Sunday 5 February 2012

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell (1936)

George Orwell needs no introduction. Even the least literary amongst us would be aware of Orwell due to the hugely significant novels 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945). The concept of ‘Big Brother’ is all-pervasive and many other Orwellian phrases and notions are commonplace, such as ‘newspeak’, ‘thought police’ and ‘doublethink’. Apparently the above two books combined have sold more copies than any other two books by any other author. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s third published book, is one of his lesser-known works but does have some themes in common with the rest of his oeuvre.

Like 1984 and Animal Farm, Keep the Aspidistra Flying has a social conscience and a political message. Orwell, who was a democratic socialist, used the novel as a vehicle to critique capitalism. Orwell’s protagonist - Gordon Comstock, works in a bookstore and spends his spare time writing poetry and cursing capitalism, so much so that he enjoys imagining a war and bombs falling on the streets of London. As the novel is set (and written) in the 1930’s these images are very chilling. Orwell certainly saw the fascist writing on the wall.

Comstock is a stubborn and pathetic character but is nonetheless a rebel with a cause. When he’s not trying to write his mediocre poetry he’s thinking about money - how money dominates everything when you do have it, but also when you try and deny its power and importance. This is the central irony within the novel and it is illustrated throughout in various ways. Comstock doesn’t have money as a result of leaving a promising job as a copywriter in an advertising firm to earn below par wages at the bookstore. The tone of the book is decidedly bleak mainly due to Comstock’s unending gripes against capitalism. This has a tendency to wear down the reader and there is a feeling that Orwell is overdoing it a bit. The first third of the book contains descriptions of his miserable life having to refuse invitations to the pub because he can’t afford it and the farce of having to sneak cups of tea in his bed-sit because his draconian landlady forbids it.

The oppressive tone is relieved somewhat by Comstock’s interactions with his girlfriend – Rosemary, who he met while working at the advertising agency. However even these interactions are blighted by Comstock’s poverty and his refusal to borrow money. Rosemary loves him but refuses to sleep with him, leaving him in an even more frustrated state. Such is his rebellion against capitalism he’d rather suffer like this than sacrifice his life to a ‘good job’, a family and the traditional aspidistra plant on the windowsill. Typically Comstock’s family just cannot understand his stubbornness in this matter. Ironically neither can Comstock’s mentor and supporter – Ravelston, who publishes poetry in his socialist magazine, aptly titled – Antichrist. Ravelston acts as a counterpart to Comstock, underlying the inherent contradictions and ironies that manifest when individuals who live in a capitalist society try to live life outside its boundaries. Ravelston is a wealthy man of leisure who runs his socialist magazine out of a well meaning but misguided attempt to make a difference. Despite this he still has a mistress, lives in a comfortable flat and dines at the finest restaurants. These contradictions and the awkward interactions between the two give the narrative substance.

The romance between Rosemary and Comstock also serves to illustrate money’s insidious hold over people’s lives. Pathos ensues when they go on trip to the countryside. Comstock is determined to pay for everything himself and due to circumstances it all comes undone. Even his attempts to seduce Rosemary are doomed to failure in part due to his financial situation. Things get worse when Comstock finally earns some real money from selling a poem. Instead of being sensible with the money it goes straight to his poverty stricken head and he blows it all on a night on the town which ends in drunken disaster. This section of the book is the most engaging and effective. Orwell displays the corrupting influence of money and underlines it with the resultant bathos suffered by Comstock. From here the novel veers into painful territory before some kind of redemption results. Meanwhile the reader is under no illusion as to what Orwell’s message is.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is autobiographical in nature. Orwell spent time living in poverty in the poorest sections of London. The novel contains simple yet powerful descriptions of life in London post Great Depression and are no doubt based on his experiences living and moving amongst the poorer classes. Some of his experiences were documented in his famous book - Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Orwell also worked in a bookstore called Booklovers Corner in Hampstead, resulting in the essay – Bookshop Memories (1936). The character of Ravelston is based on a wealthy socialist - Sir Richard Rees, a great friend of Orwell’s who made Orwell his protégé and published his short works.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a challenging novel to read, not because it is impenetrable or mediocre but because of its oppressive realism and the unrelenting neurotic nature of the protagonist.  Orwell illustrates the impossible task of living outside of the capitalist system whilst living within that same society only too well. Like Rosemary the reader becomes frustrated with Comstock’s obstinate nature and the hopelessness of his situation. For me this was contrasted with actually identifying with Comstock on personal level, which perhaps made him a far more sympathetic character in my eyes. Other readers may find the bleak tone and the central theme of the book too difficult to relate to. Even so Keep the Aspidistra Flying is certainly worthy of attention, although it does not have the same impact and importance of his most significant works, 1984 and Animal Farm.


  1. I was with you most of the way but your last sentence made me want to throw my Communist Manifesto through the wall. Why is this book not as important as the others? It’s definitely a quieter book, but that’s not a bad thing. Gordon isn't exactly endearing, but he’s the most realistic of any of Orwell’s characters (at least from his novels). And the passages where Orwell describes the gritty parts of London are excellent. You say that it’s oppressive, but isn’t that the point?

  2. Point taken! Hope the manifesto didn't go out the window. ;) Its oppressiveness is indeed the point, making you feel how Gordon may have felt and credit to Orwell - it does make for uneasy reading. I'll stand by my last sentence however, despite the risk of the manifesto hitting me in the head from somewhere above!