TEXT review

Some thoughts on the Common Toad

review by Tessa Chudy


George Orwell
Some Thoughts on the Common Toad
Penguin Books Classics, Penguin UK, London, 2010
ISBN 9780141191270
Pb 116pp AUD9.95


George Orwell is responsible for writing two of the most provocative and indelible books I have ever read – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – however these two books are only part of his output, Orwell also wrote a number of other novels and was a prolific essayist and journalist before his premature death at the age of forty-seven.

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad which has been re-issued as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series  is a collection of essays which reveals Orwell as a clear-eyed, open-minded thinker and in sketches like the horrific ‘Shooting an Elephant’, a powerful writer. Orwell died in 1950 and the pieces collected here were written between 1940 and 1947.

The title essay ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ begins by extolling the virtues of spring before attempting to reclaim the common toad from his reviled position as something grotesque and horrible. Orwell uses the toad as a metaphor of sorts in this essay in which he argued that the ability to appreciate spring/nature is a basic human right which he felt had become sublimated to the machine. It’s a timeless sentiment and one that makes one wonder just what Orwell would make of the world today with its mobile phones, facebook, virtual realities, and other seemingly countless buffers between humans and nature.

The other essays include literary and art criticism. There is a complex reading of Gulliver’s Travels in ‘Politics vs Literature: An examination of Gulliver’s Travels’ where he explores the way that confounding ideologies such as Swift’s pathological dislike of humanity can still create great art works. On a similar tack he demolishes Tolstoy in ‘Lear, Tolstoy and The Fool’ examining an obscure pamphlet written by Tolstoy in which he dismisses Shakespeare as ‘no genius’. Orwell examines Tolstoy’s life and work and suggests that Tolstoy’s hatred for Shakespeare was triggered by insecurity and a refusal to accept differing viewpoints or ideologies. The essay on Dali, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali’, is intriguing. Orwell is torn between the desire to dismiss Dali as a degenerate necrophiliac, while unable to dismiss his artistic merit. However, it is an uneasy acceptance especially when faced with works like ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxi-cab’. Orwell also explores the inherent nostalgia in Dali’s art which seems to be rooted in the art of the early 1900s. Eventually he concludes that Dali, while brilliant, did produce works, like the one mentioned above, which are ‘morally abhorrent’. Dali, himself, may even have found that description satisfying.

Elsewhere Orwell advocates planting trees for the benefit of humanity and as a way of atoning for misdeeds (‘A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray’) defends the tarnished reputation of old school author PG Wodehouse who was branded a traitor for a series of ill-judged radio broadcasts recorded after having been kept captive by the Germans. The shadow of World War 2 looms ominously over a number of the essays withIn Defence of English Cooking’ looking forward to a time without rationing. And several other pieces draw subtle attention to quislingism and the culture of accusation, while ‘Shooting an Elephant’offers a brutal critique of imperialism and its destructive effects on its subjects. The description of the shooting and death of the elephant is one of the most horrifying, gruelling things I have ever read, but perhaps even more horrifying is the petty tyranny of imperialism it represents. That it is still both powerful and frightening more than fifty years later is a testament to Orwell’s skill as a writer.

Time and again I found myself wondering what Orwell would make of the world today; big brother is really watching us, and cultural imperialism is still very much alive and well. How would he feel seeing his premonitions come true – resigned? – or would he have a plan, a hope for an alternative and more to say? Writing, the way Orwell uses it, is a tool, it can be entertaining but it is always serving its primary agenda – to inform, to provoke.

There is a diverse range of subjects covered in this skinny volume. The pieces are provocative, readable and very concisely and expressively written. What is also visible is the workings of a sharp and enquiring mind that could confront both its own shortcomings and those of humanity while still maintaining a sense of hope and clarity. These essays are in some ways very distinctly a product of the 1940s, but certain elements remain strikingly pertinent today.



Tessa Chudy is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Southern Cross University. She is especially interested in the intersection of gothic and noir and the role of the landscape in fiction. Tessa is also a visual artist and lives on the mid north coast of NSW.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy