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On George Orwell and Sensory Detail in Writing

In a previous blog post on long sentences, I critiqued George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” specifically because I felt its list of rules was too restrictive, especially when it came to building the kind of long cumulative sentences I was advocating for in my piece. But the truth is, even though I disagree with his most famous writing rule (“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”), Orwell is one of my favorite writers, and I find his work to exemplify the best aspects of literary prose—and in particular, the power of sensory detail.

Recently, I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his 1938 account of his months fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The book largely alternates between explanatory chapters analyzing the political tensions between the various leftist groups operating in Spain and more literary chapters describing Orwell’s personal experiences serving on the Aragon front or witnessing the street fighting in Barcelona between the Anarchists and the Spanish Republican Government. While Orwell’s insights into the hypocrisies of the Spanish Government and its Communist Party allies provide a nuanced look at leftist politics (Orwell was a committed democratic socialist but was also willing to criticize the Soviet Union and its authoritarian tendencies), it’s ultimately his more literary chapters that are his most powerful, because it’s through them that he’s able to vividly convey, through sensory details, the experience of being in Spain during the war. He himself reflects on this idea in a memorable passage towards the end of the book:

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution; and the food-queues and the red and black flags and the faces of Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen—men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison—most of them, I hope, still safe and sound. Good luck to them all.

The interesting irony of this passage is that even though Orwell argues that writing is not the same as lived experience, he actually does manage to convey the “sights, smells, and sounds” of his months in Spain through his prose—in fact, in this very passage, he gives us several examples of just how powerful such sensory writing can be: reading it, we smell the trenches, we see the mountains, we hear the “frosty crackle of bullets” and the “stamp of boots in the barrack yard,” and we feel like we’re there with him in “the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings” staring at “the red and black flags” and “the faces of militiamen.” Orwell laments that he’s failed to convey to us what those months meant, but one sentence later, he’s doing just that—and how can any reader not understand what Orwell felt after reading those sensory descriptions, and not understand exactly what the men he served with meant to him?

In my very first piece for this blog, a defense of the writing rule “show don’t tell,” I also wrote about the importance of sensory detail, arguing that its through such detail that we embody the experiences of characters in fiction and thus create that empathy that makes literature so powerful. This was a writing rule I learned from Lou Mathews, who taught it as one of his fundamental lessons—and looking back, I can say that it’s this rule more than any other that changed my writing for the better. Instead of just trying to convey what my characters thought or felt emotionally, I conveyed what they experienced, and what they felt on a sensory level. Now, I see the power of this lesson everywhere, in every work of fiction that moves me, and I’ve realized that so much of literature comes down to the ability to convey sensory experience.

Orwell’s short 1931 essay “A Hanging,” based on his experience serving as a policeman in Burma in his early 20s (years he spent witnessing colonialism firsthand, which no doubt influenced his future leftist politics), once again demonstrates the power of such sensory detail. The work is technically classified as an essay, but it’s written like a short story, and opens with a vivid description of the setting that puts us right there in Burma, on that “sodden morning of the rains” as “a sickly light” comes “slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” The “plot” of the essay is relatively simple: an Indian prisoner, whose crime remains unknown, is hanged by the British police in Burma. The unnamed narrator, presumably Orwell, is simply an observer. But the point of the essay is that, for a brief moment, our narrator sees this condemned man as a fellow human being. And this moment of empathy is accomplished through Orwell’s deft use of sensory detail:

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. 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’s this action, this oh-so-human action, stepping “slightly aside” to avoid a puddle, that moves something in Orwell’s narrator:

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 nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — 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.

Notice again how the narrator’s epiphany relies on sensory experience. He not only sees the man in vivid detail, but also suddenly sees the world from the man’s perspective, how this man observes “the yellow gravel” and “the grey walls” and how he, along with everyone there, is “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world.” Thus, in an essay that’s less than 2000 words, Orwell not only makes us feel the horror of watching a man be hanged and thus conveys the brutality of British colonialism, but also makes a larger comment on the power of sensory detail to change a person’s perspective. And isn’t that ultimately what literature is trying to do?