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Orwell and Richard Hoggart: Class in The Road To Wigan Pier and The uses of literacy

George Orwell’s 1937 book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ aims to acknowledge class divisions by depicting the working classes to a middle-class readership whom may have otherwise been informed of ‘them’ merely by historical connotations or stereotypes. However, due to his somewhat inherent attitudes as a middle-class author, one should read the book critically. Canonically speaking, Orwell was a social commentator in tune with the lower orders standing by their side on the one hand, whilst simultaneously “holding a deeply personal squeamishness about close contact with them.”[1]

This squeamishness is exhibited at a plethora of points in the book. most notably in an early segment in which Orwell describes the proprietors of the lodging house in which he was, until the following section, a patron of. a depiction of the lodging house itself is also disclosed here; “On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place [The lodging house] was beginning to depress me .It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, having to go into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round just like little black beetles…The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they go on about the same things over and over gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all.”[2] Here, Orwell writes of the lodging house as an unpalatable and depressing space. The connotations attached to dirtiness are of course negative; bad hygienic standards are enough to revolt any onlooker and considering at an earlier point Orwell stated; ”It struck me that this place must be fairly normal as lodging-houses in the industrials areas go, for on the whole the lodgers did not complain.”[3]

His obvious disdain for the Brookers and their establishment becomes apparent; here, it becomes clear that Orwell is not writing for the working-classes, because if Orwell intended to write for the working-classes in such a harrowing tone, then this would be wholly counterproductive. After all, no audience wants to be categorised as physically repulsing. Instead, such a depiction connotes the notion Orwell is safe to say such things as he is writing for a readership whom accept this view; his middle-class contemporaries, and ultimately others the working class precisely in the use of ‘olfactory symbolism.’[4] Simply put, this device functions to other the working class subjects, their smell is bad as opposed to good and the lodging house along with its smells is enough to actually force Orwell to leave.

The bad smells act as olfactory symbolism in that they connote to the readership sensations of disgust by the fact that such smells are different from their own; a middle class audience reads a description of a working class subject and this subject, or at least the home of the subject, is enough to be considered one of the reasons for a middle class lodger to leave the lodging house. Thus, exemplifying social boundaries, in this instance class boundaries, being enacted by their inclusion on the page. The middle-class lodger dislikes the olfactory markers of the working-class inhabitants and can no longer handle it, this is because the middle class author views them as the other and the physical sense of the other, in this instance the smell, is enough to make the middle class lodger leave, thus exemplifying the working class as the other.

Orwell’s ‘squeamishness’ exuberates itself to a large extent here, with smells of the working classes being so appalling to him, he feels the need to point them out, and lambast them with compelling language. The ramifications of this being that working-class hygienic standards are questioned, thus creating a distance between the middle-class reader and the working-class subjects. Other examples of this device are scattered throughout Orwell’s depictions of the lodging house in part one. One of the strongest examples exhibiting itself very early in the book, when Orwell describes the bedroom he shared with a group of other men; “In the morning, the room stank like a ferret’s cage. You did not notice it when you got up, but if you went out of the room and came back the smell hit you in the face like a smack.”[5] The olfactory symbolism here is visceral, Orwell likens the smell to a weasel like animal which of course acts to other the men who have created this smell, but what should also be noted here is the functionality attached to the smell, it would; “hit you in the face like a smack.” This evokes negative connotations on both a sensory level and a physical one, further acting to tarnish the working classes who live in such lodging houses.

However, this section of the book is known to be contentious as a source of historical documentation. According to Robert Pearce; “Historians ought to regard it as too suspect to be valuable”.[6] If, then, this is a fictitious account and not a totally factual one, then it appears that the Brookers become caricatures of working-class life. Here, Orwell aestheticizes them, and they begin to function as literary avatars representing the working class. They are no longer people truly met and spoken to, but general creations spoken of. And in this fictionalised perspective, Orwell discloses his own subjective feelings on the Working classes as an entire demographic, with the Brookers acting as mere representations of said demographic. If this opening passage is truly novelized, then it should not be disregarded for it exemplifies that Orwell’s prose in the book lends itself to generalization and aesthetics of repulsion, ultimately perpetuating middle class perspectives on working class people held by his contemporaries.

Through the iteration of his;” Dickensian accumulation of detail .”[7] What is ultimately exposed is the fact that there exists a division between Orwell and those whom he writes about. There is a high level of description and detail within Orwell’s prose, so much so in fact it may be questioned if this was truly what had been seen at all. It appears to cite the negative aspects of the lodging house experience almost exclusively. They are described to such a degree, that it becomes difficult to see said descriptions as factual. This acts to show that such a style is implemented to not only bolster a position of bias on the point of the author, but, also, on an explicit level, acts to disclose to the reader what has been’ seen’.

However, the implications of this are that the lodging house was home to such a dire hand to mouth experience, there was nothing positive to disclose there. The consequences of this are that working-class people live an objectively cruel life, there appears nothing here to be desirable. After all, Orwell leaves because the lodging house “depressed him” and it depressed him not merely because of ‘vile food’ or ‘smells’ but chiefly because he could not stomach spending another moment with the Brookers, with over half of the paragraph depicting how he sees them ‘unlike real people.’

For Hammond, Orwell cannot bring himself to speak factually about the Brookers because they do not really exist; they are fictional perpetuations of negative class connotations and are personifications of this ‘Dickensian detail.’ Dickensian connoting of course, the sense that they were not real people, but literary characters, in the style of a Dickens tale, in that the characters are shown to be repulsing. Orwell proposes people like the Brookers; “exist in tens and hundreds of thousands.”[8] This would mean that there is an agenda at play within this text, and if the described section is fictitious, then we learn of an implied inferiority encumbered upon the working classes from the subjective writing; a class-covering generalization. What Orwell has ‘seen’ is used to describe the tens and thousands he has not seen. The implication here is that to see some of ‘them’ is to see ‘them all.’

However, to simply disregard the anthropological claims of the book would be short sighted. According to Patricia Rae; “Orwell’s study is an admirable example of ‘modernist anthropology’, a genre whose goal is to give an uncensored account of an ethnographer’s difficulties in the field.[..]Orwell courageously portrays the prejudices of his fieldworker-persona, hoping to expose a form of hypocrisy typical of left-wing middle-class domestic ethnographers in the 1930s.”[9] In short, Rae’s perspective argues that Orwell’s account exemplifies a type of anthropology, suggesting that the account which Orwell gives is in fact from a factual perspective, and must be interpreted as such.

Rae also acknowledges that one of the components that make ‘modernist anthropology’ is the fact that one must give an ‘uncensored account of their difficulties.’ Although much has been discussed regarding the contrary argument that this account is not factual, Rae’s perspective is not totally without merit.

One can see how Orwell may well have detailed such stark depictions of what he had ‘seen’ ironically, to say less about the working class and instead to make a statement about the left-wing-middle classes, namely that their lack of understanding on working class subjects renders their work somewhat short-sighted, this being the ‘ courageous portrayal of prejudices’ which Orwell exhibits within the book.

Of course, this is not without its problems, as in this, Orwell to some extent trivialises the working-class subjects whilst also lambasting the work of his contemporary ethnographers, so one should both acknowledge Rae’s perspective but not without question; what would Orwell hope to achieve by shaming the readership whilst simultaneously trivialising the book’s subjects. It could be argued that from this perspective, Orwell would want the readership to look within their class and realise why they hold these prejudices, and so Rae’s argument would appear to be that this book was written in order to acknowledge class division internally and acknowledge responsibility.

However, Rob Breton claims that; “Orwell tells his fellow middle-class readers to abandon their prejudices, he does not and cannot abandon his.”[10] judging by Orwell’s aestheticization of the working classes in the previously discussed example of the olfactory symbolic, the greatest flaw of Rae’s proclamations is simply that Orwell may explain why he holds the prejudices he does but in enacting them regardless, this would mean that to some extent, these prejudices are so entrenched within him that although he shames his middle class contemporaries for holding said prejudices, it is still relevant for Orwell to appropriate them for ironic effect. The greatest irony, or better still hypocrisy, of this being that Orwell has appropriated prejudices which are used to beat the working classes, for his own class whilst his own class are the same class who developed these prejudices in the first place.

This shows insensitivity on the part of Orwell and adds complication to Rae’s claim as yes, Orwell expresses why the middle classes hold such claims, but ultimately although used ironically, they are still used all the same, and intended to be read by the class whom developed this discourse of prejudice which Is being used to ironic effect, thus, ultimately losing these effects, it would be argued. This flaws Rae’s perspective as an explanation is offered by Orwell on why the middle classes feel they way that they do, but in their very inclusion by a middle-class author for a middle-class readership ultimately perpetuates these prejudices despite their ironic intentions.

To accept that the depictions above are indeed factual, then one must consider the following: If the lodging house struck Orwell to be ‘their’ normalcy, it must be questioned why he described the intricacies of this normal functionality as “stagnant meaningless decay.” Likening this almost more to a malignant disease than a part of working-class daily life. For Orwell, such conditions were of course shocking and they were shocking to him due to his inherent disconnect from the working class, but what is most striking about the language used is that it evokes repulsion in a potential reader; these people creep around like little black beetles they are bugs. Figuratively, for Orwell, they are lesser.

Ironically, Orwell discloses why he may have made such a stark commentary himself at a later stage of the book; “That was what we were taught-the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite as fundamental as a physical feeling …”[11] This exemplifies both the positives and negatives of Rae’s proclamations in that Orwell here exhibits the ‘ prejudices of his field worker persona’ in likening the subjects to ‘little black beetles’ whilst simultaneously offering a reason why he would write such a statement both to his class and about them; after all, his class were taught ‘the working classes smell’ and it is this perception which Orwell has brought with him to this piece.

Here, Orwell directly concedes that however much he may want to respect the working classes he will always hold a negative opinion of them no matter how much he attempts to detach from this. Herein lies the problem of class division; Orwell may lambast the poor conditions of which the subjects of his book find themselves, but he does so whilst explicitly disclosing to the middle-class readership that they are different, thus Orwell inadvertently perpetuates class divisions; “Orwell came to the north of England with a particular set of values, many of them typical of his class.”[12] A ramification made by this quotation is how Orwell may see the working classes dependant on the type of work that they do and how this can affect him.

On the one hand Orwell describes such work as newspaper canvassing as “a type I[he] had never met before. Their job seemed to me so hopeless, so appalling that I wondered how anyone could put up with such a thing when prison was a possible alternative.”[13] Here, we see the prejudices in Orwell’s writing in that despite never previously seeing such a worker, he dismisses the canvasser as working in a depressing and meaningless job when in actuality, the work they have undertaken may have been the only means to earn a wage available to them at the time.

It could be argued that Orwell lambasts the canvasser because their work does not directly influence his life, in the same way the coal miner does. Orwell sees the society he lives in as being built upon coal[14] and so appreciates the work of the coal miner. The newspaper canvasser on the other hand, is for Orwell a perpetuator of ‘trivial discourses’[15], Orwell proclaims newspapers suitable only to the ‘unemployed man’.[16] This is of course unfair, for the newspaper canvasser becomes an example of a job not worth having, thus, othering those within the working classes.

If the work does not benefit the upper and middle classes, then it appears to hold no relevance to Orwell, and this is problematic as this connotes the notion that some working-class people are cited by their importance in relation to their labour. Newspaper canvassing thus holds negative connotations of being a somewhat redundant occupation, whilst the coal minor exhibits positive connotations as on their shoulders is the reliance of everyone in society, not just the idle unemployed man.

Like Orwell, Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy identifies the disconnect between the working classes and the middle classes. He identifies that the typical middle class Marxist perspective; “[usually] succeeds in part pitying working class people beyond any semblance of reality.[17] Hoggart himself here identifies what Orwell had previously; that there is an inability of the middle classes, namely Marxists, in identifying with the working classes. This of course, has already been established but what is yet to be discussed is how the working classes view the middle classes and this is where Hoggart begins to depart from Orwell’s findings.

Hoggart states that for the working class; “The world is divided into ‘them’ and ‘us’ ‘they’ are the higher ups ,the people who give you your dole, […]made you split the family in the 30s to avoid a reduction in the means test allowance, ‘get yer in the end’ aren’t really to be trusted.[18] If this quotation is read as a true reflection on the working class perspective, what it does is identify precisely what the working classes felt towards the upper classes; where Orwell felt a ‘squeamishness’ the working class looked back and saw ‘one of them who are not to be trusted.’ This highlights the fact that class perspectives exist in a dichotomy; the working classes judge outside of their class just as the middle and upper classes judge them. The implication here of course is that class divisions are reciprocal suggesting that this division is a conflict and that the world is black and white; you are with ‘us’ or with ‘them.’

What Hoggart also acknowledges in identifying the’ us and them’ dynamic is the agency of the working classes; he acknowledges their ability to exhibit their own perspectives as opposed to seeing them as nothing more than a labour force, more than ‘debased workers.’[19] In doing so, Hoggart humanises the working classes rather than portraying them as a downtrodden abstract whom exist in innumerable ‘tens and thousands’ as proposed by Orwell. The suggestion here is that the working classes exhibit agency precisely in their perspectives. They are directly able to put the world into those within themselves and those outside of themselves, the implication here of course is that if there is a difference then one must question on what terms this difference exists; if ‘they’ are unlike ‘us’ then in what ways is this so; if ‘they’ are not to be trusted then this suggests that those outside of the working classes are without integrity, and those who are like ‘us’ are to be trusted and hold this integrity.

For Stuart Hall; “[working class culture],is in its own way just as dense, complex and richly articulated, morally, as that of the educated classes.”[20] This assertion demonstrates the idea that the traditional working class culture should be viewed equally in its relation to other class cultures. The ‘moral’ aspect of this culture is cited as being that which is solid and concrete.[21] Meaning that it relies on the familiar to exemplify that which is important; time with family, friends and the like as opposed to a full comprehension of Marxist theory is what acts as fundamental for the working class perspective, because this is what is felt and holds substance for them.

It has been said of Hoggart that in the uses of literacy he presents a; “sentiment, of the impoverishing of a traditional culture.”[22] This is perhaps best exhibited by the notions of the mass publication. The introduction of this into the mainstream challenges the older traditions directly, in that they rely on sensationalism for Hoggart.[23] Here, one can see how publications begin to influence the working class with trivialities during the 1950s, just as Orwell had proclaimed they did in the 30s, the difference here of course is that the newspapers were once for the ‘unemployed man’ but were now made available to everyone; they also traded their trivialities for sensationalism, this of course, is a trend which has ascended to our contemporary with the perpetuation of an ‘underclass’ stereotype known better by the moniker as; the chav.

[1] George Orwell, introduction by Richard Hoggart, The road To Wigan Pier, New Edition edn (Penguin Books 2001), p. ix. [2] Ibidp.14 [3] IIbid.p.13 [4] Constance Classen, Ethos, in The Odor of the Other: Olfactory Symbolism and Cultural Categories, Vol.20 P.136 URL: [5] Orwell, p.4 [6] Robert Pearce, Revisiting Orwell's Wigan Pier in The Journal of the Historical association (2002) vol.82. p.418 URL: [7] J. R. Hammond, A George Orwell Companion (1982), pp. 116-117. [8] Orwell.p.14 [9] Patricia Rae, Orwell’s Heart of Darkness: The Road to Wigan Pier as Modernist Anthropology In Bloom’s Modern Critical Views GEORGE ORWELL, edited by Harold Bloom, (2007) Infobase Publishing, p.63 [10] Rob Breton, Crisis? Whose Crisis? George Orwell and Liberal Guilt, in College Literature Working-Class Literature, (2002) vol.29 p.50 URL: [11] ibid.p.119 [12] Ben Clarke, The Review of English Studies, Volume 67, Issue 281, 2016, Pages 764–785 (2016) URL: [13] Ibid.p.8 [14] Orwell, p.18 [15] Ibid.p.6 [16] Ibid.p.6 [17] Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life, Penguin Modern classics edn (Penguin Group, 2009), p.6 [18] Ibid.pp.57-58 [19] Ibid.p.6 [20] Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy and The Cultural Turn, in Richard Hoggart and Cultural studies, Edited by Sue Owen (2008) p.24 [21] Richard Hoggart, cited in the Introduction to The uses of literacy by Lynsey Hanley p.x [22] Galen Bangs, Cultural resistances: British cultural studies and the emergence of popular culture in the early 1960s [23] Hoggart, Ibid.p.196

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