Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide


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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 12 | Summary



In hiding, Orwell leads a double life. By day it is safe to be seen on the streets, as long as one pretends to be a tourist. By night Orwell must hide from the police; he often resorts to sleeping outside.

By prearrangement Orwell meets his wife at the British consulate, to arrange their passports. John McNair and Stafford Cottman also turn up there. They tell him Bob Smillie has died of appendicitis in a Spanish prison. At first Orwell can't believe Smillie—"one of the toughest people I have met"—could die of an illness at just 22 years of age. Once Orwell accepts the truth of it, he is angered by "the utter pointlessness" of Smillie's death.

That same afternoon Orwell and his wife visit Kopp in prison. Kopp looks well. "I suppose we shall all be shot," Kopp says cheerfully. Then Kopp tells Orwell about a letter confiscated from him. The letter is from the Ministry of War to a colonel in charge of engineering; it extolls Kopp's military service. Orwell immediately leaves to retrieve the letter, hoping to secure Kopp's release from prison.

Orwell feels he cannot go to the chief of police; after all, he is a POUM militiaman in hiding. Instead he turns to the colonel to whom Kopp's letter was addressed. At the War Department, Orwell is granted a meeting with the colonel's aide, an officer Orwell calls "the little officer." Without mentioning the POUM, Orwell spills out the story: Kopp's brave service, his unjust arrest, and the confiscated letter to the colonel. The officer asks Orwell which unit Kopp was with; Orwell admits it was the POUM militia, and he himself was with the POUM militia. Orwell fears the officer will have him arrested. To his surprise the officer escorts him to the chief of police and has the letter retrieved. He promises to deliver the letter. As they part, the little officer shakes Orwell's hand; Orwell is "deeply ... touched" by the little officer's gesture.

The police barge into Orwell's wife's hotel room and search it. But, Orwell notes, they treat his wife with some delicacy. While they turn the room upside down, Eileen Blair is in bed. The chivalrous police forbear to "turn a woman out of bed," and so they do not search the bed. Orwell reflects again on the "insane existence" of hiding in plain sight in Barcelona. "The safest thing at present was to look as bourgeois as possible," he observes, so he frequents expensive restaurants.

Orwell's and his wife's passports come through. They take a train to France, taking care to look bourgeois on the way. The first newspaper they read tells of the arrest of John McNair, for espionage. In the border town of Banyuls, France, Orwell buys up as many cigarettes and cigars as he can. But he and his wife soon tire of the town; it is full of Franco sympathizers who are none too friendly toward them. They wish they were still in Spain, in solidarity with other Republicans. They fare better in Paris, which seems "gay and prosperous."

From Paris they travel on to England, and Orwell gives readers a list of England's sleepy bucolic charms and orderly urban pleasures: "the larkspurs in the cottage gardens ... cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats." The whole nation is "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England." Orwell fears only the "roar of bombs" will waken England from its slumber.


Considering Orwell is in hiding and in danger of arrest or worse, his acts on behalf of Kopp are extraordinarily courageous. Though he is far from the front now, he risks a great deal in entering a government office, and he risks even more by confessing his association with the POUM. But throughout Homage to Catalonia Orwell is moved by the risks others take—particularly risks taken in order to make a small, humane gesture. In the run-up to the street fighting, Orwell is particularly moved by John McNair's selfless effort to secure Orwell some cigarettes. McNair risked being discovered or shot in order to help a friend—a "small act of heroism," Orwell calls it. Orwell thrills to something in the carelessly graceful gesture, as in Chapter 1, when he sees an Italian militiaman who seems ready to "throw away his life for a friend." Although Orwell doesn't boast about it, that is what Orwell does for Kopp; he risks his life to free him. Unfortunately the attempt fails, but Orwell is also moved by the decency of the little officer, who shakes his hand.

Another of Orwell's sorrows is the fate of his friend Bob Smillie, a " brave and gifted boy," who had left Glasgow University "in order to come and fight against Fascism." What Orwell cannot forgive is the "pointlessness" of Smillie's death. Smillie had witnessed the street fighting in Barcelona and had been due to return to England; Orwell believes Smillie was arrested so he could not spread word of the Spanish government's perfidy in England. "To be killed in battle, yes—that is what one expects," says Orwell. But instead Smillie was "flung into jail ... simply owing to dull blind spite, and then left to die in solitude." Orwell's anger about the pointlessness of Smillie's death recalls his anger at "the stupid mischance ... the meaninglessness" of being hit by a sniper's bullet.

Orwell's evocation of England is moving and highly stylized. He evokes an England of bucolic splendor: "streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms." He also evokes stereotypical English sights: "the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen." In coming to England Orwell is coming home, but he does not describe the reentry into his and his wife's personal lives—their friends, their home, their work. Instead he describes England as a whole, evoking it through a list of its delightful sights and customs. He also uses the literary technique of assonance in commenting on how the nation is "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England." Assonance is the literary technique of repeating sounds; it is similar to rhyme, but it is the vowel sounds rather than the word endings that are similar. Here Orwell's repetition of the "ee" in "sleeping" makes England sound even sleepier: "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England." The beauty of the English images and the beauty of Orwell's language contrast with the ominous ending as Orwell wonders whether England will face revolutionary violence before it wakes up.

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