Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell
by Isaac Rosenfeld
Keep the Aspidistra Flying. By George Orwell. Harcourt, Brace. 248 pp. $3.75.
It is strange that the fair, bland, decent, fresh-butter wholesome Orwell of the essays should have been such a terror in his fiction. One after another, the heroes of his novels come in for a thorough shellacking, a savage going-over hideous to behold; such, at least, is the lot of the central characters of Burmese Days, Coming Up for Air, 1984, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This violence is quite uncalled for; his Florys, George Bowlings, Winstons, and Gordons are ordinary men, neither conspicuously noble nor sale type. As far as I can see, his only grievance against them was that they did not measure up to the old-school definition of a gentleman. This remark may seem a bit unfair, as Orwell was always riding charges against old-school stuffiness—not in the manner of a St. George, but in a casual and unpretentious way, flying only the colors of human decency.
But he was ahead of his age in being conservative, and this quality of his went largely unnoticed during his lifetime; he combined the gentlemanly with the democratic, an oxymoron typical of conservatism. Orwell detested the snobbery and class ground on which the definition of the gentleman stood, but the concept itself was a different matter, and in the greater part of his literary career he behaved in perfect accordance with it. Hence the fairness, the unassuming and disarming honesty of the writing, which we have come to regard as characteristic. Nor was the gentlemanly, as Orwell entertained it, such a narrow notion. The gentleman was for him the private citizen and irreducible unit of social life, more or less as John Stuart Mill thought of him, the free man of free mind and cultivation, whose continued existence was essential to the health of a democracy. Taken in this larger sense, the idea was by no means inconsistent with Orwell’s socialism.
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, thirty-ish, a poet with a “slim volume” to his credit entitled Mice (good press, bad sales, soon remaindered), chooses the life of poverty and failure in preference to a career in copywriting (for which, unfortunately, he has more talent than for poetry). He makes this choice for the sake of his writing, to keep himself free of the success drive, but in so doing he also stages the usual young man’s rebellion against the middle-class expectations of his family. To his disgust, he discovers that it was all in vain. If success is a swindle, so is failure.
Living in furnished bedrooms, under nosey landladies, working at miserable jobs in dusty bookstores, he is too demoralized, too tired and lonely at night to do his writing, and too poor for beer and cigarettes, let alone amusements. His life is in no way more liberal than that of his drab, dull, penny-pinching family, and the same gloom hangs over him as hangs over his self-sacrificing spinster sister, off whom he sponges. Short on principles, he makes himself a martyr for his living conditions, and blames all his misfortunes on money. The literary world snubs him because he is a pauper, women are indifferent for the same reason, and if his own girl, Rosemary, has been holding out on him for years—for what other reason can she refuse him than his poverty? When she finally does sleep with him, it is out of pity and disgust for the hopelessly roach-ridden, torn-shirt, dirty-neck, who-gives-a-damn condition into which he has fallen. But as the result of this single act (and him too poor to buy contraceptives!) she becomes pregnant. Then Gordon, backed into a corner, takes the job in the advertising agency and does right by the girl. But his first official step as a husband is to buy an aspidistra. This house-plant had always been to him the abhorrent symbol of middle-class domesticity—as much as to say, “He loved Big Brother.”
I have heard it said that this is a false interpretation; that Gordon, far from being the sniveler and weakling I take him to be, must be understood as something of a hero of our time. At the last moment, just as he is teetering on the brink of the inane, with the cliff crumbling away at his feet, he rights himself, comes to his senses, puts away childish things and chooses life, responsibility, and maturity. This is an attractive interpretation, and I am tempted to agree with it because it fits so well my own point about the conservative element in Orwell. Moreover, one of the central symbols of the novel, Rosemary’s pregnancy, does yield up such a meaning (among other meanings, however). But the reasons for withholding consent seem to me too strong to allow such a reading. The preliminary indictment of Gordon is too heavy, and the evidence against him is presented without mercy. We see him in every last, sickening detail of his folly, without a single ambiguous touch that one might interpret to his credit. Nor does Rosemary’s pregnancy carry much hope for him. He does the right thing, but his decision is not the result of right thinking—he never has, and never acquires, the courage or intelligence to understand himself. His style of living will improve, he will wear clean shirts and eat well-balanced meals, but the regenerative meaning cannot reach him. He has been presented as the sort of creature who not only invites but deserves his misfortunes; it is too late to save him. The pattern is so well established that the life symbol of the pregnancy is wasted on him—the child is the final springing of the trap. Not only success, not only failure, life itself is a swindle.
I return to my first observation, that Orwell was always mauling his characters. Here, I believe, lay his failure as a novelist; not that he was brutal, but that he did not justify his brutality in fictional terms. There is no good reason for walloping Gordon, or Flory, or the others. Their only offense, as far as I can see, is that they were not gentlemen. They lacked the grace, strength, resourcefulness, dignity, good sense, and clear understanding; neither nature nor society would bend to them or receive them among the elect. Modern fiction is full of such types, but Orwell, evidently, was unable to leave the shabby, poor bloke alone; I suspect he felt put on the spot when he confronted him. The reminiscences which Orwell’s friends have published show him forever struggling with, and striving to kill off, his own gentlemanly ideal. The contradiction in himself is matched in the characters. He deliberately chose the bloke, the sniveler, the man who cannot make it, and to hell with the gentleman—and then punished them cruelly for not being gentlemen.
But why pick on Gordon? Many a dead horse has been flayed, this one was skinless to begin with. Because he makes all the better a carcass for his author’s self-destructive appetite to feed upon.
Because such a procedure is unjustified in fiction, Orwell soon leads us out of bounds; and I, for one, could never resist speculating on his self-destructiveness. I know very little about him, and I can’t say how accurate my impression is, but under the bland, fair, mild, empirical, and fair-minded manner which he perfected in the essays, I feel he was full of self-hatred, rage, spite, and contempt. This is no reason for disapproving of a novelist, so long as the personal motive is well covered. In Orwell it was usually uncovered, it showed through the devices of his fiction and called attention to himself when he should have been most in control to direct attention to his characters. Their undoing became an obvious substitute for his own, and one smarted and felt uncomfortable—a relationship to an author which it is hard to pass off as literary.
Even so, this would not have mattered—and in 1984 it was of little importance—if only he had been able, more often, to find an appropriate fictional object to stand in for himself and receive the assault. For there are ways of conducting the flagellation so that the ego, to all appearances, is spared; one can, for instance, turn the self inside out and convert it into a world, or find cause, among public objects, for one’s secret discontent. This he succeeded in doing in 1984, where a world is present; Winston goes down, but the totalitarian mystique goes with him. In the other novels, too little of the world is involved in the destruction of the hero. And in Keep the Aspidistra Flying he drags down the drain with him nothing more than a few dried pips and peels of a somewhat off-center anti-bourgeois tirade: a desiccated family, a spinsterish sister, a sisterish girl friend, and a wealthy and therefore uneasy socialist and literary patron, one Ravelston, who befriends Gordon and makes him feel all the more disgusted with himself. It is Gordon all the way, and therefore Orwell all the way. And wherever Gordon can’t quite completely symbolize his author’s Selbstmord (after all, Orwell was a gentleman, and no Gordon by a long shot), Ravelston fills in for him. Anything that won’t fit Gordon will slip easily and without pinch onto Ravelston’s foot.
Now this is nonsense, and terribly dated, like the old adolescent rebellion against shoe polish. In a much sounder and more honest investigation of poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell told the truth about the self in the middle-class world, how one lives in it under the threat of starvation and resorts to devices to outwit the wolf—devices, more often than not, shameful and desperate, but still part of the dirty business of staying alive in a dirty world. He did not have to wear a stinking shirt by way of a Gordon in false pride, and even falser self-punishment, for his ability to come to terms with this world (this is, however, an accurate touch in the characterization of Gordon, since nothing galls the writer in advertising more than the recognition that he’s good at it). No, he would have loved a clean shirt, clean linen, a bath, a decent living, and a circle of his peers. But in Down and Out Orwell was writing in his characteristic mien of fairness to all, himself included, and he made no bones about his reasonableness. He condoned his own failure to be a gentlemen or—it comes to the same thing—managed to forgive himself for being one.