Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

It is late December 1936. British writer George Orwell has come to Spain to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The two sides in the Spanish Civil War were the Republicans, who supported the left-leaning, newly declared Republican government of Spain; and the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, who later ruled Spain as its dictator (1939–75).

At the outset of the book Orwell is in the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, Spain, named for Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). The Lenin Barracks house the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or POUM (in English, Workers' Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was one of many leftist groups fighting on the Republican side.

Orwell remarks he is writing these words "less than seven months" after his initial arrival in Barcelona. He looks back to his arrival in Barcelona. He was struck by the city's festive, egalitarian atmosphere; it was the first time he "had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle." People had stopped using formal modes of address such as Señor or Don. Buildings were draped in communist and anarchist flags. Almost everyone wore "rough working-class clothes"; wealthy people were not in evidence at all. Orwell finds this strange and emotionally moving. He also notices an "evil atmosphere of war": the city is marked by privation and decay. But overall the people of Barcelona seem happy; he finds them earnest and even simple, in comparison to the "hard-boiled, sneering civilization" of the English.

Finally Orwell's centuria is ordered to the front, with just two hours' notice. (In Latin centuria means 100; in the Spanish Civil War the term was used for companies of about 100 militiamen.) Orwell's train is due to depart at 8 in the evening. At 10 past 8 the soldiers are assembled in the barracks square to listen to speeches in the Catalan language of Catalonia. Then they march to the train station, and along the way they are celebrated with "conquering-hero stuff—shouting and enthusiasm, red flags ... friendly crowds." The train heads to Aragon, in northeastern Spain, at the "normal war-time speed of something under twenty kilometers [12 miles] an hour."

Analysis

The beginning of Homage to Catalonia puts readers straight into the buoyant mood of Republican-occupied Barcelona in December 1937. Author George Orwell could have chosen to begin with an overview of the war or his reasons for joining the Republican side. Instead he begins the book in medias res, a Latin literary term meaning "in the middle of things." He begins not with a description of his train arriving in Barcelona, but with his arrival at the Lenin Barracks. This slight displacement—from the moment of arrival to some hours or a day afterward—helps to put readers straight into the middle of the action. The narrative technique parallels Orwell's experiences in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Orwell is there for a brief segment of the war, and he is not privy to the strategic aims or specific battle plans of the Republican fighting force. Instead he gives the viewpoint of an ordinary militiaman.

Barcelona is for Orwell a foretaste of the beauty and harmony of a socialist society. (Orwell did not make sharp distinctions between communism and socialism, but throughout Homage to Catalonia he generally prefers the term socialist.) Arriving in Barcelona a few months after the outbreak of the war, Orwell finds "a town where the working class [is] in the saddle." Instead of making an argument about communism's benefits or giving a history of his beliefs, Orwell demonstrates his sympathies and the effects Barcelona has on him. "All this was queer and moving," Orwell remarks of seeing working people living freely in the city, not having to submit to their owners and bosses. Jubilant or not, Spain is still a country at war, and the grimness of the wartime atmosphere somewhat tempers Orwell's enthusiasm.

Orwell expresses slight disdain for the prowar atmosphere, calling it "conquering-hero stuff—shouting and enthusiasm, red flags." Nonetheless, he has ideals of warrior heroism, which he expresses in Chapter 1 in his description of the Italian militiaman. The encounter with the Italian militiaman is perhaps the most significant thing to happen in Chapter 1, and it foreshadows nearly every instance of human connection (and tragedy) to follow. The Italian, in Orwell's eyes, is a man of honor and high ideals. This is evident in the Italian's face: "the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend." The sacrifice is extravagant: "throw[ing] away his life" by committing murder. The Italian, Orwell thinks, has the face of an anarchist, so his murderous and noble readiness to sacrifice himself foreshadows the bitter fighting in Barcelona later in the book.

Significantly Orwell chooses a man as his figure for honor and loyalty. Homage to Catalonia is about loyalty and betrayal among men on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. Orwell's wife, Eileen Blair, is relegated to the background of the narrative; she accompanies him to Barcelona, and she sometimes sends him cigarettes or sausages, but she is never introduced by her name. This may have been a personal choice, perhaps even at Eileen Blair's insistence, to avoid exposing her to the full public gaze of journalism. However, after only a few months the egalitarian ideals of the Republican side seem no longer to apply to women. As Orwell notes, the militiamen laugh at the women, so that the women are forced to train out of sight of the men's scorn. This decay of the Republican utopia perhaps foreshadows other divisions and betrayals still to come. When Orwell returns to Barcelona in Chapter 8, he realizes class divisions in Barcelona never really went away.

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