The aspidistra is a hardy long-lived houseplant popular in the oil and gas lit Victorian era and still common in the middle class homes of George Orwell’s time. The comedienne Gracie Fields recorded a song called “Biggest Aspidistra in the World” due to its virtual indestructibility and a nod to its ubiquity in undistinguished English homes. Orwell uses the plant to symbolize and spoof the mediocrity of pedestrian patriotism adapting the expression “Keep the flag flying” or “up with the middle class”.
Gordon Comstock comes from a decent but impoverished background. He received an adequate education and knows the literary canon as well as all the contemporary writers most of whom he holds in disdain. Fully realizing he is a minor literary talent with one barely noticed little book of poems to his name he gives up a promising career as a copywriter to manifest his contempt for the money cult and its perversions.
His pretentious badge of honor descends into bitterness and anti-social behavior. Eschewing every luxury as a snob in reverse he harbors envy toward those who enjoy them. Professing “no room for ambition, no effort, no hope,” he pokes at his poetry, a life deteriorating from one day to the next, even as family and girlfriend Rosemary attempt to redeem him.
At one point Comstock and Rosemary are on the verge of intimacy for the first time but she refuses when he won’t use contraception. He rants “ When you say you can’t have a baby you mean you dare not because I’ve got no money and we would starve”.
In scenes like this Comstock shows himself to be both a bully and cad lording his vows of poverty over other people who have not accepted his terms. Although he exonerates himself by marrying Rosemary who is pregnant with his child. Not so much an honorable act as a step toward his fatalistic reentry into “respectability.”
Aspidistra continues the investigations Orwell already explored in his nonfiction work Down and Out in Paris and London. It was his two post-war books, Animal Farm and 1984, that brought him real everlasting renown.
In the novel one of Comstock’s poems has been accepted by a San Francisco magazine and he is paid well for it. The magazine further asks to see more of his work, which he never follows through on. His self-important identity of being a writer held back only by money issues shatters against the actual reality that he has talent but simply lacks the perseverance required Of a writers life.
What is missing in the novel is any mention of what becomes of the poem that preoccupies the waking thoughts of the protagonist. Was it ever submitted for publication or tossed now that he has a respectable day job?
Perhaps Orwell meant it in a narrative sense awaiting discovery only in the pages of this novel.
Per Norman Mailer: Keep the Aspidistra Flying ” is perfect from the first page to the last”.
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