Skip to main content

Good prose is like a window pane

By 30 April 2012No Comments

On the 24th January 1950, George Orwell died.  Orwell’s masterpieces, 1984 and Animal Farm, exposed the horror and the humbug of dictatorship.  He was also a jobbing writer, a journalist, who literally wrote for his living.  Writing was his trade and he treated it with enormous respect.  He understood the power of the written word and the capacity of language to be debased and made banal to manipulate society.
In a highly unscientific survey, fourteen of Edinburgh’s 23 comprehensive secondaries responded to questions on Orwell and the place of his work in the contemporary school curriculum.  In every single school Orwell is taught.  Animal Farm (at Standard Grade) and 1984 (at Higher) are the two most popular texts.  Other texts, including Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and various essays are used regularly for personal studies at Higher and Advanced Higher.  Few prose writers can be so universally taught.
He used plain, unadorned, simple language to communicate clear, unambiguous ideas. He turned the modern political essay into an art form.  “Good prose,” he said, “is like a window pane.”  As much as for what he writes, it is for his skill in writing, his economy of prose, that Orwell remains so teachable in schools across the English-speaking world.
At one level Orwell remains accessible because so many of his images have been plundered by the media.  Many young people have some concept of Big Brother or of Room 101.  The connections are there to be made but also to be explored.  In 1984, Room 101 is where each individual’s greatest fear is used to assert Big Brother’s power and to break love, loyalty and integrity.  On today’s BBC it has been trivialised into a receptacle in which celebrities dump their pet peeves.
It is intriguing to speculate on how Orwell would have reacted to today’s world.  “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” He understood the inherent power of language to shape human understanding.  The Ministry of Truth, in 1984, re-writing history to serve Big Brother’s immediate interests, is a chilling warning.  Whether Eurasia was allied to Oceania or Eastasia changed, but such changes were meticulously revised and the over-written records believed.
Yet, despite his warnings, a democratic government could invent evidence of weapons of mass destruction to justify a war which would otherwise have been voted down by that government’s own backbenchers.  That Iraq and the Saddam Hussein regime had been the west’s great ally in the struggle against Iran, was also over-written without embarrassment, when the west’s interests were threatened.  Today the same ex-Premier can, without embarrassment, announce that the war was justified to achieve regime change, the very point which his own legal advisors had denied was a legal ground for war. Orwell’s vision of the rewriting of history has become the norm.
Orwell’s deliberate simplicity provides the teacher with some wonderful advantages.  His work is accessible to teenagers without a highly developed interest in literature.  Animal Farm taps into an almost primal enjoyment of animal stories and is witty and humorous.
As Curriculum for Excellence seeks to bridge gaps across disciplines, Orwell comes into his own.  No writer better proves the point that to understand the writing of an epoch, its history also has to be grasped.  Animal Farm cannot be understood at other than a naïve level without some grasp of the events of the 1917 Revolution.  But how much deeper learning might emanate from English and History departments teaching Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution simultaneously?  How better to explore capital punishment, than by Religious and Moral Education and English coming together to study Orwell’s Burmese essay, The Hanging?
Even from a discretely English perspective, what better texts for close reading than Shooting An Elephant or Down A Mine?  His earlier works, Down and Out in Paris and London, Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, also provide a sense of Orwell’s radical political origins and describe experiences and events which challenge contemporary hedonism and consumerism.
Orwell’s work, whether from his earlier radical period or from his latterly more pessimistic perspective, lead students to question how the world works, how power is exercised and how to challenge power.  They also provide models of both linguistic clarity and uncompromising integrity.  For English teachers hoping to develop responsible citizens and effective contributors, there can be no better source than Orwell.

The above article was first published in SecEd on 21 January 2010:;type_uid=2;section=Features

Leave a Reply