Home > 1930, 20th Century, British Literature, Classics, Novel, Orwell George > Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936) French title: Et Vive l’aspidistra!

The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell is my second read for the #1936Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Gordon Comstock lives in a boarding house in London. He’s almost thirty, works at a bookshop for two pounds a week and has declared war to the money-god. He barely survives on his wages.

He earns enough to support himself but has no money left after he pays for his essentials. He’s very proud and doesn’t accept any help from his friends. For example, his good friend Ravelston is rich and he’d rather not go to the pub than let Ravelston pay for a pint.

Gordon has a girlfriend, Rosemary, who also lives in a boarding house. Neither of them can invite someone of the other sex in their room. They are condemned to meet outside and stay outside since Gordon doesn’t have any money to invite Rosemary even to a tea-shop and of course, he won’t let her pay for them. As Orwell sarcastically points out:

It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

So, Gordon is sexually frustrated and Orwell has a go at the Nancy Mitfords of the world. It’s not easy to be in a relationship when you can’t invite your partner to your home or go anywhere.

Gordon used to have a ‘good job’ in an ad agency where he showed some talent as a copywriter. But he despises capitalism and doesn’t want anything to do with money making. He fancies himself as a poet, has published some pieces in several newspaper. He’s rather live off literature but when did poetry ever paid off?

The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet – the conventional poet-in-garret.

It also means a hungry poet. With principles. Strong enough to hate his ‘good job’, quit and take a lesser-paid but nobler job in a bookstore.

Gordon doesn’t want to succeed. At all. It would mean that the money-god won and he’s pig-headed to the point of stupidity. He’s prideful and won’t accept help. He’s prejudiced against the middle-class, represented by their aspidistras. He loathes the middle-class and doesn’t want to partake in their way-of-living.

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ – the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B.B.C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate!

Aspidistra

He’s almost thirty and still thinks as a rebelling teenager, when you think you won’t have the same life as your parents and then reality catches up on you. Gordon has some growing up to do and I found him exasperating and immature.

It is true that Gordon has a point about capitalism and money as the goal for life.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.

So, he sticks to his principles even if they make him sink further into poverty. Orwell has a very graphic way to make the reader understand what it means to be poor, to count every penny. Soon, Gordon understands that he cut his income himself in order not to yield to the money-god only to be tied up to it by poverty.

Money again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness of failure – above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything but lonely on two quid a week?

Orwell shows how worrying about money takes all one’s mental space and Gordon realises that fighting the money-god is not as freeing as he thought it would be.

The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success.

Orwell portrays a Gordon who wants to be noble but his going against the flow is counterproductive. He loves Rosemary (a saint, IMO, to be able to put up with him) but their relationship is in a dead-end because they can’t afford to get married. Well, at least, according to middle-class standards. Orwell hints that if they were working-class, they’d get married and see afterwards how they’d get by.

Gordon enjoys Ravelston’s company but he can never get past their difference of income and social class. Ravelston doesn’t mind but Gordon lets it become a barrier between them.

Gordon thinks he’s over the middle-class way of thinking but it’s hard to escape the mental frame in which you were raised into. He struggles to set free but the ties are strong and his refusal to go Dutch on meals with Rosemary or to let Ravelston pay his beer show that he’s not free from the middle-class minset.

It’s exactly the same for Ravelston who comes from the upper-classes and claims that he’s a socialist while he secretly dislikes poor people.

The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

He tries to play down his wealth but his social origin speaks up as soon as he’s caught off guard.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying mocks the English class system and its stultifying codes. It shows that it’s hard to change of social class, to shed one’s education and become someone else.

From the beginning to the end, Gordon got on my nerves. I was amazed at Rosemary’s patience with him and at Ravelston’s steady friendship. They don’t give up on him and he should be grateful for them. Disliking the main character doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book. Orwell gets his point through and shows the mechanism that changed the 1968 revolutionary students in what we call in France the “caviar left-wing”.

Something else. Each time I read a British book, I come across singularities that remind how not-British I am. In Barbara Pym, you’ve got all the subtle differences between churches and who goes to which. In several books, I noticed derogatory remarks against Welsh people and digs at Scotchmen.

‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

And somewhere else.

Mr McKechnie wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was reasonably free from avarice – his most distinctive trait seemed to be laziness.

I find this pretty harsh but what do I know, right?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well-worth reading, Orwell’s prose is witty, cutting sometimes but always excellent.

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

  1. April 18, 2021 at 1:53 am

    Ah, I’ve been looking forward to reading your review of this…poor Gordon, you have your finger on it (as we say) when you point out that his stubborn adherence to principles makes it hard to like him. And the fact that he’s right about how rotten the system is doesn’t make it any easier to like him.
    I had a colleague once who was deeply committed to environmentalism. He didn’t just talk about it all the time, he lived it, and although he never criticised us, he used to make us feel uncomfortable about some of the choices we’d made. For example, he lived further away from work than I did and he rode there on his bike while I drove by car. I can’t ride a bike, but still I felt bad about that every time I saw that bicycle! He made us feel guilty when we fulfilled a long-awaited trip to Europe because of the impact that flying has on the planet. We just couldn’t live up to his ideals, or, more truthfully, we didn’t want to.

    Like

    • April 18, 2021 at 9:19 am

      I think that Gordon got on my nerves because he was on the fence. On one side, he was fighting the system and on the other side, he was longing for the comfort and pleasures brought by money. Gordon is not the kind of man to make a radical decision like go and live in a cabin in the woods.
      He doesn’t DO anything. He just complains about his lack of money and the power of the money-god. But, even if he didn’t go to such length as living in the woods, he could have retrieved himself of capitalist activities by becoming a public servant, working for a charity or something like this.
      Instead of acting to find a way to combine his principles with an occupation that provides a decent income, he just wallows in misery and agonises over dead poetry dreams.

      About your colleague.
      People who are deeply invested in an ideology or a religion might become judgemental. It comes with the territory and in the end, it’s counterproductive.
      Not everybody wants to ride their bike to work or make their own soap or use menstrual cups or wash dirty nappies. Just like vegans who attack butcher shops are wrong to do it. Who are they to prevent others from eating what they want?

      Guilt and force are just the tools used by people who fail to convince others with words and arguments.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 18, 2021 at 2:53 am

    Owell is one of my favourite writers, both for his writing and for his political analysis. I’ve listened to this one a couple of times without remembering it particularly, but I think he is looking at his own attempts to trascend his middle-class-ness and to live in poverty.
    As a 70 year old who still thinks like a teenager, I sympathise. I gave up studying engineering in part because I did not want to contribute to the corporate world, and more particularly in the Vietnam era, to the war machine. I forced my wives to live in poverty and then bewildered Milly (#2) by moving her to middle class Melbourne suburbia for 15 years.

    Like

    • April 18, 2021 at 9:28 am

      Orwell is really excellent in his analysis. Baldwin and he are in the same basket: direct criticism, well-organised thinking, never extreme in their thinking.

      As I replied to Lisa’s comment, what irked me in Gordon’s behaviour is that he just complains. He quit the “system”, OK, that’s good to live in accordance with one’s beliefs. But what then? He just lets himself sink without trying to find an alternative that suits him and allows him to still have a life with Rosemary.

      Like

  3. April 18, 2021 at 4:38 am

    Loved the review Emma! It’s been so long that I read a book purely about class. I wonder what my take on Gordon will be. Must we all be grey silhouettes gravitating in between the need for money on one side and sticking behind values or beliefs? It would be interesting to read where do your beliefs take you if you insist on going against the current and I’d be curious to read -though I suspect it- Orwell’s position. Adding it to my TBR.

    Like

    • April 18, 2021 at 9:31 am

      Thanks. I think you’ll like it.
      I think that there’s a compromise: you can work for non-profit organisations or be a civil servant, for example. Gordon would have been aligned with his principles. Not partaking in capitalism and still be usefully employed.

      Like

  4. April 18, 2021 at 10:01 am

    I enjoyed your review, Emma. I am an Orwell fan but not read this one.

    Like

  5. April 18, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    Great review Emma, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. Gordon *is* a frustrating character and I think you’re spot on in nailing this to his middle class values and the fact that he’s as welded to these as Ravelston is to his. His refusal to accept help is because of this and he does I think recognise this himself. His stubborn pride causes many of his issues, and Orwell pins down wonderfully the poverty and the class issues of the era. As for the Scottish jokes, that kind of ‘humour’ between the various UK countries was always there when I was growing up. As a Scot I’m not offended, but I suspect it’s the kind of thing which should have died out.

    Like

    • April 18, 2021 at 10:07 pm

      Thanks, yours is great too.

      These boarding houses were something else, weren’t they? To think of how Gordon sneaks around his lodger to make some tea in his room. It’s unbelievable.
      The second boarding house is of lower standard, not respectable and then, he can do whatever he wants.

      Respectability has a dear cost and it’s another angle used by Orwell to show the class system.

      Like

      • April 19, 2021 at 12:54 pm

        They were – horrible to think you can’t even make a cuppa in you rown room. As you say, the respectability comes with issues…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. April 18, 2021 at 4:05 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this forever! I really enjoyed your review Emma, I must hunt down a copy, I like Orwell but its been ages since I read him.

    By coincidence I was just looking at buying an aspidistra yesterday 🙂 Apparently they’re good air purifiers so they’ll suit my flat on a polluted high road! Maybe that’s why Victorians/Edwardians loved them – to offset all that industrialisation…

    Like

    • April 18, 2021 at 8:40 pm

      It’s worth reading, as any book by Orwell, I suspect. I’m less keen on reading Burmese Days, have you read it?

      I’ve read that the aspidistra doesn’t need a lot of light and that’s why it was so popular in the Victorian era.

      Like

  7. April 19, 2021 at 1:23 am

    Fascinating to read both reviews. Thanks for choosing to feature this one

    Like

    • April 19, 2021 at 7:49 pm

      Thanks. It’s a great book!

      Like

  8. April 26, 2021 at 3:44 am

    There’s a great film version of it.

    Like

    • April 26, 2021 at 9:36 pm

      Thanks, that’s good to know. The book is great material for an atmospheric film.

      Like

  1. April 18, 2021 at 1:56 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: