George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier is a first-hand account of the author’s investigations of the hard industrial life in North England during the 1930s. The book is divided into two parts. Part I narrates in vivid details the desperate lives of the townspeople, the coal mine workers, and the bad working conditions they have to live with. Part II is his personal exposition about socialism and how it could solve the social problems he enumerates in the first part. The first section is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter talks about the Brooker family.
Mr. and Mrs. Brooker are better-off among the poor, being pensioners who earn extra by running a shop and a cheap lodging house. Orwell also introduces the lives of the Brooker lodgers, mostly senior citizens or unmarried. The second chapter describes the life of miners. The author himself goes down to see with his own eyes the working conditions underground and he is appalled at what he witnesses there: the tunnels are cramped and unstable the miners have to walk hunched most of the time as they navigate through them; it is hot and dusty underground; and the dynamites provide a constant danger to the miner’s safety.
The third chapter looks at the hygiene and financial conditions of the miners. They live in houses with bathrooms; they only wash in small basins. Not all mines have a shower for them to wash after work, either. It is hard to find time to wash or do other necessities like eat and dress well since work in the pits takes up most of their day, well beyond the legal working hours. Furthermore, miners earn less than the ten to eleven shillings that they are believed to earn because the rate is based on daily rates and sometimes stoppages happen due to machinery breaks.
These rob them of their daily wages. Chapter four of the book tackles the housing situation in the area. An alarming housing shortage exists so that even squalid quarters are taken. Landlords also take advantage of the situation by refusing to invest towards improving amenities. A lot of people simply live in caravans. Chapter five deals with the issue of unemployment—a term which not only denotes the fact that many do not have full-time jobs but that even those who are employed earn so little to afford them even the basic needs.
The majority of the people simply depend on social help to survive. The final chapter, meanwhile, talks about the undernourishment of the people. People could afford to buy food but they choose to buy food that is “tasty”. It cannot sustain the required nutrients but it can make them forget their dull lives. The second part of Orwell’s book discusses the author’s thoughts about socialism and communism in England.
According to him, socialism in English society is defined not by how much income the individual earns, but by his birth and behavior. Thus, even those who earn little struggle to lead the middle-class life: keeping appearances, behaving decently, dressing up and giving tips. The concept of lower class, meanwhile, denotes people with undesirable looks, coarse manners, and who are smelly. Orwell believes that socialism is the promising solution to the social ills that he discussed at length in the first part of the book.
However, since in England it is led by the middle-class, it would be impossible to realize. The same revolutionary middle-class who argues for socialism have opinions against the middle-class yet remain to be middle-class in actions and tastes. They retain their discriminating opinions against the lower classes who are supposed to be helped by the movement. In the end, according to Orwell, unless the middle-class overcomes their prejudices, socialism will remain to be impossible to ever achieve.