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.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Taken from my film blog: http://cinematophiliac.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/the-grapes-of-wrath-novel-1939/

As my faithful readers know (thank you!), this is a blog devoted entirely to analyzing film. And, I normally stick pretty closely to the unspoken tenets of only writing about films. But once before on this blog, I ventured into writing about Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey Tetralogy because of the corresponding films and my overpowering desire to write about the books in a place where I knew it would be read. So I suppose I justify my actions now in that same way.

Now, I haven’t watched the 1940  Henry Fonda/John Ford film version yet because I like to read the book first and then watch the film, but I did just add it to the top of my Netflix queue.  But, I feel compelled to write about the novel right now because I just finished reading it this morning and it evoked a particular reaction in me.

I don’t know if I had the same reaction as every one else who has read this novel or not. The older I get, the more I realize how similar we all react to things. So what I say about this, or anything else I write about on this blog, is just what comes out: untainted, unfiltered.

I’ll get to my point in a bit but I’d like to build up to it by explaining that the reason I picked this novel up at the Library was because it’s a classic and I’d never read it. I’ve started to feel ashamed lately because of my lack of experience reading some of our great American classics.  I didn’t specifically pick the book up because I thought it had some relevance to today’s “economic hard times” as we keep hearing on the news…now, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I know the real hard times is yet to come, folks!  (A side effect of reading this novel is that you want to write in Okie dialect too).

But as soon as the novel began, I started seeing the connection between the state of affairs in the novel and what we’re experiencing today: big businesses and banks taking the land and livelihoods away from the American people in order to turn a bigger profit.    But by the end of the novel, in the last paragraph actually, it really hit home for me that we’re not any where near the level of desperation and human suffering that Steinbeck was describing. I know this for a few reasons.

I know this because we’re still taking vacations and planning weddings; we’re still shopping online for iTunes; we’re still filing sexual harassment lawsuits; we’re still protesting gay marriage rights; we’re still having parties at our houses and inviting friends and feeding them all night long.

We’re nowhere near the level of desperation Steinbeck describes. I agree with you that that is an obvious statement. But until you’ve gone through the novel and you’ve let your imagination run wild with the characters and their plight, I think it’s too easy to say to yourself as a reader in 2009: the same thing’s happening now!

No, the same thing isn’t happening now. We keep hearing “these tough economic times” every time we turn around. Yeah, we are experiencing tough economic times. Yeah, many of us don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t come close to paying the bills. Yeah, I know. I’m living it too.  But the connotation that the media is trying to convey with “these tough economic times” is something much more grande than we can fathom in 2009.

I know this because I know what Rose of Sharon did in that last paragraph of the novel, and I know what the penultimate chapter was foreshadowing. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. In the paragraphs leading up to the final paragraph of the novel, I didn’t realize what was happening. I stopped and re-read it a few times before I got to the end because I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I finished the last paragraph and I knew.  And I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a novel.

I cried first because of the beauty of human nature. And the confusing part became clear.  Then I cried because of my confusion and I realized that’s the difference between us and them: we can’t fathom it, and Rose of Sharon and Ma both knew what had to be done.

Despite the 4-5 weeks it took me to read this 450 page novel (I won’t lie:  it’s long and it’s depressing, and that makes it hard to read for long durations), I made it to the end and found it to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. At first, the rotating descriptive chapters are tedious because the reader hasn’t been brought thoroughly enough into the Joad Family story line yet.  But as the novel progresses, the descriptive chapters provide much-needed details and foreshadowing about the general state of affairs for migrants.  And by the penultimate chapter, it’s clear that it’s foreshadowing beyond the last words of the novel. It’s a lot like reading The Odyssey:  the narrative seemingly just ends without giving the reader the satisfaction of a truly happily-ever-after for Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, but the reader has to recall the prophecies and the omens and then he or she will know what is to come for them, and the reader can take some peace from that because the end is known.

Steinbeck has done the same thing for his readers but his Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus will not grow old on Ithaca, and that is part of the sadness and beauty of this novel. We do not know what will specifically happen with Tom, but we know what happened to Casy. We do not specifically know what will happen with the rest of the Joad family, but we know what the penultimate chapter foreshadows. And we do not know what will specifically become of Rose of Sharon but we know that she is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the human soul.

People relying on people who are in the same state of being as they are. People being good to others because they are good people, not because they’re being forced to for some ulterior motive.  People recognizing their own suffering in others and doing their best to assuage the pains of life.

This novel moralizes while also de-emphasizing the necessity for a fear of God. In fact, I think it is one of the best aspects of the book, and it is why Casy is in the narrative: to show that goodness and moral-ethical behavior do not have to be followed by God’s wrath. In fact, Steinbeck makes a point of showing that good judgment is just good judgment. (And there’s plenty of suffering for the living without having to worry about suffering after death).  And sometimes when wrong is being done to you, and you react in a way to protect yourself, bad things happen accidentally. I don’t think Steinbeck is justifying murder or violence; just the opposite. I think he’s justifying human behavior in the face of highly unethical treatment and oppression: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  I think he’s pointing out that if you push men to the brink, they will have no other choice (i.e. Tom) than to protect themselves, and at the same time, they will make the right choice (i.e. Rose of Sharon). When you’ve stripped man of his autonomy, you’ve opened up the can of worms on yourself; but when the can is empty, you’ll find the core of human nature.

Steinbeck was writing about real people.  We’re not quite real yet.  Nope. Far from it.  But I know there are Roses of Sharon out there waiting in many of us.