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Keep The Aspidistra Flying (Harvest Book) Paperback – March 19, 1969
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Gordon Comstock is a poor young man who works in a grubby London bookstore and spends his evenings shivering in a rented room, trying to write. He is determined to stay free of the “money world” of lucrative jobs, family responsibilities, and the kind of security symbolized by the homely aspidistra plant that sits in every middle-class British window.
About the Author
GEORGE ORWELL (1903–1950) was born in India and served with the Imperial Police in Burma before joining the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was the author of six novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as numerous essays and nonfiction works.
- Publisher : Mariner Books (March 19, 1969)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0156468999
- ISBN-13 : 978-0156468992
- Lexile measure : 790L
- Item Weight : 8.1 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 0.71 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #646,551 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Reviewed in the United States on August 23, 2019
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An aspidistra is a plant kept by the "respectable," a symbol of middle class life. The aspidistra never dies.
The protagonist wants to really be radical. Unlike the radicals we have now, the protagonist tries to reject money. Today, a radical calls for crime and mayhem while living in an expensive condo and having a living standard higher than most of his fellow citizens, and most people on earth. The character Ravelston is a common type. He is rich and guilty about it. So he gives money to left wing causes. But he can’t imagine living in physical discomfort. But the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, really tries to live without what he calls the money culture, the good job, the wife and kids, he wants to live in poverty.
Orwell understands the left mentality. Gordon is angry that he is not special. He claims to be a socialist but at the same time considers himself far superior to most people. The kindness of friends and family he repays with contempt. He can’t bear the idea of an ordinary life with ordinary people.
In the end, he accepts reality and settles down to a middle class life. What brings about his acceptance is the unescapable reality of reproduction, caused by sexual intercourse. Gordon looks at the pregnant Rosemary and feels a physical tie to her. He goes to the library and looks at pictures of fetuses and realizes what Rosemary and I did created this person, him or her. Rosemary is important and the baby is important and he cannot abandon them.
Orwell’s attitude about the importance of sex is old fashioned by today’s standards when we are supposed to believe that sex is a game and abortion is easy as having tonsils out. In Orwell’s world, at least in this book, abortion is abominable. To the extent that Orwell did anticipate the separation of sex from reproduction and sex regarded totally as recreation, he was against those things. He could not imagine the entire society having “advanced” views of sex.
Orwell was a socialist, but for the most part, not contemptuous or arrogant or angry. He did not despise his culture or his people. He did not anticipate that the left wing views of that time, as expressed in the writing below, would spread through the entire culture.
It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual
would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King' than
of stealing from a poor box - George Orwell, England Your England
Most of us can probably sympathize with Gordon’s revulsion for philistine corporate managers and his desire to escape from their world. Is this escape a wise choice? Well, that depends on what I would be doing instead. Sometimes it might seem that my job is the sole obstacle to developing my mind and pursuing the unique project my genius and mine alone is capable of. But before I take the radical step of quitting, I should honestly ask myself, do I really have enough discipline to work on my own projects? Do I really have enough faith in my own projects to devote myself to them? Gordon lacks discipline. He lacks faith in his projects. So by abandoning the corporate grind, he only sends himself on an ever worsening spiral into gloom and doom.
Those without hereditary capital are seldom entirely frank with themselves about the limitations this places upon them. I like to imagine I’m pursuing my dreams, so I don’t think much about how closely the lucrative job matches my dreams. Orwell explodes this self-delusion. Without money, I’m forced to choose what I do based on money, or to suffer. Unless I’m a true ascetic, and true ascetics are rare, my passion to develop my genius and my virtues must remain unfulfilled. By showing the contrast between Gordon’s life, with no hereditary capital, and the life of his wealthy friend Ravelston, Orwell makes it clear that those without hereditary capital can seldom afford to cultivate virtue or genius.
Showing his acute dialectical skill, Orwell presents arguments both for and against the “money god” in the most compelling terms. He begins with a parody of Paul’s sermon on charity, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. …” On the other hand, Orwell’s characterization of the obtuse, philistine corporate manager is exquisite. Whether I devote myself to cultivating virtue, or sell out to the “money god,” after reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying, I will look at my decision with far less self-deception and false optimism.
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Orwell’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock is not just trying to escape the clutches of what he calls “the money god” but is also a mouthpiece for the author's own pet hats and self-doubt over his ability to succeed as a writer. In the first chapter which could stand as a short story in this own right, Gordon painfully perfects the first verse of a poem during a boring shift in a bookshop, in between raging at the adverts in the street which remind him of the better paid job in copywriting which he has abandoned on principle to get out of what he regards as a corrupt system. He despises most books on sale for being "turned out by wretched hacks at the rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages and with much less skill.” With only twopence halfpenny left until the end of the week, not enough for the cigarettes he needs – like Orwell? – to be able to write, he is beginning to realise that “you do not escape from money by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on”.
Gordon is frankly rather tedious and unlikeable in his negative view of the world and borderline mentally ill in his desire “to lose himself in smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness... great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal.” Yet it is revealing to be transported back to the 1930s, beginning to emerge from a deep Depression, with the poignant wisdom of hindsight that the destructive war which Gordon claims to welcome is in fact imminent.
People tolerate appalling bedsits with repressive landladies, but expect to receive in the evenings letters posted earlier in the day. It’s a remarkably cheap world to modern eyes, where Gordon can take his girlfriend Rosemary on a trip to the country for only fourteen shillings (seventy pence). But it’s also riddled with social divides and casually-voiced prejudices that make us wince: Gordon comes from one of “those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle class, in which nothing ever happens”; his landlady is obsessed with “mingy lower-middle-class decency”; a poverty-stricken old couple, in a society with no proper pension system, are “the throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description: creeping like unclean beetles to the grave”.
Gordon’s upper class friend Ravelston is unusual that “in every moment of his life" he is "apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income” but still adores his girlfriend Hermione who remarks, “Don't talk to me about the lower classes….. I hate them. They smell”. As narrator, Orwell often seems guilty of unconscious flashes of snobbery and prejudice - anti-semitic comments or cruelly amusing descriptions of a dwarf, but all this seems part of what was acceptable at the time. Ironically, advertising of specific brands, mention of real people or companies and “alleged obscenities” all had to be edited out at the last minute, leading Orwell to resist reprinting of a book he felt had been “garbled”.
There is in fact a good deal of humour in the book, not least in the aspidistras, symbols of “lower class decency” which refuse all Gordon’s efforts to kill them off. When Gordon stops moaning there are some striking descriptions: “the mist-dimmed hedges wore that strange purplish brown, the colour of brown madder, that naked brushwood takes on in winter.”
Apart from hoping that the likeable Ravelston and Rosemary might “get together”, there is the impetus to find out whether the book will end in tragedy or something will make Gordon surrender to “the money-code”.