35 pages 1 hour read

George Orwell

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Keep the Aspidistra Flying was first published in 1936. Written by George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair), it is not as well-known as other works like 1984 and Animal Farm, nor was it well received when it was released. Like much of Orwell’s other fiction, though, it is a social criticism novel; it examines and critiques social, political, and economic issues contemporary to the time of its writing. In 1997, Robert Bierman directed a film adaptation starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. Likely because the meaning of aspidistra is not as well-known in the United States, it was released there as A Merry War.

The novel’s title is a reference to the aspidistra, a popular household plant in England. Owning aspidistras became common during the Victorian era because they could thrive indoors with little sunlight. As a result, aspidistra was associated with the English middle class. Keep the aspidistra flying” is a play on “keep the red flag flying”—a lyric from the official song of the British Labour Party—that replaces the socialist red flag with a symbol of English middle-class culture.

In writing the novel, George Orwell drew on many of his personal experiences. In the early 1930s, he was a struggling writer living in London. Like Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell was supported by a wealthy leftist—in Orwell’s case, Sir Richard Rees, who published a literary journal called The Adelphi. Also like Gordon, Orwell had to get a job at a used bookstore. There are additional parallels between Orwell’s relationship with his future wife Eileen and Gordon’s relationship with Rosemary. Finally, Orwell too came from a family that had become wealthy during the Victorian era but had since lost much of its wealth. Like Gordon, Orwell’s education took place at boarding schools his family could barely afford.

Plot Summary

Gordon Comstock comes from a middle-class family that has been falling into poverty since the end of the 19th century. At an early age, he decides to declare war on money. Gordon rebels against pressure from his family to accept a “respectable” job, trying to make a living as a poet in between stints as an accountant and a copywriter at the advertising agency New Albion.

With the help of his wealthy friend and benefactor Ravelston, Gordon now holds a job working at a used bookstore. It pays a low wage, and Gordon struggles to afford good clothes and a social life. He is determined to finish his new poetry book, London Pleasures. However, the stress of his own poverty makes it difficult to write: “It was so rarely that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose for that matter, has got to be written” (31). Gordon’s poverty also makes it hard for him to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosemary. Both of them live in tenant houses run by landladies who forbid their tenants from receiving visitors of the opposite sex. Also, Gordon cannot afford to take Rosemary out often, though he refuses to let her pay for their dates.

When Rosemary asks Gordon to take her out to the countryside, he has to borrow money from his sister Julia to afford it. They end up having to eat at the Ravenscroft Hotel, where they have an expensive but bad meal. The fact that Gordon depends on Rosemary to afford the train back to London casts a shadow over the evening. When she and Gordon are about to make love, she rejects him out of fear of getting pregnant.

One day an American publisher, The Californian Review, pays Gordon for a poem. Ecstatic, Gordon treats Rosemary and Ravelston to dinner. Despite his determination to pay back Julia, Gordon overspends and gets drunk. This leads to disaster when his aggressive advances cause Rosemary to slap him, after which he’s arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. Ravelston bails him out and tries to offer his support. Further, Rosemary tries to convince Gordon to give up his war on money and retake his old job at New Albion. Gordon refuses, causing Rosemary to point out that he is going to “just sink” (196).

Gordon takes an even worse paying job running a lending library. This forces him to live in an even more impoverished tenant house, although one that is not run by a strict landlady. Rosemary visits him to convince him to again take a job at New Albion. Gordon refuses, but they do finally make love. Months later, Rosemary tells Gordon she has become pregnant. This revelation prompts Gordon to accept what he previously refused to acknowledge: His war on money is just making him miserable. Feeling “nothing but relief” (237), Gordon throws his incomplete manuscript of London Pleasures down a sewer drain, gets his job at New Albion back, and marries Rosemary. 

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