illustrated portrait of English author George Orwell

George Orwell

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Student Question

Discuss the pathos in George Orwell's essay "How the Poor Die," describing a French hospital's public ward.

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George Orwell writes his first-hand report of his experience in a French hospital as a distant observer. This can be be said because while he gives his feelings and reactions ("I lay down again, humiliated, disgusted and frightened"), he does so without indulging in them. In other words, he reports his subjective experience without words, phrases and sentences that show the image of his being "frightened" etc.; he only tells the fact that he was as he says.

His author's voice is distant from the emotions of the events, restrained, factual, and--as far as a subjective account can be so--objective in his statements and observations, which primarily have to do with what he observes of the other people on the ward, i.e., doctors, nurses, patients, visitors. Orwell reports his experience while looking outward at that which is around him. Orwell doesn't report the events while looking inward at his personal experience, except to note passing emotional changes and reactions to events.

Theses events that he tells about are of such a nature and have such detail to them (i.e., the sufferings of other patients, the actions of the nurses, the behavior of the doctors and medical students) that the reader is filled with pity, sympathy and sorrow for their suffering and for their penniless state, which is the reason they are in a public hospital. In other words, Orwell's objective distanced narrative evokes pathos in readers. Pathos is defined as that which arouses strong feelings, particularly of pity, sympathy and sorrow.

Therefore it is truly said that Orwell's essay is a critical description of the public ward of a French hospital and that his narrative is full of pathos, which starts small as he is made to walk barefoot across a courtyard in February with pneumonia and then builds through the details about old men suffering their unattended deaths in the public ward and ends by stepping away form the scene to discuss the injustice of poor people dying "among strangers" where "in every hospital death there will be some cruel, squalid detail...leaving terribly painful memories behind."

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