Some Thoughts on the Common Toad is a collection of short essays by the well-known novelist George Orwell. The particular edition which I read was published in 2010, but the 8 essays contained within the volume were published between the years of 1940 and 1947. Anyone familiar with Orwell’s novels will know how captivating and enticing his style is, and his non-fiction is no different. His style in these pieces is informative, sophisticated and incredibly funny.
Whilst I did not know enough about any of his essay topics to agree or disagree with his arguments, what I can say is that they were very well-structured and persuasive. His views make for intensely interesting reading. In many of these essays, Orwell uses natural imagery and metaphor to comment on political and social issues in a subtle, intelligent way. Given the time that these were written, it is also understandable that he spends quite some time discussing the Second World War, although not in as direct a manner as one might expect. In particular, his essay ‘In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse’ is supremely fascinating, and it gives a very different account of life during the war than any other I have ever read. Moreover, the representation of Hitler and the Nazis is very unlike any descriptions that I have ever come across either. Orwell is happy to admit that the Germans were clever in their treatment of Wodehouse when they used him for their propaganda. For example, Orwell explains how Wodehouse’s release from imprisonment was likely to reconcile relations between the USA and Germany slightly, and ‘demonstrate that the Germans were good fellows and knew how to treat their enemies chivalrously’. This sort of honesty is not what I would usually expect from a text written during or just after the time of the war being discussed, and yet Orwell treats his subject matter as objectively as he is able.
Reading these essays also highlights just how knowledgeable Orwell is about many diverse topics. He ranges from Wodehouse, to Jonathan Swift, to Salvador Dali with a whole plethora of evidence to back up his arguments in every paragraph. His heavy sarcasm and academic tone make his essays really thrilling to read. As a Shakespeare fan myself, his discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s damning critique of Shakespeare’s dramatic work was especially amusing. Particularly when Orwell asserts that, ‘his examination of King Lear is not ‘impartial’, as he twice claims’.
Orwell’s essay on Swift, ‘Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels’, is markedly engaging both on its own, and when compared with Orwell’s own work, especially 1984. Orwell focuses on the dystopian nature of the places that Gulliver visits, and the idea of the ‘police-State’ present in Swift’s work. He then goes on to examine whether these elements of the text mark Swift as ‘a champion of free intelligence’, before deciding that he is not and explaining his reasons for saying so. This is intriguing enough, but he then broadens his argument out to talk about Swift more generally and how we receive texts as readers. After claiming that he loves Gulliver’s Travels but despises Swift on political and moral grounds, he asks ‘what is the relationship between agreement with a writer’s opinions, and enjoyment of his work?’ The possible answers are, of course, endless. But being a student of literature myself and being trained to ask questions about how we read texts, I was still impressed that the essay asked me a question which I have had cause to ponder over before and provide me with a new perspective.
My thoughts on the Swift essay then transpired to be of extreme relevance when I got to reading ‘Shooting the Elephant’. I was (and as I have found out in my research, many are) unsure of whether this essay is autobiographical in nature or not, but I found it a very uncomfortable read nevertheless. Whilst I believe that it achieves its purpose of revealing the atrocities of imperialism incredibly well, the language it uses and the fact that it is not an essay in itself but more of a story make it seem discordant and vulgar in comparison to the rest of the collection. Naturally I have read many disquieting pieces of work in my time, yet this essay struck me and sickened me more than most. I cannot say that my opinions of the work overall extend so far as to include this essay within it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this compilation immensely. It is a compact and well-thought out set of essays, even though Orwell did not intend for them to be published side by side in this way. His views are thought-provoking and important, they require deep consideration and rumination both during and after reading. Reading this collection has increased my respect for George Orwell even more than I already did. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone that is willing to read it.