ALIENATION & OTHER SUCH JOYS
George Orwell expresses a feeling of alienation throughout "Such, Such Were the Joys...." He casts himself as a misfit, unable to understand his peers, the authorities placed over him, and the laws that govern his existence. Orwell writes, "The good and the possible never seemed to coincide" (37). Though he shows his ability to enumerate what is "good," he resigns himself to a predestined state; uncertain of where exactly he fits in society, his attitude is irreconcilable with what he knows society expects of him. Orwell's childhood understanding of society forces him into only one possible direction, failure. This essay is the maturing Orwell's response to childhood subjugation, a subtle exposure to the evolution of Orwell's thought.
Orwell's life as a boarding school student at Crossgates occupies his memory of childhood and serves as the platform for his views on life. Repeatedly Orwell describes the society of the school from which he is outcast:
That bump on the hard mattress, on the first night of term, used to give me a feeling of abrupt awakening, a feeling of: 'This is reality, this is what you are up against.' Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than by fear, where you did not have to be perpetually taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a goldfish into a tank full of pike. (23)
Young Orwell, impacted by this, "hard," disorienting situation, realizes he is alone in a hostile, harsh environment. Orwell uses the image of the "warm nest," a womb, from which the child is thrown, then innocently forced into a destructive reality. This reality is Crossgates, an educational institution but also a primary residence, the "home" Orwell lives in on a daily basis for a number of years. Far from the "love" of his familial home, Orwell finds that Crossgates does not nurture nor raise a boy to manhood, but rather destroys all that he loves and trusts. Hopelessly dominated in this environment, he is compelled to accept a mentality of insecurity and inferiority and becomes the fodder of others--the winners of society.
Sim and Bingo, the spiritual and emotional guides of Crossgates, feed off of this pitiful mentality and their carefully constructed school environment.
By the social standards that prevailed about me, I was no good, and could not be any good. But all the different kinds of virtue seemed to be mysteriously interconnected and to belong to much the same people. It was not only money that mattered: there were also strength, beauty, charm, athleticism, and something called 'guts' or 'character,' which in reality meant the power to impose your will on others. (36-37)
Sim and Bingo manipulate their young students by connecting virtue to superficial qualities they can judge subjectively. Orwell possesses none of these qualities, and actually exemplifies all that would be considered bad. At the same time, however, the master and mistress of school impress upon their young subject that he is a "scholarship boy," one who is to be a boon to the school and attract all those prospective students who exemplify their virtues. The irony of this situation characterizes young Orwell's difficulties. By design, he must serve the interests of his oppressors and be thankful for the opportunity to do so while they destine him to be a hopeless failure and social pariah. Orwell is instructed to tie goodness to "power" and tyranny. He is deemed virtueless and therefore the natural subject of those who are virtuous.
The introductory, poignant tale of bedwetting epitomizes Orwell's alienating education. As the author describes his childhood situation, "I knew that bed-wetting was a)wicked and b)outside my control" (5). Faced by an embarrassing problem he cannot understand or help, the eight-year old Orwell condemns himself as a sinner, following that which he is preached. Without thinking, questioning or understanding, he blindly accepts the morality presented him. The school establishment shuns and castigates him, teaching him through fiery sermons and corporal punishment to hate himself for his incorrigible actions. Sim and Bingo, the benefactors of this psychologically ailing "scholarship" student, aid him in no way, adding only to his misery.
Orwell reacts to this treatment as he was instructed to act, obeying the role designed for him by his tormentors. He thinks such thoughts as, "It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something you did it might be something that happened to you" and "[t]his was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good" (5). This is the result of a child's flawed, but logical process of thought. Though he realizes that which is conveyed to him bodes his own rejection and eventual destruction, he listens to the conveyance because it originates from people he is supposed to listen to. Orwell believed with conviction that he actively "committed" intentional wrong without willing it because he was innately inferior.
Indoctrinated by this philosophy and assuming a fatalist, defeatist mentality, Orwell knows he is doomed to failure. "Until I was about thirty I always planned my life on the assumption not only that any major undertaking was bound to fail, but that I could only expect to live a few years longer" (38). The trauma of his childhood experience at Crossgates had an enormous impact on the author, persisting long after maturity. His thought is centered around the principle of failure, and therefore his entire existence is purposeless. Orwell lives much of his life believing, in essence, that he does not belong amongst the living.
This defeatist mentality pervades the daily life of young Orwell. He obediently not only prepares himself for self-destruction, but also assumes the rest of the world is out to destroy him. Relating one of the few joyous moments of his youth, buying candy, Orwell is interrupted by his own fears of wrongdoing and detection. "I assumed that any adult, inside the school or outside, would collaborate voluntarily in preventing us from breaking the rules. Sim was all-powerful, and it was natural that his agents should be everywhere" (16). Orwell moves beyond feelings of isolation. He possesses no avenue to vent his frustration; forced into his own developing mind, Orwell takes on a 'me against the world' attitude. The world becomes a grand conspiracy and all other characters collaborators, prepared at any turn to pin him as guilty for another inexplicable crime. Alone and battling all of reality, Orwell completes his alienation from society.
Orwell inserts in his essay on childhood the musings of his rational, contemplative adult self. His commentary reflects evolution beyond the indoctrinated mentality he states to have retained "until I was thirty." There is a general rejection of all the mindless, unquestioning instruction of his youth. Orwell reminisces, "The schoolmasters with their canes, the millionaires with their Scottish castles, the athletes with their curly hair-these were the armies of the unalterable law. It was not easy, at that date, to realise that in fact it was alterable" (37). As a reflective individual, Orwell looks to his childhood and realizes that he allowed himself to capitulate his identity and allowed others, others he hated, to define his existence. He does, eventually, "see beyond the moral dilemma that is presented to the weak in a world governed by the strong: Break the rules, or perish" (40).
Orwell enumerates the maturation of his thought. He rejects "religion, for instance" because "the whole business of religion seemed to be strewn with psychological impossibilities" (36-37). On the same pages he rids himself of the burden of harrowing authority figures. "Obviously it was my duty to feel grateful towards Bingo and Sim; but I was not grateful. It was equally clear that one ought to love one's father, but I knew very well that I merely disliked my own father." He rebukes the English boarding school system (47) and the manner in which children are taught, "crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas" (8). Orwell repudiates the English class system as well, the very system that defined his place in childhood (43). He rejects all that he was taught to believe right and virtuous as a child. He was pressured to believe without thinking, and as a naive child he did so. As a man, however, he condemns his former ideology, understanding that to be a man he must forge his own process of thought.
Orwell realizes that it is logically impossible to collaborate with the old system on any level. Persevering through the trauma of his youth, he creates a new system of reality defined only by himself and his rationale. A child born to the world completely handicapped, rendered incapable by societal standards, Orwell institutes his own rules to play by in the game of life. He is able to redefine good and bad through his own faculty of thought so that what is good and possible do coincide.
"Such, Such Were the Joys..." reveals the creation of George Orwell, prolific writer and social critic. The author describes, with some presumed exaggeration and inaccuracy, the origins of his later thought and aspects of his childhood that molded him into a well-respected man and author. He relates to the reader his necessary evolution in thought from misunderstanding and alienation to a state of mind which produced such novel works as "Shooting an Elephant," Animal Farm, and 1984. Orwell consistently analyzes the society in which he was inexorably involved, questioning its standards and the path it was taking into the future. Orwell, whether it is he himself or he speaking through one of his characters, always appears alone, an alienated but thinking resistor to mass opinion.
Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.