Keep the Aspidistra Flying

He's being strangled by the plant, see
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

I first read this fairly early Orwell novel back in college, and I still have my old copy.  I liked it then and I like it now, though I can't quite explain why; probably for reasons opposite to what Orwell meant.

Gordon Comstock, wannabe poet, has declared war on Money.  His theory is that everybody (especially women) worship the Money-God, and he's going to refuse to participate in this corrupt, shallow, venial society.  His family has come down in the world, so he has a sort-of-public school education, but has never had the money for a leisured, upper-class lifestyle.  Instead the only job he could find was at an advertising agency, and he was horrified to discover that he has a real talent for writing ad copy.  Thus he has thrown away his "good" job, and now he works at a used bookshop for practically nothing.  He resents having to work, he resents not having any money he resents the aspidistra* in his room....indeed, the list of things Gordon does not hate is quite short.  Gordon blames his misery and loneliness on his poverty and is quite vocal about it to his friends, which is one reason he doesn't have many.  Gordon is a pain in the neck.

Gordon does have a girlfriend who he hardly ever gets to see, Rosemary, who works at the ad agency and who loves him very much.  The amount she puts up with from him is astonishing, and indeed she only sticks around because she's a fictional character.  She doesn't want to sleep with Gordon yet, which he blames on his lack of money (of course).

When Gordon finally does get some money paid to him for a poem, it ends in disaster.  He gets extremely drunk, is awful to everybody, and ends up in jail.  He loses his job, and finally gets what he wants -- to sink down into a life so low and ill-paid that he is just about really poor.  (Large chunks of this are familiar from Down and Out in Paris and London.)  Nevertheless, even though he's living in filth and refuses even to try, Rosemary finally insists on sleeping with him.  The resulting baby produces a crisis: does Gordon give in, marry Rosemary, and sell his soul at the advertising agency, or does he let her go back to her family to raise the child alone?  In the end, he's relieved to surrender his principles, get furniture on the installment plan, and write ads about foot odor.  The aspidistra wins.

Where I'm fuzzy is whether Orwell despises Gordon for giving in and joining the consumer class, or whether he's pointing out that we all have to live and work and eat.  Maybe both at once.  Personally, I'm on Rosemary's side, and I kind of think Orwell is too.

The whole characterization of Rosemary and women in general is...something to think about.  Women on the whole are drawn as being practical and full of common sense -- even Gordon's self-sacrificing sister, Julia, has more sense than Gordon does.  But Orwell also puts in this jab at Rosemary where she says people of her class can't afford principles, even though she obviously has principles, just not idiotic ones like Gordon's.

Apparently this story was partly written after Orwell's actual time in a used bookstore, in what sounds like a pretty cushy set-up, where he and another guy shared a job, which left them each free for hours of writing and socializing, and the bookshop owners gave them a nice place to live, too.  Then he wrote this descriptive stuff as a sort of revenge on it?  Which seems less than gracious.

There's a movie of the novel, A Merry War, from 1997, with Helena Bonham Carter as Rosemary.  I remember enjoying it some years ago, but the whole tone of the film is much more cheerful than the book is.  Indeed, I don't suppose you could get anybody to watch it otherwise.

I still like this book, still don't quite know why, but it was fun to read it again.

For Americans, an aspidistra is a houseplant popular with the Victorians because it is practically impossible to kill.  Be your bedsit never so dingy and smoky, the aspidistra will survive.  So it's kind of a symbol of determined respectability.


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