Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
The economic hardships that many people are facing in this the first decade of the twenty-first century have led politicians, historians, economists, and others to re-examine the 1930s in an attempt to understand their own time. The decade of the Great Depression was one of severe worldwide economic crisis and has been well documented, especially in Britain. Records compiled during the period by historians, statisticians, and social investigators have led to studies on the economic, political, and social conditions of the time. People are not, however, only physical, economic, and social beings. The challenge in studying the interwar period in Britain is how to investigate the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of those who lived during the period. Statistical studies may identify who was affected by unemployment and poverty, but they cannot reveal how these twin evils shaped people’s feelings, their thoughts, and even their personalities.
I decided to focus my thesis on this question of how to explore the minds and emotions of those faced with the adverse circumstances of the Great Depression. Having learned as an undergraduate English major that well-crafted novels often reveal much about the period in which they are written, I began my research in George Orwell’s depression novels. Historians’ questions regarding the accuracy and validity of Orwell’s depression novels as primary sources stem from questions on the representative nature of the novels or the perspective of the author. Because these are reasonable questions, it is necessary to have some way of determining whether Orwell accurately portrayed the period in which he lived and wrote. The respected historian Max Beloff lists three criteria that are useful in judging whether Orwell’s depression novels do what historians demand of them: 1) Do they make the event more intelligible? 2) Can they convey what these events meant to the participants and as well as their wider significance? 3) Have they captured people’s true feelings? I believe that Orwell’s depression novels more than fulfill Beloff s criteria.
Before analyzing Orwell’s writings, keeping Beloff s criteria in mind, I introduce some of the studies of the 1930s and some uses of novels as primary sources. By discussing the works of several psychologists and sociologists and their analyses of grief and loss, I provide a basis from which to evaluate the authenticity of Orwell’s characters and their responses to unemployment and poverty. I also provide an introduction to and contextualization of the period, taking special note of social and political events. This material helps to connect Orwell’s novels, experiences, and observations to the period in which he lived and wrote.
After providing context, I examine Orwell’s treatment of unemployment and poverty in his five depression novels, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and Coming up for Air (1939). Setting these within the context of studies on grief and loss provides a compelling picture of the emotions, feelings, and thoughts of those experiencing the depression in Britain in the 1930s. Indeed, Orwell deepens our understanding of the depression by laying bare the emotions of those faced by unemployment and poverty as well as the possible long-term impact on individuals, on social and political structures, and, perhaps, on foreign policy.
Hathaway, Sonja, "George Orwell's "Depression" Novels: Laying Bare the Emotional Cost of the Great Depression in Britain" (2010). Theses and Dissertations. 3734.