Homage to Catalonia

by

George Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After three weeks, a contingent of Englishmen arrives at the front. The volunteers are sent, like Orwell was, by the Independent Labour Party (or the ILP). Orwell and his fellow countryman Williams are told to join the men at their position at Monte Trazo, close to Saragossa, a key town currently occupied by the Fascists. Orwell is impressed by the physical and mental excellence of the British soldiers, and particularly that of a young man named Bob Smillie. He also applauds the Spanish for being so friendly to the English despite the language barrier.
On the one hand, Orwell’s admiration for the British soldiers stands in stark contrast to his criticism of his clumsy, undisciplined Spanish companions. On the other hand, Orwell applauds the Spanish for their exceptional friendliness, which he has already identified as a typically Spanish. This friendliness has practical side effects. Indeed, while the Spanish might lack experience, they are capable of forging ties across groups and, therefore, of strengthening military cooperation. Orwell’s mention of Bob Smillie as a uniquely talented soldier sets up the injustice of Smillie’s later death in prison.
Themes
Political Infighting and the Media Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
Despite being much closer to Saragossa and to the enemy, Orwell still suffers from the same boredom at the front, where nothing ever seems to happen. At the same time, the Fascists do not hesitate to fire their machine-guns at anyone who makes himself visible above the trench. Orwell concludes that daylight patrols are the most exciting activity available. By crawling on their stomachs, the soldiers go observe the Fascist lines. Sometimes, they even take aim with their rifles at Fascist targets, with very little hope—because of the distance and the bad quality of the rifles—of actually hitting an enemy soldier.
Once again, the war is presented as a trite game, in which Orwell’s greatest struggle is to resist boredom and to find some measure of entertainment. Orwell’s company’s attempts to shoot at the enemy, despite the obviousness of their inadequate resources, suggests a similar, bored despair. The soldiers’ eagerness to engage in real fighting underlines their deep trust in the nobility of the cause they are defending.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
Orwell comments on the weather. Even though he bemoans the constant cold and admits to a personal hatred of mountains, Orwell is taken aback by the beauty of certain sunrises against the mountain backdrop. Because of guard duty, Orwell sees the sunrise during this period more than at any other time in his life. He admits that the scene never fails to take his breath away, despite experiencing a soldier’s typical ailments: cold, physical exhaustion, and hunger.
Orwell’s mention of the landscape and the weather highlights the utter boredom that he is experiencing at the front. It also reminds the reader that his function is, above all, that of an attentive writer, capable of engaging with his surroundings and appreciating the wonders of nature. This description highlights the intensely personal nature of what Orwell lives through in Spain and the fact that his memories of this time, beyond mere politics, are made of sensorial impressions.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
Because the contingent is so small, Orwell and his companions are forced to endure longer guard duties. As a consequence, Orwell begins to suffer from lack of sleep and its side effect, a constant feeling of hunger. He begins to crave any kind of food, even the haricot beans that the soldiers are served over and over again in the trenches.
However little he might suffer from war wounds, Orwell does endure physical ailments. The fact that he craves the monotonous haricot beans suggests that, at least physically, he is becoming used to the tedious boredom of the front.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
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In the meantime, real fighting seems as distant as ever. As a result, instead of combatting the Fascists with their guns, the militias develop a new strategy to exhaust the enemy by using the megaphone. While both the Fascists and the Republicans are used to shouting insults whenever they are within earshot of each other, the Republicans turn the megaphone into a weapon. By repeatedly shouting leftist slogans over and over, day in and day out, they attempt to undermine the enemy’s morale. Their goal is to convince the Fascist conscripts that they are fighting on the wrong side of the war and that they should, instead, trust in leftwing ideology and join the Republican troops.
The absurdity of the situation at the front reaches its climax in this episode, where real fighting, deemed completely out of reach, is replaced by the seemingly ridiculous act of shouting. In reality, this shouting serves a military as much as a political goal. Indeed, politically, the militiamen should not be seen as a group merely combatting the Fascist enemy. Rather, they are fighting in the name of revolutionary ideals, which they believe should be embraced by all members of the oppressed working class, including the Fascist conscripts themselves.
Themes
The Possibility of Revolution  Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
However absurd the megaphone technique initially appears to Orwell, it seems to have concrete effects, capable of influencing Fascist soldiers to desert. Orwell notes that soldiers in the Fascist camp are often poor, working-class men who have been conscripted against their will. As a result, they are likely to be deeply moved by the Republicans’ ideology, centered around the need to unite and protect the rights of the working class. Such Fascist fighters are thus likely to be convinced that they are, indeed, fighting against their own interests.
The increased levels of desertion from the Fascist line, which Orwell considers at least in part a product of the megaphone technique, suggests that the leftwing Republican ideology is not only militarily useful, but also politically valid. Indeed, it appears to be capable of uniting all members of the working class, regardless of their background. This episode serves as a reminder that, however boring life at the front might be, Orwell is fighting in the name of elevated ideals.
Themes
The Possibility of Revolution  Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Orwell is shocked at the use of such an unconventional war technique as the megaphone, but he gradually learns to respect it and consider it a legitimate war method. At first, he believed it was yet another proof that the Spaniards did not take the war seriously. Over time, though, he realized that in trench warfare, where stagnation makes it impossible to attack the enemy, converting Fascist fighters might be more useful than killing them. Deserters, he notes, unlike dead bodies, are at least capable of sharing information about the enemy.
This episode allows Orwell to reflect critically on his own biases. While he had initially seen the megaphone technique as yet another example of the Spaniards’ improper attitude toward the war, this technique in fact proves both logical and militarily effective. Orwell is forced to reconsider his initial distrust and to applaud his Spanish militiamen’s capacity to invent unconventional strategies in difficult circumstances.
Themes
The Possibility of Revolution  Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
Sometimes, to convince the Fascists to desert, soldiers on shouting-duty exaggerate the truth about how much better life is as a Republican soldier. They lie about having wonderful food, such as buttered toast. In the context of deprivation to which soldiers on both sides are reduced, such images are intensely evocative, capable of appealing to any hungry soldier. Orwell admits that it even made his own mouth water, despite the fact that he knew perfectly well his fellow companions’ descriptions of food were outright lies.
However effective the megaphone technique might be from a military perspective, however, it is not necessarily ethically sound. There is a moral gap between the supposedly admirable political ideals the militiamen are defending and their choice to resort to lies in order to convert their listeners. This suggests that truthfulness and political expediency are perhaps sometimes at odds. Orwell notices that lies have a power of their own, for they are capable of appealing to even the most critical, well-informed spectators, such as himself. Even though, here, Orwell does not directly criticize his own camp, this episode foreshadows his later vehement criticism of the use of lies and deceit for political purposes.
Themes
The Possibility of Revolution  Theme Icon
Political Infighting and the Media Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
One day, in February, a Fascist plane drops copies of a Fascist newspaper announcing the fall of Málaga, a town that was previously under Republican control. The same night, the Fascists initiate a poorly planned attack against Orwell’s position. They fire their machine-guns and throw bombs, but they do so, in Orwell’s view, in an extremely ineffective manner. As a result, their shells fall far away from Orwell’s position and, as is so common with these low-quality weapons, often fail to explode.
Real fighting seems to have begun at last, although Spanish inefficacy still succeeds in turning a potentially tragic episode into a ridiculous event. Orwell’s passing mention of the fall of Málaga reminds the reader of the larger scale of the conflict and, specifically, the fact that Orwell’s experience is narrow and limited, incapable of providing a complete picture of all the events happening in this war.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
Despite the enemy’s incompetence, Orwell still finds himself in a dangerous situation. Indeed, the machine-gun in Orwell’s company is out of use, which impedes his company from retaliating. Instead, the men are forced to stand in the trenches and be shot at. Out of pride, Orwell’s Spanish companions deliberately expose themselves, refusing to take cover. When Orwell decides to imitate them, he is ashamed to realize that he is, in fact, terrified of being so exposed and defenseless. His fear transforms into a staunch conviction that a bullet is going to hit his body at any moment.
Paradoxically, even a poorly executed attack can prove deadly because of the lack of adequate defense resources. In the face of danger, forced to accept their helplessness, Orwell’s Spanish companions resort to a basic sense of honor. While Orwell is often critical of his Spanish companions’ lack of experience, this time he is forced to admit that their refusal to cower and give in to the enemy’s threat is admirable. Orwell realizes that he is not necessarily capable of executing such a feat with the same courage.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
After a couple of hours, the fighting suddenly ceases and Orwell’s company discovers that it has sustained one casualty. The men soon discover that the enemy had no real intention of attacking them but, rather, had simply been celebrating the fall of Málaga. Orwell is surprised to discover that, when the story appears a few days later in the newspapers, the event is completely distorted, with his company’s actions described as a heroic defense against a perilous Fascist offensive equipped with cavalry and tanks. After seeing such gross exaggeration, Orwell learns to read the media, including Republican news, with a more critical eye.
What Orwell experienced as a, terrifying attack was in fact nothing more than an episode of merrymaking. The contrast between Orwell’s experience of the event and the enemy’s intentions is striking. It highlights the utter unpredictability of this war, where jokes are as dangerous as murderous intentions. While in this case the media’s exaggeration is relatively harmless, Orwell’s disillusionment with the press foreshadows his later realization that his own camp is not as morally unimpeachable as he had initially imagined.
Themes
Political Infighting and the Media Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
The fall of Málaga, which Orwell had initially believed to be a lie, is later confirmed in the news. The Republicans, it turns out, had evacuated Málaga before the Fascist troops arrived and, as a consequence, the fury and cruelty of the Fascists fell on the innocent civilian population. The men in Orwell’s militia are dispirited by this detail, because they believe that the evacuation and subsequent fall of Málaga was an act of treachery. This is the first time that Orwell hears of such hypotheses and he is dismayed to realize that his own camp might be capable of treason. Affected by his companions’ suspicions, he begins to doubt his vision of the war as a simple fight between good (Republican) and bad (Fascist) forces.
The fall of Málaga brings to light the possibility of mutiny and political rivalry within Orwell’s own camp. The cruelty inflicted on the civilian population also suggests that Orwell’s experience at the front does not represent all the horrors that are being inflicted on innocent people in other parts of the country. The passage highlights the fact that Orwell is, in many ways, witnessing only a narrow aspect of the war. In other parts of the country, the war might very well have political and military consequences of which he is unaware. Orwell begins to grasp that his previous understanding of the conflict might have been naïve and simplistic.
Themes
The Possibility of Revolution  Theme Icon
Political Infighting and the Media Theme Icon
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon
In mid-February, Orwell’s ILP contingent and the POUM troops in the sector are sent to join the army that is going to lead an attack against Huesca, a town occupied by Fascist forces. A few months earlier, a Republican general, optimistic about his troops’ capacity to occupy the town, had announced: “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca!” As the various Republican attacks against Huesca failed to lead to the town’s fall, Republican troops made fun of the general’s optimism and turned his words into a widespread joke. Orwell quips that, if he ever returns to Spain after the war, he will make a point to go have coffee in Huesca.
The general’s optimism underscores the gap between military planning and the reality of fighting on the ground with troops that lack both effective training and adequate resources. The soldiers’ parodying of his words shows their capacity to use humor in order to alleviate difficult situations and to maintain a healthy morale. Orwell’s mention of postwar Spain reminds readers that he is, after all, a privileged foreigner who is only temporarily involved in this conflict.
Themes
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Theme Icon
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Theme Icon