37 pages 1 hour read

George Orwell

The Road to Wigan Pier

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1937

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Road to Wigan Pier is a 1937 nonfiction book by George Orwell. The book describes Orwell’s firsthand experiences of life in Great Britain’s working-class communities in the early 20th century and advocates for the adoption of socialism.

Summary

The Road to Wigan Pier begins in a small lodging house in Northern England. The impoverished, rundown house rents crowded rooms to people who work in the nearby mines. The landlord, Mr. Brooker, was once a miner and now owns a meat store that operates out of the lodging house. Mrs. Brooker lays on her couch for most of the day and shouts orders at everyone around her. Orwell is staying in one of the house’s cramped bedrooms, sharing the space with miners, salesmen, tradesmen, or old people who simply have nowhere else to live. The dirty, germ-infested house is representative of many similar homes in many similar working-class communities.

Orwell visits the nearby mines, which are dangerous places to work, offering no room to move and negatively affecting the health of everyone inside. Gas, dust, and low ceilings destroy the miners’ bodies, and Orwell can barely manage a few hours in the mine before returning above ground. He must spend a week recovering from his experience, while the miners must spend 12 hours a day in the terrible conditions for little pay. Like many people at this time, Orwell was previously certain that the miners were well compensated. Orwell ruthlessly exposes this myth by calculating the miners’ expenses, demonstrating that they are perpetually underpaid and exploited.

As well as low pay, the miners endure awful living conditions, which Orwell also experiences as he travels through North England. The houses are typically damp, infested with bugs, and in danger of collapse. Because England is undergoing a general housing shortage, the miners and other workers have no choice but to accept the disgusting beds in the crowded houses. Even though these houses are filthy, the owners can charge extortionate rent, further diminishing the miners’ ability to save money. Some miners are forced to share beds with their colleagues to save money. All attempts to build new houses are too slow to take effect, so the people living in the worst conditions continue to suffer.

Another myth propagated about working-class people is that they spend all their money on unhealthy but tasty food. Orwell notes that such food is often the only pleasure available to those trapped in poverty. He also describes the industries that provide small pleasures to the working-class communities, contextualizing them within the general process of industrialization which swept through Britain in the previous century.

The second half of The Road to Wigan Pier examines possible solutions to the poverty the first half describes. As an ardent socialist, Orwell believes that the British class system should be dismantled. Socialism has declined in popularity in recent years, he notes, but he cannot understand how anyone who sees the lower classes’ poverty could not be a socialist. While many people dismiss non-socialists as selfish or afraid of losing the few privileges they have, Orwell uses his own experiences to show why they might feel that way and how they can change. Coming from a middle-class background, Orwell has held many class-based prejudices and misconceptions throughout his life;. anyone, he suggests, who has grown up in a society that tells them that class-based differences are a fact of life may be confused by the socialist position that such differences either do not exist or are liable to change. Moreover, some people simply resent the rise of industrialization. While Orwell is sympathetic to this, he cannot see any way to reverse the process. Finally, Orwell accepts that certain socialists come across as unsympathetic and strange, which alienates potential supporters. He finishes the book by urging everyone to embrace socialism to destroy not only poverty, but also the fascism which was beginning to take over Europe in the 1930s. 

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