Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Orwell and the other militiamen settle east of the town of Huesca, which is currently held by fascists. "Meanwhile nothing happened," Orwell remarks; "nothing ever happened." The main danger the men face is from stray bullets fired by their own side. Orwell observes the paradox of being eager for battle; when you think about what a battle is, it seems strange to be eager for it. But in trench warfare, Orwell says, "There are three things that all soldiers long for: a battle, more cigarettes, and a week's leave."

After six weeks at Huesca, a company of Germans arrives to fight on the Republican side. The Shock Troopers, as they are called, are well-trained offensive soldiers characterized by their skill and discipline. But their surprise attack on Huesca fails all the same, and they suffer heavy casualties. Spring progresses, slowly; it is still quite cold, but it's warm enough for lice to breed. Orwell thinks pacifists should use huge photographs of lice in their antiwar pamphlets.

At the end of March 1937 Orwell develops an infection on his hand, and he is sent to the hospital at Monflorite for 10 days of treatment. Orwell remarks on the friendliness of Spanish peasants, and their lack of religious feeling. "Possibly Christian belief was replaced to some extent by Anarchism," he remarks; anarchism has a "religious tinge."

In April, cured, Orwell returns to the front, and that same day his company advances its position, moving closer to fascist lines under cover of darkness. The next day the fascists see the POUM's new position, and they fire a hail of bullets. Some of Orwell's fellow soldiers are wounded. On another night Orwell's company waits in a barn, where they are swarmed by rats: "filthy brutes," Orwell calls them. In the ensuing days they wait for the order to attack and listen to the sounds of artillery.

Analysis

In observing the lack of religious feeling among the peasants in Spain, Orwell notices the Spanish peasants don't make the sign of the cross. He says a religious person would automatically cross themselves, "revolution or no revolution." This points out a connection between Christian religion and utopian or progressive political ideologies: they are both based on a faith in a future world of justice and peace. This enables Orwell to suppose anarchism has replaced Christian belief "to some extent."

The comparison between religious and political faith can be a disabling one. The 19th-century thinkers who theorized communism and anarchism saw these as realistic, rational ideas. Karl Marx famously derided religion as "the opium of the people." The comparison between Christian belief and a belief in a harmonious, classless society is usually made in order to deride utopian political ideas as fanciful illusions. But Orwell is not bothered by the connection between political commitment and religious faith; anarchism "undoubtedly has a religious tinge," he says. Orwell is not touchy about how anarchism and communism are depicted; he freely admits they can have emotional and even spiritual functions for their adherents.

As in previous chapters, Orwell is a keen observer of the physical misery of soldiering, and of the heavy way this misery bears down on the soldier's consciousness. He is pointing out a kind of disconnection between the historical grandeur of war and its everyday misery. He comically deflates the glories of past battles by asking readers to realize all the participants had lice breeding in their trousers all the while, as they fought for king and country. Of the soldiers who fought "at Verdun [1916, World War I], at Waterloo [1815, the Napoleonic Wars], at Flodden [1513, a battle between the English and the Scots], at Senlac [1066, the Battle of Hastings], at Thermopylae [480 BC, the Persian Wars]," every one of them had "lice crawling over his testicles" the whole time. Orwell is talking about something crude: lice. But his figurative language is carefully structured. He evokes a long line of famous and crucial battles, and he puts them in descending order, from modern Europe to ancient Greece. But instead of cloaking contemporary soldiers with the aura of legendary battles from the past, Orwell undercuts the glory of all wars. He also slyly pokes fun at the masculine image of the heroic soldier by choosing to focus on the male genitals as a site of lice breeding.

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