall-E movie for a better visualized reference. Orwell gives a grand argument, based on how the purpose of machines is to make human life easier and thus softer, to show how the Wall-E future is pretty much inevitable according to this conception of progress. He needed to present the antithesis to this vision – 1984. No matter how bad the caricature of the socialist progress, the Fascist one is surely the one to avoid. 1984 was the rubbing in of this idea, already set forth in 1937 with The Road to Wigan Pier, more than a decade before the fictional attack became unavoidable for Orwell.
Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. ‘Boom’, said the Three Sisters.
And, if we can claim that Orwell’s prophesy is today less imminent than Huxley’s, then Orwell wins The Battle of ‘Who Can Scare Them More’.
Well done, Orwell, you turned the course.
Huxley, you needed to scare us more – we are headed there fast, still.
- The Road to Wigan Pier (historythrougholdbooks.wordpress.com)
- 1984 by George Orwell – Book Review (tfcoleman.wordpress.com)
- Pathway Revealed (seventythirdsong.wordpress.com)
- Orwell Had Seen 1948 But He Had Not Seen 1984- Daniel Greenfield (ruthfullyyours.com)
- Fifthteen books in Fifthteen minutes (thesobersocialist.wordpress.com)
- In praise of … herring | Editorial (theguardian.com)