Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

I’ve been sitting on this Orwellian treasure for a few years. Every so often I get an urge to go to a used bookstore and buy up all I can find of a particular author…and then I proceed to not read any of the books for a very long time. What is wrong with me? I hear it’s a common problem, at least.

Well, sometimes it’s fate that causes this to happen.

As it turns out, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is about a young man, Gordon Comstock, who has some major issues with getting a “real job” because of his dire hatred of money and the capitalistic infrastructure that keeps society “going.”  This is an ironic book for me to read because of my own “real job” issues and so I thought the time to read this book is now, or never!

So I picked it up, hoping to gain some insight into my own situation. After all, Orwell is known for a little moralizing, and it’s always nice to find yourself nestled snugly inside his every-man/woman.  I got what I was looking for, and I also got a nice reminder of Orwell’s criticism of his own society.

Gordon Comstock, after suffering for about four years at poverty level, working as a bookstore associate (though he is an aspiring, published, small-time poet), gets himself into some trouble by getting his girlfriend pregnant. After four years of quite militantly defying all-things-bourgeois, he VERY SURPRISINGLY relents completely to the middle class life and even resorts to ordering the dreaded houseplant, aspidistra, the one thing he’s loathed more than money. This is disturbing but not altogether unexpected, given what the reader is left with at the end of 1984: Winston Smith is sitting drinking Victory Gin, after having suffered through Room 101, only to have ultimately relented to the Inner Party Ideals.  Both men in these cases have tried to push through the immense pressures that their respective societies/authorities have thrust onto them; both put up a good fight; and both ultimately relent and, perhaps worst of all, accept.

I think the most glaring aspect of this novel is how similar the two narratives are in terms of Gordon Comstock and Winston Smith. Clearly Gordon Comstock was a precursor to the sentiments and character traits that Orwell wanted to portray with Winston Smith.

Perhaps the saddest part of this novel is reading the publisher’s (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) description of it on the back: “Despite its poignancy and merciless wit, hope does break through in this book’s happy ending, a tribute to the stubborn virtues of ordinary people, who keep the aspidistra flying.”

NO! You fools! There is NO HOPE!  There is NO HAPPY ENDING!  That’s the point!  There is only falling prey to capitalism and consumerism and the unhappy hum-drum existence of bourgeois homogeneity!   Are we then supposed to believe that Winston Smith is happy after having been tortured and re-brainwashed and sent to wait to be killed by the Inner Party at some undisclosed time? No! We have to look at Winston Smith and pity him his dilemma. Same with Gordon Comstock. We, as thoughtful readers, should pity him his newfound re-acceptance of consumption after all he’s been through.  The publisher should be ashamed for writing such unilluminated copy.

What I learned from this book is that giving in, after militantly standing by your ideals, is the easy, fool’s way out; is the Winston Smith way out. And who can look at Winston Smith and say “I wanna be that guy”?  No way. I’ll go with Braveheart.