Mr. Charrington's Junk Shop: T.S. Eliot and Modernist Poetics in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.' (Character in Book by Author George Orwell)

By Rae, Patricia | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Mr. Charrington's Junk Shop: T.S. Eliot and Modernist Poetics in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.' (Character in Book by Author George Orwell)


Rae, Patricia, Twentieth Century Literature


The most intriguing minor character in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is also the most underexamined: the proprietor of Winston Smith's favorite junk shop, Mr. Charrington. Critical interest in Winston's acquaintances has centered on O'Brien, the charismatic intellectual who engineers the sting operation leading to Winston's arrest. Yet Charrington plays an equally important role in that entrapment, empathizing with the protagonist's desires only to preside over his deportation to the Ministry of Love. If Keith Alldritt and Michael Shelden are right in suggesting that Smith's story is "very much a resume of Orwell's own history" (Alldritt 176; see also Shelden 471), we might reasonably ask whom among Orwell's associates Mr. Charrington is meant to represent. This paper will argue that the shopkeeper is the poet who engaged Orwell in an analogous experience of attraction and betrayal in real life: T. S. Eliot. Winston's fatal association with Charrington is an allegory of Orwell's attraction to, and disillusionment with, Eliot's modernist poetics.(1)

Orwell's view of Eliot was much more favorable than a passing familiarity with the writers' politics would lead one to expect. As a struggling translator and novelist in the early 1930s, Orwell applied unsuccessfully to the Faber editor for help with his publications: to seek, first, a commission for a translation of Jacques Roberti's A la Belle de Nuit, and then a reading for the manuscript of Down and Out in Paris and London.(2) Some desire for Eliot's approval never left him, even as his own stature in the literary world grew. As an editor himself, he both solicited Eliot's work and cultivated a personal relationship with the poet.(3) In 1944 he attempted again to publish with Faber, this time to have Eliot reject Animal Farm.

The most fascinating dimension of Orwell's loyalty to Eliot was his staunch defense of the poet against frequent attacks by the leftist literary intelligentsia in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As Alex Zwerdling has argued (Orwell and the Left 185), Orwell's considerable sympathy with Marxist aesthetics did not extend to its practice of equating political judgments and aesthetic ones. So although Orwell could join with other leftist critics in objecting to Eliot's elitist attitudes and conservative politics (e.g., CEJL I, 121, 151; II, 199), he could not tolerate their frequent condemnation of Eliot's writings on these grounds - what he called the critics' "half-conscious confusion" of ideology and literary value:

If you ask a "good party man" (and that goes for almost any party of the Left) what he objects to in Eliot, you get an answer that ultimately reduces to this. Eliot is a reactionary (he has declared himself a royalist, an Anglo-Catholic, etc.) and he is also a "bourgeois intellectual" out of touch with the common man: therefore he is a bad writer.... [But t]o dislike a writer's politics is one thing. To dislike him because he forces you to think is another, not necessarily incompatible with the first. (CEJL II, 292; my italics)

For Orwell, Eliot's politics did not change the fact that he, with fellow modernists Joyce, Pound, and Lawrence, was "aesthetically alive" in a way unprecedented since the "Romantic Revival" (CEJL II, 201). Modernist experimentation, in his view, had "broken the cultural circle in which England had existed for something like a century" and had "not yet run its course" (CEJL II, 206-07).

Orwell also argued against leftist judgments of the ideology of Eliot's style. First, he disputed the view that his style was inherently difficult and therefore elitist. To Harold Laski's charge that Eliot wrote only for the few, he countered that part of the poet's inventiveness was an effort to speak in the language of common man: "Eliot, as it happens, is one of the few writers of our times who have tried seriously to write English as it is spoken" (CEJL III, 137).(4) More significantly, in the seminal essay "Inside the Whale" (1940), he defended Eliot against Louis Macneice's charge (in Modern Poetry) that Eliot's dedication to formal experimentation at the expense of social or political commentary made his work inferior to that of Auden and Spender. …

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