In his famous essay "Politics and the English Language," what is George Orwell suggesting about the role that language plays in literature? Make connections to specific pieces of literature.

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In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argues that writing should be clear, simple, and straightforward. At one point he even offers writers six pieces of specific advice:

1.   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to

seeing in print.

2.   Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.   If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.   Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.   Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of

an everyday English equivalent.

6.   Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


The modern author who most obviously seems to exemplify these traits of literary style is Ernest Hemingway.  Consider, for instance, the opening paragraph of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

This paragraph exemplifies practically every single aspect of Orwell’s advice (although Hemingway’s story predated Orwell’s essay). Most of the words are short; none of the words is unnecessary; no familiar similes or metaphors appear; no foreign phrases are used. Even the “there was” clauses are not examples of passive voice; they are examples of something called “active-voice existential” clauses.  The phrasing here is completely lucid, but to say this is not to imply that it lacks symbolic resonance. In fact, practically every detail in this paragraph is symbolic in some sense. The fact that the man and woman are sitting between two lines of rails symbolizes the decision they will have to make: they will have to choose, both literally and metaphorically, the direction in which they wish to go. The heat contributes to the tension of their relationship. The fact that the train stops for only two minutes symbolizes the time pressures they are under. And so on.

Hemingway thus writes here in a way of which Orwell would almost surely approve.



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Politics and the English Language

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