Loraine Saunders: George Orwell – A Master of Narration

Orwell is a writer who continually experimented with narrative voice and presence. Failure to understand Orwell’s play with narrative perspective is perhaps an underlying cause of critical dissatisfaction with Orwell’s fiction. For what has been largely missed is the fact that the narrative voices, which are subject to continual shifts in psychological perspective and narratorial positioning, have been carefully placed in accordance with a high degree of narrative understanding. It has to be said that this is not how Orwell’s work is considered by many: ‘[Orwell’s] four pre-war efforts constitute a sort of amateur throat clearing’[1]. And: ‘[Orwell’s] whole work is a kind of didactic monologue’[2].

In Down and Out in Paris and London, as with his other documentary works, a relatively straightforward authorial point of view operates, one that is manifestly different from the variable, third-person voice of Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and also the first-person voice in Coming Up for Air. In Down and Out, as one would expect, the speaking voice works appropriately as a conduit for the author’s thoughts and perspective. Orwell’s thirties’ novels are widely perceived to be failed attempts at leaving the journalistic tone behind. At best Orwell is seen only to half succeed in establishing another voice, and when he does it is claimed that one cannot distinguish, for the greater part, between Orwell’s voice and that of his characters’. In fact, Orwell does make distinctions in his novels; what is more, he layers his narrative with different voices, thereby distancing the omniscient narrator and bringing in a fallible human voice that has the effect of softening the didacticism by way of truer-to-life accents.

Orwell’s alternating narrative style can be immediately discerned by contrasting Down and Out in Paris and London (given first) with Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping (D&O, p. 76).

Women, women! … Why should one, merely because one has no money, be deprived of that? … What else could you expect? He had no hold over her. No money, therefore no hold. In the last resort, what holds a woman to a man, except money? (KTAF, pp. 113-4)

In the first passage on poverty there is no uncertainty about who is speaking – it is Orwell; it is a ‘straightforward’ authorial point of view. In the second passage, on the fickleness of women, is it as clear from whom the fictive utterance comes? Should this insight into the female disposition in relation to love and money be taken as representing the author’s thoughts? And if not, is this voice valid in itself, i.e. is this an example of a Dostoevskyan author-thinker whose argument should be treated with the respect one affords an author? David Seed puts it neatly when he writes, referring to Burmese Days, that Orwell’s protagonist ‘Flory enacts the novelist’s dissatisfaction with the Anglo-Indians by renouncing the club’[3]. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell employs various narrative devices to signal that Gordon Comstock in no way enacts the author’s dissatisfaction with the moneyed world by his renunciation of it. This is mostly achieved through free indirect thought (or free indirect speech) presentation where a character’s thoughts replace the voice of the omniscient narrator. Many critics mistake a character’s, often flawed, vision of the world for authorial commentary. With free indirect thought a character’s thoughts are not formally indicated with the he/she thought tag, nor are there any quotation marks, but instead the narration unobtrusively shifts into their perspective, although adopting key linguistic markers to alert the reader to the altered internal focalisation, through the use of exclamation marks, colloquial language, viewing position and so on.

Orwell as a proletarian novelist was keen to reflect the thought processes of ordinary people and this meant showing their often limited and prejudiced view of the world. For example, when Flory, in Burmese Days, makes one of his typical anti-imperial remarks, such as, ‘The official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets’ (p. 38), all might be well in terms of valid comment. However, Flory adds, ‘The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to … gangs of Jews and Scotchmen’. This political observation, then, whilst being partly true is shown as too complex for Flory’s intellectual grasp; but, after all, he is just your ‘average sensual man’ and therefore limited[4]. The leitmotif of limitation works on all narrative levels. There is a crucial point in the book where Flory is tormented because he believes the woman he loves, Elizabeth Lackersteen, may be having an affair with the handsome and wealthy young Lieutenant, the Honourable Verrall:

But meanwhile, was it true, what he suspected? Had Verrall really become Elizabeth’s lover? There is no knowing, but on the whole the chances were against it, for, had it been so, there would have been no concealing it in such a place as Kyauktada (p. 236).

This kind of narration demonstrates that there is restricted vision, and this serves to limit the powers of the narrator. Again, it is the deliberate use of a ‘limited intermediary’ and this brings the reader into play. A sense, almost of deficiency, often strong in Flory’s political commentary, is woven into the narrative, which undermines the asides, reflections, casual comments and universal truths expressed, so that nothing can be taken at face-value because the ‘integrity’ of the speaker is not, in a sense, known. Toward the end of the story, Verrall leaves without saying goodbye to Elizabeth. The narrative runs, ‘Whether Verrall had started the train early to escape Elizabeth, or to escape the grass-wallahs, was an interesting question that was never cleared up’ (p. 279). Of course, this also operates as a joke, but it is very much in keeping with an overall narrative caprice or seeming caprice that vacillates between omniscience and limitation—a feature of Orwell’s political aesthetic throughout his writing career.

Orwell’s desire to reduce the presence of the author in his narration can also be traced through the excessive use of the second-person ‘you’ in A Clergyman’s Daughter and the novels that follow. Unlike Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter opens with the informal ‘you’. It serves to create a subjective, intimate mood from the outset, and the voice that follows, while not Dorothy’s, is aligned with her way of seeing and thinking, and gives the illusion that the narrator is an active participant in the story: ‘The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which would go on for five minutes or thereabouts if you did not stop it’ (p. 1). It would be natural enough to write this as a passive sentence and thus avoid the subject ‘you’: ‘which would go on for five minutes or thereabouts if it were not stopped’ [my italics], but to do that would create a more objective commentary. The passive sentence is practically non-existent in Orwell’s thirties’ novels. Moreover, it is the narrator behind the ‘you’ that is significant. Who is speaking here? Who would be inclined to describe the alarm of a clock as a ‘nagging, feminine clamour’?

Daphne Patai believes that the description of the ‘nagging’ clock unwittingly betrays a masculine bias, one that will subsequently fall short in portraying a female character with any real sympathy: ‘If the book’s title prepares us for a narrative about a woman, the novel’s second line reveals that this woman and her story will be judged from a conventionally biased masculine perspective’[5]. Patai does not consider that Orwell has intentionally opted for this patriarchal inferiorization of female association in the description. This is more likely to be Dorothy’s feeling toward the clock that might wake her father, which, if it did, would certainly be viewed by him as ‘nagging, feminine clamour’[6]. Dorothy is even afraid to let the bath water run freely lest it awaken her father: ‘Dorothy filled the bath as slowly as possible—the splashing always woke her father if she turned on the tap too fast’ (p. 2). So the narrative, whilst appearing to have a sexist bias, is actually always aligned with Dorothy’s point of view.

I have just given a taste here of the degree to which Orwell delivered highly controlled narratives; and even this brief demonstration of Orwell’s narrative method should make it astonishing that many of his novels are dismissed as half-baked, with critics cavalierly asserting, with exiguous recourse to textual example, that ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter is pretty well unreadable today’[7]. Orwell’s novels are demonstrably more than this, and it has to be understood that Orwell was a ruthless and blinkered critic when it came to his own work. Moreover, he was never constructive when criticizing himself; he was merely emotional, and a good demonstration of this is the fact that he ‘destroyed an entire manuscript after a single publisher’s letter’[8].


[1] Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 133.

[2] Gerald J. Concannon, The Development of George Orwell’s Art (New York, 1977), p. 17. Here reiterating John Manders’s assertion in The Writer and Commitment (1926).

[3] David Seed, ‘Disorientation and Commitment in the Fiction of Empire: Kipling and Orwell’ in Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, 1984, vol. 14, 4, pp. 269-80 (p. 276).

[4] Raymond Williams views Dorothy, Gordon and Bowling as failed Bloom characters because their range of consciousness is limited. Williams, failing to recognize Orwell’s proletarian angle, and therefore the deliberate restriction of his characters’ vision, argues that such characters are ‘limited intermediaries’. Williams says that ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is more successful than Burmese Days ‘because instead of a Flory an Orwell is present’ (Raymond Williams, Orwell [1971] [Glasgow, 1978], p. 49). This last point is important because in Orwell’s fiction it is the nature of limitation that Orwell, through various narrative devices, is exploring.

[5] Patai, Daphne, The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), p. 99.

[6] Richard Smyer argues persuasively that Dorothy is suffering from a deeply traumatizing incest anxiety around her father. Smyer provides numerous indications of this, the most striking being her father’s surname of Hare, which takes on more significance when one considers Dorothy’s revulsion at the thought of furry animals. Warburton too is seen as compounding Dorothy’s anxiety, particularly because he is another father figure (Smyer, Primal Dream and Primal Crime: Orwell’s Development as a Psychological Novelist [Columbia, Ms.: University of Missouri Press, 1979], p. 43). And when one reads that Dorothy ‘had had her share, and rather more than her share, of casual attention from men’ (ACD, p. 81) the innuendo would appear to strengthen Smyer’s claims.

[7] Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (London, 2000), p. 120. Consider the following criticism of Coming Up for Air:

[It] display[s] two obvious weaknesses. Like his other novels, this too deals with a solitary character, but Orwell has compounded this fact with the greater failing—as he himself was soon to pronounce it—of making it a first-person narrative (David Wykes, A Preface to George Orwell (London: Longman, 1987) p. 106).

Typically, no examples of this obvious weakness are provided; in their place is Orwell’s self-denigration.

[8] D. J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2003), p. 94.

Loraine taught English as a foreign language in Brazil, Germany and Poland after graduating from university. She went on to complete her PhD in English literature at Liverpool University and then taught at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and currently Hope Liverpool. Having just had her first book published, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell she is currently pursuing further subjects. This essay is an extract from her book, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from Burmese Days to Nineteen Eighty-Four.