illustrated portrait of English author George Orwell

George Orwell

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What is the main idea of Orwell's essay "Why I Write"?

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In this essay, Orwell examines the motivations that drive writers to write (a topic which, as Orwell understands, is ultimately a deeply personal one, with the particularities varying from one writer to the next). With this in mind, there is an autobiographical component to this essay as well, as Orwell provides details into his own history, beginning with his childhood, to give a sense of his own literary evolution through time.

As Orwell puts it, there are ultimately four key motivators that drive writers. The first he refers to as "sheer egoism," referring to the desire for fame, reputation or individual validation. As Orwell understands it, vanity lies near to the very heart of the writer's profession. The second is "Aesthetic Enthusiasm." For Orwell, these are writers who are driven primarily by a sense of and appreciation for artistic beauty, particularly the beauty of language.

The third motivator is "Historical Impulse," which Orwell himself sums up in a single sentence, as the "desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity." Finally, the fourth motivator is "Political Purpose," referring to the desire to make an impact on the world and to influence opinion about it.

As Orwell points out, these different motivating factors are not mutually exclusive of each other. At the same time, a writer's own personal history will play a critical role in this as well: thus, Orwell claims that, by natural inclination, he would have been driven far more by the first three factors than the fourth, but between his various life experiences and the rise of Totalitarianism, he became political as a result.

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Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

From the beginning of the essay, Orwell suggests, as many writers do, that he had no choice but to become a writer. It was, as he states in the first paragraph, "my true nature." He tried to move away from writing between the ages of 17 to 24 but always had that nagging feeling he wasn't doing what he should be doing with his life.

After giving a background of how he became a writer, Orwell outlines five reasons why he became one. He states that these reasons—or motivations, as he calls them—apply to all writers. They are sheer egoism, which he says is the need to prove people wrong and the need for people to think well of him; aesthetic enthusiasm, which is the desire to share a experience in beautiful prose; historical impulse, which is the desire to share factually correct information; and political purpose, which is the "desire to push the world in a certain direction."

Surprisingly, Orwell states that political purpose was the one that had motivated him the least, saying that he was pushed into writing political works because of the times he was living in. If it hadn't been for the Spanish Civil War and the world wars, he would have written "ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of [his] political loyalties."

Now having become regarded as a political writer, he says his aim is "to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. "

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Orwell in this essay explores the reasons that writers write, citing his own example. He looks back to his earliest writings, recalling how, as a child, he would write just for the sake of making up stories, and describing scenes, as children do. He examines how his writing evolved as he grew older, noting how, increasingly, his writing came to have a political dimension, especially after his unpleasant experiences of working as a colonial officer in the East. 

In the second half of the essay, Orwell postulates four main reasons why people write. 

Sheer egoism. Most writers, Orwell opines, are extremely vain and self-centred and so they want to write about themselves, to show what they can do, to make their views and opinions noted, and so on.

Aesthetic enthusiasm. People who write for this reason take pleasure in the beauty of the world and also of words, and they want to express this. They want to share experiences which they feel are valuable and to arrange words or a story in a way that is pleasing. This motive, according to Orwell, is 'very feeble' in most writers.

Historical impulse. These writers are interested in facts about the contemporary world, and want to record them for future generations.

Political considerations. Writers with this motive want to change society in some way, to alter people's perceptions, raise awareness and so on. Orwell evidently feels this is the most important purpose a writer can have, certainly in an age like his own, which was the era of momentous political revolutions in Europe, grim totalitarian regimes like Stalinism and Nazism, and world war. In such an age, writers really have a duty to engage with political concerns, Orwell opines. He feels that the political dimension has added real value to his own work, which otherwise lacked a proper purpose.

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