Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936. As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library. It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty. While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.
The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty. Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it. Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money. Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’. How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief. To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have. For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.
Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy. The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be. The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to. He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day. As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again. It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty. Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour. Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.
There are a couple of flaws with the book, however. Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning. Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact. Is is true poverty if you have an escape route? Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought. It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.
Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty. Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship. What is Orwell trying to say? A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative. Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way. Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing? While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.
The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State. This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned. I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.
Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today. One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping. It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right. He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned. This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult. It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income. Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me. It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.
Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics. I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?