The Last Puritan

Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation

Jeffrey Meyers
Norton, 380 pp., $29.95

In Anthony Powell’s Memoirs, which contain a great many shrewd and perceptive observations about writers of the memoirist’s time, there is a little anecdote which, trivial as Powell admits it to be, sheds a great deal of light on George Orwell’s complex character. Powell had left the room to fetch a book. Returning he found Orwell assiduously examining the pictures on the wall. Inside the baby’s cot was an enormous jackknife. Orwell looked embarrassed and said he had given it to the child to play with.

The incident illustrated his shyness, “part genuine, part assumed,” and his odd taste for sentimental vignettes:

Why, in the first place, should he want to burden himself, in London, with a knife that looked like an adjunct of a fur-trapper’s equipment? Echoes perhaps of Dangerous Dan McGrew? Why take such pains to avoid being found playing with a child?… Why leave the knife behind as evidence? It was much too big to be forgotten.

I think the answer to these questions is that the whole incident was arranged to create a genre picture in the Victorian manner of a kind which, even though he might smile at the sentimentality, made a huge appeal to Orwell’s imagination, and way of looking at things. He was, so to speak, playing the part of a strong rough man, touched by the sight of a baby, but unwilling to confess, even to himself, this inner weakness. At the same time, he had to be discovered for the incident to achieve graphic significance.

Like many others who are masochists—not sexually but in their need for some sort of punishment—Orwell wanted simultaneously to act a part and to be caught out in acting it. His personal and political nature was both romantic and masochistic, and the twin impulses are to be found in combination throughout his work, no doubt contributing in no small measure to their notoriety and to a popularity which could have never been achieved by any amount of political and social theorizing.

Like T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Orwell unconsciously strove both to be a man of action and destiny and to reveal what a fraud he was in that role; in consequence Orwell’s admirers were as much mesmerized as Lawrence’s were, though in subtler, more interesting, and more various ways. All Orwell’s novels and personal records, from Keep the As-pidistra Flying and Down and Out in Paris and London to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, embody the same kind of human contradiction: clarity and concealment, the stark and the sentimental, side by side but never recognizing each other’s existence.

Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the closest that Orwell came in his work to a dramatized self-portrait, is fascinated by O’Brien, the Thought Police chief who behaves toward him with alternate cruelty and geniality, expounding very Orwellian views on the inevitability of the tyrant state while behaving in accordance with the best Boys’ Own Paper tradition of the gloating villain. Winston himself,…

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