Keep the Aspidistra Flying
"The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly."
- "You're dishonoured, somehow. You've sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra."
- "You talk a great deal about aspidistras," said Ravelston.
- "They're a dashed important subject," said Gordon."
― George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published in 1936, is a socially critical novel by George Orwell. It is set in 1930s London. The main theme is Gordon Comstock's romantic ambition to defy worship of the money-god and status, and the dismal life that results.
Orwell wrote the book in 1934 and 1935, when he was living at various locations near Hampstead in London, and drew on his experiences in these and the preceding few years. At the beginning of 1928 he lived in lodgings in Portobello Road from where he started his tramping expeditions, sleeping rough and roaming the poorer parts of London. At this time he wrote a fragment of a play in which the protagonist Stone needs money for a life-saving operation for his child. Stone would prefer to prostitute his wife rather than prostitute his artistic integrity by writing advertising copy.
Gordon Comstock 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'-at which he shows great dexterity-and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. Coming from a respectable family background in which the inherited wealth has now become dissipated, Gordon resents having to work for a living. 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.
Comstock lives without luxuries in a bedsit in London, which he affords by working in a small bookshop owned by a Scot, McKechnie. He works intermittently at a magnum opus he plans to call 'London Pleasures', describing a day in London; 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. He lives without financial ambition and the need for a 'good job,' but his living conditions are uncomfortable and his job is boring.
Comstock 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 girlfriend Rosemary Waterlow, whom he met at New Albion and who continues to work there, is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. An example of his financial embarrassment is when he is desperate for a pint of beer at his local pub, but has run out of pocket money and is ashamed to cadge a drink off his fellow lodger, Flaxman.
One of Comstock's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Anti-Christ, agrees with Comstock in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and this causes strains when the practical miseries of Comstock's life become apparent. He does, however, endeavour to publish some of Comstock's work and his efforts, unbeknownst to Comstock, had resulted in Mice being published via one of his publisher contacts.