Here’s our first George Orwell review since The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which we covered back in 2016.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is also a book we won. Hurray! That was courtesy of Alma Books in a competition we entered.
That cost-effective consideration is very much in keeping with the books themes, which examine the nature of wealth and the human capacity to abandon it. Oh, and plants. Don’t forget the plants.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying and the Study of Wealth
Right, so Orwell’s work was more social criticism. It’s a reflection on the middle-class life of his era and its self-satisfaction.
Orwell wrote the wort around 1934 and it was published in 1936 as one of his first books. Remember, he didn’t find fame until a decade later.
The plot is about Gordon Comstock, who declares war on his mindless dependence on money.
He wants away from the money-God with the goal of abandoning leading a life of poverty.
Comstock leaves his job as an advertising copywriter and he begins his new life in a low-paying job at a bookshop. That’s so he can focus on his real passion of writing poetry. Orwell writes of his central character:
“He drove his mind into the abyss where poetry is written.”
As the novel progresses, his choice of penury begins to play on his mind as he struggles with his decision. Wealth and an easy life is just a moment away from him with his family situation, but should he abandon his more simplistic goals?
And all the while, in the shabby room he’s moved to, there’s an aspidistra on the windowsill. A plant he considers to have, “Mingy, lower-middle class decency.”
The work is very in keeping with what Sartre wrote in Nausea (1938). But predating it by a few years, this is, arguably, Orwell’s most existential novel.
Comstock laments the nature of modern life and what it does to people.
“This life we live nowadays. It’s not life, it’s stagnation death-in-life. Look at all these bloody houses and the meaningless people inside them. Sometimes I think we’re all corpses. Just rotting upright.”
But other people he meets are quick to judge his life decisions.
Comstock isn’t heroic in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. His solution, the fightback against the system, is ineffectual. As he’s told:
“The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing. One can’t put things right in a hole-and-corner way, if you take my meaning.”
Considering this an early work from Orwell, it’s an interesting one. As you’d expect for a writer of his calibre.
Comstock isn’t a main character many people can get behind, but the themes of Keep the Aspidistra Flying are more relevant than ever.
His character arc is about whether or not he sticks with his working-class life, or if he calls it quits for a “happy” ending. How Orwell develops the plot is clever and humorous—a fine early work, even if it does lack the colossal might of his most famous books.
But it’s also an incredibly pertinent topic to cover.
In this hard-right capitalist society of the West, you either sell your soul to the devil in dog eat dog fashion to get success (money), or lead an unnoteworthy existence.
But this is the world we live in, where people are judged by their bank balance. That’s the best economic system and mindset we’ve achieved by 2022. And it’s bizarre.
Wanton abandon of a life of wealth is quite rare, but we’ve seen modern examples of it in stories like Into the Wild (1996), about Chris McCandless.
Meanwhile, modern works like Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis (James Davies) explore how this relentless drive to make money is making many of us ill.
And only a few people really benefit from it financially.
As with so many of Orwell’s works, and why he remains such a genius writer, is he could be so remarkably prescient.
Reading books like this, or Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and it’s like nothing has changed.
In fact, readings of the latter took place in London recently as a way for people to comprehend the staggering poverty crisis that’s developed over the last 12 years.
But the main difference with Keep the Aspidistra Flying and modern life is, you can’t do what Orwell’s character did.
It’s not possible to just abandon your life and work from a bookshop and ignore money. Minimum wage is a one-way ticket to living off foodbanks and being incapable of affording or the most basic rents.
For us, the work is far from Orwell’s most impressive. Yet, it’s one of his most worrying.
It’ll make you think about the ease in which many people lapse into mindless individualism in the name of wealth.
But it’s all so very stupid and silly.
Orwell, a highly compassionate young man viewing poverty first-hand in the 1920s, was appalled by it. And the tragedy is his prescient warnings to the world have been ignored.
The Problems With the Modern World
For us, one of the most frustratingly idiotic (see The Psychology of Stupidity) aspects of modern life is the success mindset.
This often takes the form of a set of soundbites that are rolled out to breeze across complex situations:
- If you’re poor you should work harder
- Work hard and you shall succeed
- We all have the same 24 hours in the day
- If you’re poor, get a better paying job
We see these all the time online. They’re used by anyone who’s sold themselves to capitalist ideals. As despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary, a lot of people think the very best rise to the top. The wealthy have worked harder, are just superior, and all that jazz.
If you’re poor, it can only be down to laziness.
Now, in America the stats from early 2022 show 63% of US citizens live from paycheck to paycheck. That’s over 150 million people. That’s either:
- A disastrous economic system that simply isn’t working and needs a radical overhaul
- 150 million lazy people
And we’ve come across people who just think it’s 150+ million lazy people.
The problems here stack up quite comprehensively, as the wealthier people get the less compassionate they tend to be. That’s been proven and you can read about it in articles such as Why Are Rich People So Mean?
Wired calls it Rich Asshole Syndrome.
We’ve seen it a lot in online comments sections, people (at least claiming to be wealthy) sneering down at everyone else in haughty fashion.
It’s one of the more tedious aspects of capitalism. Not least if you point out the stupidity of their actions (and the tedious callousness behind them), you get accused of being jealous by a horde of pro-capitalists presuming they’ll, also, one day be rich.
The most ridiculous element for us is people think it’s something to aspire to.
They want to be rich like those other people, which creates this vicious cycle of those who are lucky enough to achieve such status then going around being awful human beings.
But the process is pretty much complete already. With that mindset, they’re already mightily free from compassion. All that’s left to complete the set is the belated arrival of wealth and they’ve gone full circle.
Why on Earth is that something to aspire to? Who wants to reach that status where you’re completely repugnant and stunningly ignorant to the world around you?
In the name of financial success, it’s often only complete moral bankruptcy that’s the price you need to pay. Not shabby.
And the knock-on effects for everyone else aren’t too bad, either. A society dominated by chronic, malignant narcissists doesn’t cause too many issues.
It’s just 99% of the rest of society has to suffer—in poverty, depression, anxiety, with ever-growing mental health issues, and all whilst the environment gets trashed.
Oh well, if you work hard enough you’ll succeed and all that.
It just helps a tad if you’re from a loaded family already and all that *cough* ignore that bit! It’s really all about hard work.