The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874

As noted above, The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two parts of equal length. Part 1 is primarily a journey through despair. Orwell intended for his readers to be transported into the workplaces and slums of northern England. He therefore provides them with an account of squalid living conditions, the hopelessness of the unemployed, and the attitudes of the working class. More important, he describes people and their feelings; he wanted his reading public to know that his subjects were real people. Part 2 is his call for action. For Orwell, socialism is neither theory nor numbers; it has a human face. To him, intellectual snobs who believed that they had no prejudices and who thought that they could solve all the world’s problems were out of touch with the reality that was the Great Depression. Orwell did not want to destroy socialism; he only wanted to humanize it.

The first essay of part 1 is the most literary of the seven which make up his portrait of northern England. Orwell’s first-person description of life in the dreary Brooker lodging house is easily the most memorable segment of the book. He writes, “It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again . . . though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long.” By putting himself on the level of those about whom he would write, Orwell sought to gain immediate credibility. He wanted to be identified as a concerned and caring observer who was describing his own feelings regarding his observations. Those feelings serve to humanize his topic. This essay constitutes the pattern for the rest of part 1.

The following six essays, while more documentary in form, are nevertheless prose pictures of the underclass of British industrialism. Chapter 2, in which Orwell describes his descent into a coal mine, is a remarkable evocation of how it felt to be in such a mine. The heat and noise, the danger and difficulty of working the coal face, and the distances and time involved come alive in his narrative. He closes the essay by reminding his readers that human beings are responsible for the comfort which they enjoy: “Miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.” Succeeding chapters describe in similar fashion worker hygiene and nutritional habits, slums, social conditions, and industrial pollution.

In every chapter of part 1, Orwell attempts not only to portray a slice of working-class life but also to arouse the anger of his readers. Rarely is he analytical and dispassionate; each essay conveys deeply felt convictions. Orwell takes great care to show that workers are not mere statistics; they are living, breathing human beings who are in need. He concludes part 1 by noting that his experiences have reminded him that “our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.” Yet his seven essays show that for many of the underclass it was a miserable time to be alive.

Following this account of his tour of northern England, Orwell sounds, in part 2, a call to action. Orwell believed socialism to be not an economic creed but a humanitarian vision. He was angered by those socialists who were aloof from the working-class world and knew little about those they desired to manipulate. These six essays are considered almost unanimously, however, to be inferior to those in part 1. The reason is simple: In part 2 Orwell’s statements and conclusions are generally polemical in nature and acerbic in tone. Yet he made them so for good reason. He was angry at the attitude of many socialists, and he feared the consequences of the failure of the doctrine. To Orwell, the only alternative to a viable socialism was totalitarianism. He desired to challenge socialists to improve their commitment to the cause.

Yet part 2 cannot be dismissed as mere polemic. In this section Orwell again makes clear his genuine concern for the workers. Nowhere does he define absolutely his version of socialism, but the reader can ascertain it quite easily. It is a humanitarian vision of justice, liberty, and decency for humankind. He believed that most socialists of his era were too aloof, doctrinaire, and impractical to attract converts. In great detail he outlines and discusses the aspects of socialism which repelled potential sympathizers. For example, “Socialism . . . is unattractive largely because it appears . . . to be the plaything of cranks, doctrinaires, parlour Bolsheviks and so forth.” These cranks, he believed, would gradually become less significant in the socialist movement if practical, democratic socialists would assert themselves.

Of far greater concern to Orwell was the snobbery of many of the socialist theoreticians. He considered many of the leaders of the class struggle to be outright snobs who were quite disinterested in workers as a human beings. Chapter 9 is a brief autobiographical sketch in which he states that he himself had been “an odious little snob” as a youth but that he had cured the disease. For socialism to become a reality, he insists, other socialists would also have to cure that disease. His concluding chapter is a call for socialists to become familiar with the workers and to work with them in common cause. In particular, he calls for a socialism which would be “compatible with common decency.”

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