Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

George Comstock is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction (and I’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces). The protagonist of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying has been on the run from “money-culture” for two years. His “war on money” means that he quit a good job, took a poorly paid position in a book store, and spends most of his time counting up the change in his pockets and raging against aspidistras. The common houseplant symbolizes all the evils of selling out and making a living wage.

George’s war on money comes to a crisis in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He’s been muddling along at four pounds a week (about $1,400 a month in 2019, as far as I can tell). He can afford a room, cheap meals, and a few extras. Still, George constantly fulminates against the pressures of making money and respectability to his friend Ravelston (a rich man slumming as a socialist) and girlfriend Rosemary (who makes less than George but doesn’t complain). When he was a child, George saw his widowed mother and older sister slaving away at teashops to afford his school fees. The plan is that George will someday make good and their money troubles will vanish. Instead, George’s response to the plan is to run as far as he can in the opposite direction, like an angrier version of Bartleby the Scrivener.

After a windfall turns into a disaster that costs George his job and his room, he falls as far as possible without actually ending up in the workhouse. He works at an even worse bookshop/lending library and lives in a room infested with bugs and dirt, eating food so lacking in nutrition that he’s in danger of scurvy or pellagra. Only a surprising revelation near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying halts George’s deliberate downward trajectory.

Obligatory photo of an aspidistra (Image via Wikicommons)

I’ve seen quotes from Keep the Aspidistra Flying here and there. Its witticisms were what kept me going through George’s constant kvetching. I honestly don’t understand why Ravelston and Rosemary stick around. Ravelston’s motivation is tied up in his guilt at being rich while there is so much poverty in the world. He runs a literary magazine that seems to exist solely to funnel money to poor poets. Ravelston’s guilt is apparently strong enough to put up with George. Every time they get together, George and Ravelston do a delicate dance around who pays for the pints so that everyone saves face. The pints fuel George’s circular rants about the rat race and how he refuses to participate. Rosemary is amused by George, failing to realize that George isn’t kidding when he complains about, well, everything.

Curiously enough, I ended up enjoying Keep the Aspidistra Flying even though I loathed George and his bizarre codes of conduct. I knew that, eventually, George would have to wise up and realize that “money” has no idea that he’s waging war against it. The only thing he’s hurting is himself and Rosemary. No one gives a shit about George’s principled stance; he’s just being an idiot. The conclusion definitely makes up for everything that came before.

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