At night, Orwell keeps a low profile, trying not to be caught by the police, while during the day he can lead a regular life, carefully avoiding spending time near POUM buildings. On his first day as a fugitive, he meets his wife and two friends, McNair and Cottman, at the British Consulate to try to obtain a passport to leave the country.
The absurdity of Orwell’s double life shows that, while the police and the Government are committing horrific acts, ordinary life is going on as usual in the city. This is reminiscent of Orwell’s time as a militiaman, when he noticed that the civilian population was often happy to turn a blind eye to what was happening in other cities in their country.
There, his friends tell him that Bob Smillie has died. While they initially believe he has been shot, Orwell later discovers that he probably died of appendicitis, an ordinary illness left untreated in prison. The news overwhelms Orwell, who cannot understand the senselessness of such a death. Smillie was a twenty-two-year old boy whom Orwell considered one of the strongest, most able men in the militia. He cannot fathom how such a tough, talented, courageous fighter could have been left to die like this, alone and neglected, because of senseless political rivalries.
Once more, the cruelty of the political persecution affects Orwell on a personal level. Smillie becomes a martyr-like figure, a model of the utter absurdity of what is happening in the political chaos. It also underlines the Government’s unwillingness to put the fight against the Fascists first and celebrate its dedicated fighters. The Government, it seems, is implicitly sabotaging its own cause.
That afternoon, Orwell and his wife visit Kopp. In the makeshift prison, Orwell notices that most of the prisoners are poor, working-class men who rely on their wives to bring them the bare minimum of food. The place is extremely crowded and, among the prisoners, Orwell notices children and wounded men alike.
The poor conditions in the prison suggest that these arrests are not necessarily meant to incapacitate dangerous members of society but are, rather, an expression of blind political hatred. The fact that most prisoners come from the poorest levels of society also indicates that the Spanish revolution truly was supported by a strong working-class base, unlike the Communist Party which does not hesitate to persecute those it claims to represent.
When Kopp arrives, he is cheerful and lighthearted. He tells Orwell and his wife that he will probably be shot, but does not seem bothered by the news. During the conversation, Orwell realizes that the letter from the Ministry of War that was confiscated from Kopp could play an important role in getting him out of prison. The letter was addressed to an important colonel, and reaching out to that officer directly might help get Kopp free. Orwell decides to leave immediately and meet the man in person.
Kopp impresses Orwell with his sense of self-sacrifice and his knowledge that his commitment to the war in Spain implies accepting death. Despite Orwell’s disillusionment, it becomes apparent that an important part of him still believes in the rule of law and trusts that, by using reason and logic, he can get Kopp freed.
When Orwell arrives at the War Department, bearing a letter that Kopp has written for the colonel, he is stopped by an Assault Guard who demands to see his papers. Orwell shows him his hospital discharge ticket and, as the man lets him through, Orwell realizes that he can’t read. Orwell is sent a variety of different directions by people who do not actually know where the colonel’s office is. He feels that he is stuck in a nightmare. Meanwhile, time to is running out, as Orwell believes that Kopp could be shot any time soon.
The guard’s illiteracy highlights the fact that many of the people engaged in this conflict on either side are ignorant and, like the poor Fascist conscripts, perhaps involved out of sheer chance or necessity. As usual, the locals’ inefficiency proves both humorous and potentially deadly, at odds with the organization that Orwell expects from an official institution.
Finally, Orwell is able to find the office and meet the colonel’s secretary. When Orwell confesses that Kopp was part of the POUM, the secretary reacts with panic. Orwell is forced to admit that he, too, was part of the POUM militia, and is convinced that the man will order his arrest immediately. However, to Orwell’s surprise, the man leads him to the Chief of Police without saying a word. There, after the secretary engages in a violent conversation with the police, he emerges with Kopp’s confiscated letter from the Ministry of War. Despite this surprising success, this letter was ultimately not able to free Kopp.
When the secretary proves willing to help Orwell, Orwell realizes that not all members of the Government are evil POUM-haters. Even within the anti-POUM Republican Government itself, it is likely that people are divided in terms of their support for the suppression of the POUM. However, the failure of Orwell’s efforts to free Kopp signals that the prison system no longer follows rules of logic and common sense but, rather, is a closed system that obeys only the rules or partisanship.
On his way out, as Orwell is saying goodbye to the secretary, the man decides to shake Orwell’s hand. Orwell is deeply moved by this gesture, for in the atmosphere of political rivalry that has overtaken the city, such a gesture means publicly shaking hands with the enemy. Orwell reflects that such a gesture is typical of the Spanish nobility of character. Despite his horrible memories of Spain, he admits that he has almost nothing to complain about when it comes to Spanish generosity.
What Orwell calls the Spanish nobility of character is a deeply courageous attitude of respect for other people’s dignity. The secretary’s admirable gesture highlights the gap between the cruelty of official policies and the attitudes of the good, honorable men who are obliged to enforce them.
Orwell recounts an anecdote to illustrate his belief in Spanish nobility. When the secret police searched his hotel room, he explains, they examined every single object and possible hiding place in the room. However, since Orwell’s wife was lying in bed, they refused to inspect the bed. Even though Orwell had nothing to hide, he explains that, had he been a Fascist spy, he very well could have concealed secret documents there. The police’s refusal to inspect the bed, therefore, made their entire search for pro-Fascist material fruitless. This is an episode, Orwell assesses, where the Spanish deference to a woman’s privacy proved more important than their brutal, Communist-style police tactics.
Orwell concludes that, while politics play a crucial role in Spanish life, Spaniards often privilege dignity and respect over political allegiance. This suggests that even brutal organizations such as the secret police are capable of respectable behavior on an individual level.
In the meantime, with his companions McNair and Cottman, Orwell hides at night and pretends to be a rich English tourist during the day. The situation, to him, is so absurd that he cannot truly consider himself in danger, since he believes that he has done nothing wrong.
Orwell cannot let go of his English conception of the rule of law and adapt to the current state of affairs in Barcelona. However, in addition to his foreign nationality, his upper-class status affords him a protection that the lower-class members of the POUM don’t enjoy. In this way, Orwell remains a privileged outsider to the conflict.
Finally, one morning after receiving their passports from the British consulate, Orwell and his wife head to the train station. While waiting for the train, Orwell writes a final letter to the Ministry of War to try to get Kopp liberated. None of his efforts have any effect and Kopp remains in prison. Like so many other foreigners, Kopp is later sent to a secret prison and Orwell does not hear from him after this.
Despite his various setbacks and moments of disillusionment, Orwell still stubbornly believes in the reasonableness of the political system and in the possibility of saving his friend. However, what ends up happening to Kopp only confirms the injustice of the entire system, and the erosion of the rule of law in Spain.
Orwell and his wife succeed in boarding the train. They make sure to sit in the dining-car and, as they look like normal tourists, are left alone by the police. Orwell notes with irony that, when he arrived in Spain, showing off wealth was dangerous. At that time, to be respectable, one had to appear working class, while six months later the opposite is true. Thanks to inefficient Spanish bureaucracy, Orwell’s name does not appear on the border authorities’ list of wanted people, and he and his wife are able to cross the border.
In the train, Orwell realizes that all hopes for the revolution are dead and that Barcelona has become yet another capitalist city, where the wealthy hold more power than the working class. The ease with which the Orwells revert to their ordinary upper-class appearance highlights the fact that they were always tourists, poised to exit the conflict at a moment’s notice and return to the comfort of their “real” lives.
As soon as they arrive in France, Orwell buys as many cigarettes as he can. Orwell and his wife get off the train at Banyuls, the first station. In the town, when they mention their story to strangers, they are treated with hostility and they realize that the town is largely pro-Franco. Once in France, instead of feeling relieved, the couple remains animated by what they have witnessed in Spain and ordinary civilian life suddenly seems boring. Their one secret desire is to return to Spain and share the plight of their friends and comrades.
While Orwell craves material comforts that he lacked in Spain, consumer goods are not as powerful as the spiritual ebullience he experienced in Spain. From afar, the dangers to which they were vulnerable seem negligible, and what they remember most is the excitement and nobility of fighting for a just cause. Despite being the victim of political persecution, Orwell still believes in the incredible dignity of the people he has met.
Orwell explains that, however horrible his memories of Spain might be, what he experienced there has left him with indelible memories, feelings, and sensations that, in the end, he is grateful to have had. After witnessing the horrors of the war, Orwell is in fact moved by optimism and a strong belief in the inherent dignity and generosity of human beings. He warns the reader that his account is inevitably marked by his personal point of view and opinions, and that this book, like any other account of the Spanish Civil War, should be regarded critically as containing mistakes and personal opinions.
Orwell examines the impact of the Spanish Civil War on his way of thinking and realizes that the personal nature of this experience carries a greater weight than the political or historical conclusions he might have drawn from it. The intensity of this personal experience was such that it colors his attempt to provide a truthful account of the historical episodes he witnessed.
After stopping in Paris, the couple returns to England. There, when Orwell witnesses the unchanged rhythm of everyday English life, isolated from all the violence in other parts of the world, he realizes how peacefully oblivious his home country is. In a dark, foreboding tone, he concludes that the only way the country could be woken from its comfortable lethargy would be through the attack of bombs.
If Orwell occasionally felt like a tourist in Spain, upon his return in England he realizes that here, too, he is marked by an almost foreign viewpoint, the result of his intense immersion in Spain. However difficult his experience of the Spanish Civil War might have been, it has left more of a positive than a negative impression on him. He believes that England should learn from the Spanish revolutionary fight, and it becomes clear that he has brought some revolutionary ideas back to his home country with him.