Sunday, December 25, 2005

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

December 3, 1999

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” (Orwell in Brander). Although Orwell is best known for his anti-Communist works such as “1984” or “Animal Farm”, it is important to remember that Orwell was a democratic socialist. Orwell, throughout his life, struggled with the question of socialism, and what it means to be a socialist. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, published in 1936, continues this struggle.

Orwell was born in 1903 in Motihari Bengal. In 1917, he was given a scholarship to Eton College, which he attended until 1921. Orwell was a poor boy in a setting where poverty was despised, and this helped to make him a youthful radical. He served in Burma with the Indian Imperial Police from 1922 to 1927, and came to detest his role as an agent of imperialism. He ended up identifying with the Burmese more and in 1927 he retired and decided to live among the least privileged members of society. These experiences provided much of the material for his early works, including “Keep the Apsidistra Flying”. In 1936, Orwell was sent by the Socialist Left Book Club to study the living conditions of the unemployed in England. Orwell angered his sponsors by writing “The Road to Wigan Pier” in which he criticized orthodox socialism.

Orwell went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and joined the militia unit of the Marxist Workers Party. Orwell was seriously injured in the war. He was also involved in the fighting between the communists and anarchists in Barcelona. The communist secret police sought out Orwell, and he fled from Spain.

One question that Orwell faces is: how does a socialist function in a capitalist society? This is taken in the person of Gordon Comstock. Gordon is not a socialist. However, Orwell uses Gordon to convey the message to socialists.

Gordon is a man who is disgusted by the capitalism he sees around him. As a student, Gordon writes an underground newspaper in which he advocates global socialism (although he will later in his life reject socialism) and the dismemberment of the British Empire. However, once Gordon graduates from school and enters the work force, the question of how he reacts to capitalism must become clearer.

Gordon works in an advertising company, where his literary talents are discovered and he is put in a very profitable position with a very optimistic future. However, Gordon can not escape the feeling that he has sold his soul to the money god. To the consternation of all his relatives, Gordon leaves the company.

Gordon at first has an overly romanticized view of poverty. Coming from a dreary middle class family, Gordon thinks poverty is where one feels one is alive; the excitement of living on the streets. Gordon finds out otherwise, that poverty is having to sneak away from the landlady, and always having a hungry feeling in one’s stomach. Gordon ends up taking a job in a second hand bookshop where he can barely make ends meet and where there is no chance of advancement.

Orwell presents some interesting paradoxes in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. Through Gordon’s eyes we are allowed to see the despicable character of capitalism. However, Gordon’s attempt to rebel against capitalism only brings misery to himself and to his girlfriend Rosemary. If Orwell approves neither of capitalism nor of Gordon’s rebellion against it, what is Orwell trying to say in this book?

Critics have differed in their interpretation. Some argue that Orwell agreed with Gordon’s moral conviction, but the purpose of the book was to show how deeply our society revolves around money, and it is impossible not to be obsessed with money in our society. In this light, the book becomes almost more of a critique of society than of Gordon. Gordon has noble ambitions, but he was defeated by an evil society (Guild in Oldsey and Browne 144). While there is some appeal to this point of view, I think it ignores the fact that much of Gordon’s misery is self-inflicted. Another variation on this is that it is foolish for Gordon to even try to rebel against capitalism in the first place, and his whole quest to escape the money god is foolish.

Let us assume for a moment that this is indeed what Orwell is trying to show. If this is the case, I believe Orwell has made a poor argument. Orwell could have designed a book about a man who recognized how hollow the value of wealth and possessions are, and decided to give everything he had away and live in poverty. This man would then come to take pride in his poverty. He would shun the traditions of the middle class. This is not, however, the situation that Orwell sets up.

The character of Gordon is obsessed with the social value of money throughout the whole book. In fact, Gordon does not even want other people to know he is living in poverty. He is forever concerned about whom he borrows money from, and how people treat him because of his poverty.

If in fact the argument of Orwell’s book is that one can not escape the money god in a capitalistic society, then this would fit in with that argument. In trying to escape from money, Gordon ends up becoming obsessed with it. I would argue however that many individuals have successfully escaped the quest for accumulating wealth, and are able to simply not care about money.

There is much in the character of Gordon Comstock that is autobiographical to Orwell. Like Orwell, Gordon is a writer. Like Gordon, Orwell worked in a bookstore in London, and hated it. Orwell himself knows what it is like to be poor. In his travels in Paris, described in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London”, Orwell had to make ends meet on one Shilling a day (five times less than the fictional Gordon). Orwell actually describes many of the same feelings Gordon has. Orwell describes how women are repulsed by him because he has no money (Guild in Oldsey and Brown 147). Orwell also describes what a good feeling it can be to slide all the way into the very bottom of poverty because there is a relief that accompanies the realization that one is still surviving. Gordon also expresses a number of the same views that Orwell is expressing.

To Orwell, Gordon is not simply an abstract character he uses. Gordon is very much a reflection of Orwell. I believe that “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is a difficult book to interpret because Orwell himself is ambivalent. He understands the problem ll too well, but he is unsure of the solution. Orwell seeks to show through the character of Gordon his own experience in revolting against capitalism.

Of course, Gordon is not the only character Orwell sets up. Orwell realizes there is more than one way of rebelling against capitalism, and so he shows Phillip Ravelston as an alternative war.

Orwell sets up Ravelston as a foil for Gordon. Although both men are anti-capitalists, they take different approaches. Gordon lives in self-imposed poverty and is miserable because of it. Ravelston is a rich man, living in luxury, yet is a socialist. Ravelston’s optimism is a contrast to Gordon’s pessimism; however, the reader often gets the sense that Ravelston does not know what he is talking about. Orwell uses Ravelston to critique the “Cadillac Communist”.

At the beginning of chapter five, Orwell describes Ravelston. Ravelson lives in Regent Park which to him “was practically the same thing as living in the slums” (Orwell 80). “It was part of a life-long attempt to escape from his own class and become, as it were, an honorary member of the proletariat. Like all such attempts, it was foredoomed to failure” (Orwell 80). Orwell also states that Ravelston had the habit of dressing unconventionally. “He made a point of going everywhere, even to fashionable house and expensive restaurants, in these clothes just to show his contempt for upper-class conventions; he did not fully realize that it is only the upper classes who can do these things” (Orwell 80-81). Orwell goes on to say about Ravelston: “in every moment of his life he was apologizing tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor” (Orwell 81). In these quotes, Orwell is able to describe Ravelston as somebody whose entire life is a contradiction. His attempts to make himself a socialist only make his wealth more glaring.

In chapter five, Gordon and Ravelston go to a pub and have some drinks and talk. Orwell attempts to show the folly of both Ravelston’s approach to capitalism and Gordon’s approach. Gordon’s approach, which is the subject of the rest of the book, is shown to be self-destructive, as it makes Gordon miserable and separates him from the one he loves. Ravelston’s approach is not shown in this way. He is always depicted as happy. His approach, as a young rich man playing socialist, is shown as harmless. However, Ravelston’s approach is hypocritical, where at least Gordon faces the reality of his decision to make war on money.

During the course of the conversation, Ravelston mentions several times that Gordon should read Marx, while Gordon indicates his distaste for Socialism. Orwell presents somewhat of an irony here in that the rich man should be defending Marx against a poor man. However, Orwell is also trying to make a point. Ravelston is incapable of understanding what he is talking about because he has never known what it is like to be poor. It is Orwell’s critique of the intellectual rather than the experimental socialist. At one point Gordon is talking about how miserable life in London is and how it is all a result of poverty. Ravelston responds with “Of course…After all, it’s only a reflection of what Marx said. Every ideology is a reflection of economic circumstances.” Gordon then answers, “Ah, but you only understand it out of Marx! You don’t know what it means to have to crawl along on two quid a week” (Orwell 90).

In the same chapter that Orwell contrasts Ravelston with Gordon, he also contrasts Ravelston with Hermione Slater. Hermoine is Ravelston’s lover, and he adores her. On one hand, the same Ravelston who looks hypocritical when contrasted with Gordon looks much better when contrasted with Hermione. Just as the reader is beginning to get disgusted with Ravelston, Orwell shows how so many rich people, like Hermione, do not even care about the poor at all. “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes” Hermione says to Ravelston. “I hate them. They smell” (Orwell 93).

At the same time, however, Orwell also raises the question of why Ravelston is so in love with Hermione if he takes his beliefs seriously. Ravelston adores her, and yet it does not seem to bother him that Hermione laughs at all his principles. “Why do you have to live in such a dreadful way? Pretending you’re poor when you’re not and living in that poky flat with no servants, and going about with all these beastly people” (Orwell 98). In this way, Orwell uses Hermione both to make Ravelston look more favorable and to further point out his hypocrisy.

Hermione, in one of her speeches, shows she does not understand what a Socialist really is. “Of course you’re a Socialist. So am I. I mean we’re all Socialist nowadays. But I don’t see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist and have a good time, that’s what I say” (Orwell 98). Orwell obviously intends to satirize this belief because, of course, giving your money away and making friends with the lower classes is what Socialism is all about. However, Orwell is making another point too. If Ravelston can call himself a Socialist, and still live in such luxury (compared to Gordon), then what is to stop Hermione from calling herself a Socialist.

Orwell shows how Ravelston, for all his good intentions, does not really sympathize with the poor. “In the taxi she lay against him, still half asleep, her head pillowed on his breast. He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week. But the girl’s body was heavy against him, and Middlesbrough was so far away” (Orwell 97). Ravelston is able to think of the poor only in the abstract sense, and so they do not seem real to him. He is able to dismiss them so easily in favor of his life of luxury, which is very real to him.

Orwell uses chapter five to set up Ravelston as an alternative way to make war on money, rather than the self-destructive way Gordon has chosen. However, Orwell also shows the meaningless in Ravelston’s war. For all the misery Gordon’s own war brings him, at least it is honest.

The book ends with Gordon getting his girlfriend Rosemary pregnant. Gordon gives up his war on money and becomes, in the words of one critic, a “disastrously defeated Rebel” (Richard Rees*1 in Oldsey and Browne). Many critics have criticized the ending. Again it brings up questions about what Orwell was trying to say. Does the failure of Gordon’s war means Orwell views a war against capitalism to be fatal? One must either delude one’s self as Ravelston does, or end in defeat as Gordon. Again, I believe the ending is supposed to be ambivalent. Orwell himself is still struggling with these questions, so rather than give the audience an answer, he just throws out the topic for them to think about.

Bander, Laurence. George Orwell. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1956.

Calder, Jenni. Critical Essays in Modern Literature—Chronicles of Conscience: A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1968.

Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1980.

Hammond, J.R. A George Orwell Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Documentaries and Essays. London: Macmillan Press. 1982.

Hollis, Christopher. A Study of George Orwell: The Man and his Works. London: Hollis and Carter. 1956,

Oldsey, Bernard, Joseph Browne. Critical Essays on George Orwell. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co. 1986.

Orwell, George. Keep the Aspidistra Flying. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1936.

Woodcock, George. The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell. Boston: Minerva Press. 1966.

Professor’s Comments: Joel, you have several good insights into Orwell’s book in this paper, but you needed to focus and organize these insights into a more compelling argument about the book. In particular, you needed to suggest the importance of his ambiguous response to capitalism. Why should we be concerned about working through this response? You also needed to use your paragraphs to give a better sense of the development of your argument.

Grade: B-

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