Recognizing Humanity: Orwell and the Consistent Life Ethic
by John Whitehead
We’re 70 years from the publication of one of the 20th century’s most influential books: 1984. George Orwell’s 1949 novel about future life under an extremely repressive regime has shaped political debate and popular culture for decades. The novel’s anniversary will doubtless prompt further reflections. I reflect on Orwell’s concern for defending human dignity against many threats—a concern that resembled the consistent ethic of life.
George Orwell didn’t accept the ethic as the Consistent Life Network understands it, since he supported war, even serving in the 1930s as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. While Orwell’s views on war were complex (and deserve separate treatment), he wasn’t a peace advocate.
Nevertheless, his writings criticize other threats to life. The book 1984 is famous for its portrayal of cruelty and misery inflicted by government tyranny. Orwell’s other writings also criticize abortion, the death penalty, racism, and poverty.
A recurring motif in Orwell’s writings is a moment when, amid conditions that de-humanize victims of oppression and violence, someone recognizes the victim’s humanity. As our member group Rehumanize International might put it, these are moments of re-humanization in unlikely situations. Such vivid moments turn up repeatedly in Orwell’s writing.
The Humanity of the Poor
Being a democratic socialist who spent significant periods living among and observing poor people, poverty was probably Orwell’s greatest concern. His book The Road to Wigan Pier documents the lives of coal miners and other working-class people in northern England. A famous passage describes Orwell’s sight, from a passing train, of one woman:
As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us”, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.
The Humanity of the Colonized
Orwell opposed British imperialism partly because he had once helped serve it. During 1922-1927, he was a police officer in the British colony of Burma (present-day Myanmar). These first-hand experiences of Empire contributed to his anti-imperialism in later writings. During a trip to Morocco (then a French colony), Orwell described how a person’s humanity can be obscured by racism—and cross-examines his own attitudes:
When you walk through a town like this—two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in—when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces—besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names?
Every afternoon a file of very old women passes down the road outside my house, each carrying a load of firewood…and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing—that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them, and the curious up-and-down motion of a load of wood drew my attention to the human being underneath it. Then for the first time I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and leathery skin, bent double under the crushing weight.“Marrakech,” 1939
The Humanity of the Condemned
The 1931 essay “A Hanging” describes an execution Orwell allegedly witnessed. Some dispute the story’s accuracy, but even if fiction, it still evokes horror at capital punishment and empathy for the person executed.
Walking with the condemned to the gallows, Orwell writes
I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me…And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—all toiling away in solemn foolery…His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.
The Humanity of the Preborn
Pro-lifers are stereotypically viewed in the United States as political conservatives, strongly religious, and usually Catholic. Orwell matched none of these stereotypes, being a socialist who wasn’t religious (and who intensely disliked Catholicism). Nevertheless, an early, lesser-known novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, conveys the humanity of the preborn as powerfully as any pro-life leaflet.
The protagonist, Gordon, and his girlfriend Rosemary are confronted with her unexpected pregnancy. As they discuss whether to marry, she mentions “another way,” saying it could be “done for only five pounds.”
That pulled him up. For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words “a baby” took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. His eyes met hers…Though they were feet apart he felt as though they were joined together—as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating—a blasphemy, if that word has any meaning.
Gordon goes to the public library and looks up fetal development. He tries to calculate how old the child would be and find the corresponding pictures:
He came on a print of a nine weeks foetus. It gave him a shock to see it, for he had not expected it to look in the least like that. It was a deformed, gnomelike thing, a sort of clumsy caricature of a human being, with a huge domed head as big as the rest of its body. In the middle of the great blank expanse of head there was a tiny button of an ear. The thing was in profile; its boneless arm was bent, and one hand, crude as a seal’s flipper, covered its face—fortunately, perhaps…It was a monstrous thing, and yet strangely human. It surprised him that they should begin looking human so soon. He had pictured something much more rudimentary; a mere blob with a nucleus, like a bubble of frog spawn. But it must be very tiny, of course.
Thinking the child might be younger, he turns to a six-weeks picture:
A really dreadful thing this time—a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly—the unborn as ugly as the dead…Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye—or was it the mouth?…
He pored for a long time over the two pictures. Their ugliness made them more credible and therefore more moving. His baby had seemed real to him from the moment when Rosemary spoke of abortion; but it had been a reality without visual shape—something that happened in the dark and was only important after it had happened. But here was the actual process taking place. Here was the poor ugly thing, no bigger than a gooseberry, that he had created by his heedless act. Its future, its continued existence perhaps, depended on him. Besides, it was a bit of himself—it was himself. Dare one dodge such a responsibility as that?
Gordon and Rosemary marry and establish a household together. The novel ends with Rosemary first feeling the child move; Gordon contemplates how “Somewhere in there, in the safe, warm, cushioned darkness, it was alive and stirring.”
Orwell was a great writer who expressed himself with brutal clarity, and without the jargon and euphemisms which so often hide violence. His assertions of people’s humanity in the face of threats from tyranny to poverty, imperialism to abortion, are worth reading and remembering today.
For more of our posts on literature, see:
Dickens (Christmas literature)
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)