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Orwell’s Joyce and Coming Up for Air

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 131-153

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The written record of Orwell’s feelings and thoughts about Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, begins with a series of revealing letters he wrote to Brenda Salkeld, a friend in the early 1930s, and evolves through major aesthetic statements that include his 1940 essay, “Inside the Whale”; a 1942 BBC broadcast for “Literature Between the Wars”; reviews of Henry Miller’s novels that invariably provoked comparisons with Joyce; and a 1944 review of Harry Levin’s James Joyce. While allowing for the natural difference in tone between a personal letter and the public forum of a BBC program or published review, Orwell’s attitude toward Joyce over the course of a decade can be seen as maturing from that of awed schoolboy to dispassionate literary historian, yet many of his fundamental opinions remained unchanged. One of the most revealing statements he ever made about Joyce’s writing appears in the essay “Inside the Whale”: “The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together.” As the identification expressed in this passage implies, Joyce was a father figure for Orwell on many levels.

Orwell’s letters to Brenda Salkeld of 1933 and 1934, while he was working on A Clergyman’s Daughter and desperately trying to establish himself as a novelist, demonstrate Orwell’s tremendous enthusiasm for Joyce, as well as the paternal threat of Joyce’s mastery to his own fledgling efforts. First and foremost, Orwell admires Joyce’s realism: “Joyce is attempting to select and represent events and thoughts as they occur in life and not as they occur in fiction … the very way he sets about it is enough to show how extraordinarily original his mind is” (327). Orwell applies the word “elephantine” in an ambiguous way to some of Joyce’s linguistic experiments, praising “Nausicaa” as an “elephantine joke,” yet criticizing “Oxen of the Sun” for its “elephantine” development (326–7). He finds Bloom “much more interesting” than Stephen: “Dedalus is the ordinary modern intellectual whose mind is poisoned by his inability to believe in anything,” while “Bloom on the other hand is a rather exceptionally sensitive specimen of the man in the street, and I think the especial interest of this is that the cultivated man and the man in the street so rarely meet in modern English literature” (328). Stephen thus described might represent Orwell himself as he was, at the time of these letters, a drifting and alienated intellectual, while Bloom represents what soon became Orwell’s aesthetic and political ideal as he abandoned intellectual pretension along with its bourgeois values in favor of the “man in the street.” In other words, as a writer, Orwell identified with the oedipal quest Joyce sets up in Ulysses to bring Stephen and Bloom together, the alienated son in need of the successfully integrated father. In 1933, he declares, “The fact is Joyce interests me so much that I can’t stop talking about him once I start” (328). However, this enthusiasm founders a year later when Orwell betrays an oedipalized anxiety of influence while writing A Clergyman’s Daughter: “I rather wish I had never read [Ulysses]. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.”

Orwell’s anxiety is apparent in his “notorious solution” in A Clergyman’s Daughter. The protagonist Dorothy Hare, the daughter of a country parson, loses her memory and wakes up in London not knowing who or where she is, in a Nighttown scene of “‘surrealist’ theatre” among homeless bums and prostitutes in Trafalgar Square, which is inserted into a narrative that is...

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