pencil with three dialogue bubbles above it filled with writing

Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

Start Free Trial

Why might George Orwell's "Politics And The English Language" and "Shooting An Elephant" be considered misleading?

Quick answer:

Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" and "Shooting an Elephant" are potentially misleading because both essays, though they make valid points, tend to overstate them and to present the reader with a slightly caricatured view. Orwell realistically focuses upon problems that exist in both left-wing thinking and the colonialist system of the British Empire. In doing so, he perhaps oversimplifies the issues and ignores crucial facts that make the situations he describes more complex than they initially seem.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Each of these essays is a critique of a dynamic Orwell observes in the social and political climate of his time. Though the conclusions he draws are largely correct, his forceful rhetoric has the potential to obscure other facts that complicate the situation, and perhaps have led some readers to doubt even the valid points he makes.

In "Politics and the English Language," the central thesis is that modern political writing has deteriorated precisely because its purpose is to make lies sound truthful. Though a left-wing person himself, Orwell is critical of the left. He gives several examples of bad writing, and describes them, correctly, as being convoluted to the point of incomprehensibility. Whether the writers of the cited passages were deliberately trying to confuse their readers, however, is another matter. There is also no way of knowing if equally bad samples of writing can't be found in earlier periods, not necessarily for the purpose of political deception. Some writers simply abandon clarity and simplicity in favor of complexity, often in an effort to appear intellectually sophisticated.

One of Orwell's points is that the English language in the twentieth century is becoming overly "latinized." Yet most readers familiar with writing from the Victorian period and earlier would probably make the opposite observation. In the twentieth century, people actually began to write in a simpler, more scaled-down style rather than in the ornate, florid manner typical of the nineteenth century (and before).

Orwell's idea that whenever possible, a writer should use a word with an Anglo-Saxon root rather than a Latin one, is simplistic. Loan words from French, Latin, and Greek have made up a huge portion of the English vocabulary since the Middle Ages. To charge writers with having to avoid such words is to exercise a tyranny over writing that has little to do with Orwell's main point that much political writing is obscure and deceptive. In making such a case, Orwell is guilty of a degree of exaggeration and oversimplification.

The same is true concerning a different issue in "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell correctly describes the colonial system as a dysfunctional one in which low-level operatives (such as he was, as a British policeman in Burma) are forced to act against their better judgment and betray their own principles. Yet one might counter that no one forced him into that job in the first place. For all its faults, and despite its colonial despotism, the UK even at that time was a relatively democratic state that did not force its citizens to do things against their will. Orwell portrays himself as a victim of the system, and to some extent this is true. His famous statement that "when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys" embodies a striking and devastating truth.

But the real victims of imperialism are the people whose countries have been subjugated. Orwell seems to portray the Burmese as a kind of monolithic force, which is hostile to him as he's forced into the position of having to shoot the elephant. He appears to have little empathy for them, despite knowing and stating that the British have no business being in their country. Perhaps the injustice of colonialism is so obvious that it's unnecessary for him to dwell on it. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that there is a kind of narcissism in Orwell's focus upon his own difficulties in the situation he depicts, even while one acknowledges his insight and articulateness.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial