"You could not always be quite certain if he was serious or not."
--Sir Richard Rees, George Orwell
"To be funny, indeed, you have got to be serious."
--George Orwell, "Funny, but not Vulgar"
To speak of George Orwell as a comic writer may in itself seem like a bad joke: the very word "Orwellian" seems an adequate rejoinder. For over sixty years, he has been defined by a single phrase of V. S. Pritchett's: "George Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation." But it is as if no one read any further. Pritchett proceeds: "this makes only the severe half of George Orwell's character ... [he had] an expression that [would] suddenly become gentle, lazily kind and gleaming with workmanlike humour. Fie would be jogged into remembering mad, comical and often tender things." Certainly, his sense of humor was no secret among those who knew him. (1) A striking, little-recognized instance can be found right in the title of his grim study of mining conditions, The Road to Wigan Pier, a phrase his contemporaries would have recognized as a joke from musichall comedy. (2) Two of his four 1930s novels are comic, many of his major literary articles are on comic writers, and he wrote explicit sociological and literary analysis of comic art. Peter Davison, editor of the Complete Works, writes in his conclusion to George Orwell: A Literary Life (1996):The one characteristic of Orwell's writing that ... is too often overlooked is his wit and his wry humour. The impression of a grim prophet, a forbidding Old Testament figure, is too easily conjured up. He had a marvellous gift of humour. (3) (147)
Little has been done to amplify this insight. (4) In this article, I will attempt to lay out in some detail Orwell's thoughts on the comic, and then proceed to a case study of how an understanding of Orwell's comic sensibility can inform our reading of one of his central works.
What, to begin with, did Orwell actually say about comedy? His understanding of the subject can be gleaned from more than a dozen pieces: "Funny, but not Vulgar," "The Art of Donald McGill," "Charles Dickens," "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool," "Boys' Weeklies," "Evelyn Waugh," "In Defense of P. G. Wodehouse," "Mark Twain--The Licensed Jester," "Nonsense Poetry," the "As I Please" column of 1 Dec 1944, and several reviews. (5) Included here, it is worth noting, are the majority of his single-author studies, and four of his most-anthologized essays. Though these various pieces do not add up to a grand theory of comedy, it is possible to extract both explicit and implicit views from them.
From their sheer number and range, it is clear that Orwell believed the subject mattered. It mattered most plainly for the remarkable force he ascribed to laughter. In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell attributes the entire psychological underpinning of colonialism to a fear of the "hideous laughter" of the colonized (10.501, 504). The goose-step, he would later contend, never...