Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published 1936, is a grimly comic novel by George Orwell. It is set in 1930s London. The main theme is the protagonist's romantic ambition to give up money and status, and the squalid life that results. Orwell based the novel, in part, on experiences he had while researching another book about poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London.

A film adaptation of Keep the Aspidistra Flying was released in 1997 (it appeared in North America and New Zealand under the alternative title of A Merry War) The movie was directed by Robert Bierman, and starred Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter.

Plot summary

Gordon Comstock is a 'well-educated and reasonably intelligent' young man possessed of a minor 'talent for writing'. He has 'declared war' on what he sees as an 'overarching dependence' on money by leaving a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company called 'New Albion' and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. The 'war' (and the poetry), however, aren't going particularly well and, under the stress of his 'self-imposed exile' from affluence, Gordon has become absurd, petty and deeply neurotic.

Gordon lives in a bedsit in London, earning barely enough to keep himself alive in a small bookshop owned by a Scot, McKechnie. He works fitfully at a magnum opus he plans to call London Pleasures; meanwhile, his only published work, a slim volume of poetry entitled Mice, collects dust on the remainder shelf. He is simultaneously content with his meagre existence and also disdainful of it (in that he lives without financial ambition and the need for a 'good job,' but his living conditions are uncomfortable, his job is boring, and his impecuniousness is a frequent source of humiliation for him).

Gordon is 'obsessed' by what he sees as a pervasion of money (the 'Money God', as he calls it) behind social relationships, feeling sure that women would find him more attractive if he were better off. At the beginning of the novel, he senses that his only girlfriend Rosemary (whom he met at The Albion, and who continues to work there), is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. Throughout the novel, Gordon oscillates between self-admiration and self-loathing--one moment filled with disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him, the next writhing with shame over some imagined slight from a shop-girl.

One of Gordon's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Antichrist, agrees with Gordon in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and thus seems to have little sympathy for the practical miseries of Gordon's life (he does, however, endeavor to publish a lot of Gordon's work).

When Gordon sends off a poem to an American publication, he receives a cheque endowing him with ten pounds - for him, a considerable sum. Gordon honourably sets aside half for his sister Julia, who has always been there to lend him money and support. He treats Rosemary and Ravelston to dinner, which begins well, but deteriorates as the evening proceeds. Gordon, well-drunk, tries to force himself upon Rosemary (who won't have sex with him because he can't support the child that might result--money again). She angrily rebukes him and leaves. Gordon continues drinking, becomes violent, and ends up broke and in jail the next morning.

Ravelston bails Gordon out, but whilst he is in court, a reporter hears about his case, and writes about it in the local paper. The ensuing publicity results in Gordon losing his job at the bookshop, and, consequently, his relatively 'comfortable' lifestyle. As Gordon searches for another job, his life deteriorates, and his poetry stagnates.

Gordon finally begins working at another book shop, this one owned by the odious Mr. Cheeseman, for an even smaller wage. Determined to sink to the lowest level of society--to a world without money or moral obligation--Gordon takes a run-down room in a Lambeth slum and finally reaches his economic and spiritual nadir.

In an apparent gesture of faith, Rosemary comes back to him, to his new, even dingier apartment. They make love, but the scene ends coldly. Later, however, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant, and informs Gordon. Gordon is presented with the choice between leaving Rosemary to a life of social shame, or marrying her and returning to "respectability" by taking back the job he once so deplored at the New Albion.

With relief, he chooses Rosemary and respectability. He throws 'London Pleasures' down a gutter, marries Rosemary, and resumes his advertising career, happily plunging into a campaign to promote a new product to prevent foot odour.

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