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Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published 1936, is a grimly comic novel by George Orwell. It is set in 1930s Londonmarker. The main theme is the protagonist's romantic ambition to give up money and status, and the dismal life that results.


Orwell wrote the book in 1934 and 1935 when he was living at various locations near Hampsteadmarker in London, but drew on his experiences over the preceding few years. At the beginning of 1928 he lived in lodgings in Portobello Roadmarker from where he started his tramping expeditions, sleeping rough and roaming in the poorer parts of London. At this time he wrote a fragment of a play in which the protagonist Stone needs money for his child's life-saving operation. Stone would prefer to prostitute his wife than to prostitute his artistic integrity by writing advertising copy. Orwell's early publications appeared in The Adelphi, a left-wing literary journal edited by Sir Richard Rees, a wealthy and idealistic baronet who made Orwell one of his protégés.

At the end of 1931 Orwell attempted to get himself put in prison over Christmas. He was picked up for being drunk and disorderly but was released after a weekend in a police cell and a fine. The incident was described in the article "Clink". In 1932 he took a job as a teacher in a small school in West London. From there he would take journeys into the country at places like Burnham Beechesmarker. There are allusions to Burnham Beeches and walks in the country in Orwell's correspondence at this time with Brenda Salkeld and Eleanor Jacques.

In October 1934, after nine months at his home in Southwoldmarker, Orwell's Aunt Nellie Limouzin found him a job as a part-time assistant in "Booklover's Corner", a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead run by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. The Westropes, who were friends of Nellie in the Esperanto movement, had an easy-going outlook and provided him with comfortable accommodation at Warwick Mansions, Pond Street. He was job sharing with Jon Kimche who also lived with the Westropes. Orwell worked at the shop in the afternoons, having the mornings free to write and the evenings to socialise. His essay "Bookshop Memories", published in November 1936, recalled aspects of his time at the bookshop.

At the beginning of 1935 he moved into a flat in Parliament Hillmarker where his landlady was studying at the University of London. It was through a joint party with his landlady here that Orwell met his future wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy. In August Orwell moved into a flat in Kentish Townmarker, which he shared with Michael Sayer and Rayner Heppenstall. Over this period he was working on Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and had two novels Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter published. At the beginning of 1936 Orwell was dealing with pre-publication issues for Keep the Aspidistra Flying while on his tour in the North of England collecting material for The Road to Wigan Pier. The novel was published by Victor Gollancz on 20 April 1936.

The Aspidistra is a hardy, long-living plant that is used as a house plant in England. It was especially popular in the Victorian era, but had fallen out of favour by the 20th century, and had become a music hall joke appearing in songs such as "Biggest Aspidistra in the World", of which Gracie Fields made a recording.

Plot summary

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 in a bedsit in London, earning enough to live without any luxuries in a small bookshop owned by a Scotmarker, McKechnie. He works intermittently 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. 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.

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 (whom he met at The Albion, and who continues to work there), is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. Throughout the novel, Comstock 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 the strongest descriptions of his abject poverty is when he is pierced by a ravishing thirst but cannot even afford a pint of beer at the Crichton, his local pub, feeling too ashamed even to ask his fellow lodger Flaxman for some money.

One of Comstock's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Antichrist, agrees with Comstock in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and thus seems to have little sympathy for the practical miseries of Comstock's life. He does, however, endeavour to publish some of Comstock's work and his efforts had resulted in Mice being published via one of his publisher contacts (unbeknownst to Comstock).

Gordon and Rosemary have little time together—she works late and his landlady forbids female visitors to her tenants. Rosemary won't have sex with him but he persuades her to spend a day with him in the country near Burnham Beeches where he hopes to break her resolve. However, what is intended to be a pleasant day out away from London's grime turns into a disaster when they cannot find a pub open and are forced to eat an unappetizing lunch at a fancy, overpriced hotel instead. Gordon has to pay the bill with all the money he had set aside for their jaunt and worries about having to borrow money from Rosemary. At the critical moment when he is about to take her virginity, she raises the issue of contraception and his interest flags because he could not afford such things—money again.

Having sent a poem to an American publication, Gordon suddenly receives from them a cheque worth ten pounds—a considerable sum for him at the time. He intends to set 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 the evening deteriorates as it proceeds. Gordon, drunk, tries to force himself upon Rosemary but she angrily rebukes him and leaves. Gordon continues drinking, drags Ravelston with him to visit a pair of prostitutes, and ends up broke and in a police cell the next morning. He is guilt-ridden over the thought of being unable to pay his sister back the money because one of the tarts stole his £5 note.

Ravelston pays Gordon's fine after a brief appearance before the magistrate, but a reporter hears about the 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. After living with his friend Ravelston and his girlfriend Hermione during his time of unemployment, Gordon ends up working at another book shop and cheap twopenny lending library owned by the sinister Mr. Cheeseman for an even smaller wage of 30 shillings a week. This was 10 shillings less than he was earning before because he had been sacked on account of his drunken escapade. Determined to sink to the lowest level of society in a world without money or moral obligation, Gordon takes a run-down room in a dire Lambethmarker slum.

Rosemary, having avoided Gordon for some time, suddenly comes to visit him one day at his dismal lodgings. Despite his terrible poverty and shabbiness, they make love but it is without any emotion or passion. Later, Rosemary drops in one day unexpectedly at the library, having not been in touch with Gordon for some time, and tells him that she is pregnant. Gordon is presented with the choice between leaving Rosemary to a life of social shame at the hands of her family—since both of them reject the idea of an abortion—or marrying her and returning to a life of respectability by taking back the job he once so deplored at the New Albion with its £4 salary.

He chooses Rosemary and respectability and then experiences a feeling of relief at having abandoned his anti-money principles with such comparative ease. After two years of abject failure and poverty, he throws his poetic work 'London Pleasures' down a drain, marries Rosemary, and resumes his advertising career, happily plunging into a campaign to promote a new product to prevent foot odour. In his various lodgings, Gordon has always had to share his room with aspidistras which continue to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. In his lonely walks around mean streets, aspidistras seem to appear in every lower-middle class window. As the book closes, Gordon wins an argument with Rosemary to install an aspidistra in their new small but comfortable flat on London's Edgware Road.


  • Gordon Comstock is a 'well-educated and reasonably intelligent' young man possessed of a minor 'talent for writing'
  • Rosemary Waterlow - Comstock's girlfriend, whom he met at the advertising agency, but about whom little is revealed
  • Philip Ravelston - the wealthy left-wing publisher who supports and encourages Comstock
  • Julia Comstock - Gordon's sister who is as poor as he and who, having always made sacrifices for him, continues to do so
  • Mrs. Wisbeach - lodging house landlady who imposes strict rules on her tenants
  • Mr. Flaxman - fellow lodger, a salesman who is temporarily separated from his wife
  • Mr. McKechnie - the lazy Scot who owns the first bookshop
  • Mr. Cheeseman - sinister and suspicious owner of the second book shop


No need to repeat the blasphemous comments which everyone who had known Gran'pa Comsock made on that last sentence.
But it is worth pointing out that the chunk of granite on which it was inscribed weighed close on five tons and was quite certainly put there with the intention, though not the conscious intention, of making sure that Gran'pa Comstock shouldn't get up from underneath it.
If you want to know what a dead man's relatives really think of him, a good rough test is the weight of his tombstone.

Gordon and his friends had quite an exciting time with their 'subversive ideas'.
For a whole year they ran an unofficial monthly paper called the Bolshevik, duplicated with jellygraph.
It advocated Socialism, free love, the dismemberment of the British Empire, the abolition of the Army and Navy, and so on and so forth.
It was great fun.
Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a Socialist.
At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait.

Gordon put his hand against the swing door.
He even pushed it open a few inches.
The warm fog of smoke and beer slipped through the crack.
A familiar, reviving smell; nevertheless as he smelled it his nerve failed him.
Impossible to go in.
He turned away.
He couldn't go shoving in that saloon bar with only fourpence halfpenny in his pocket.
Never let other people buy your drinks for you!
The first commandment of the moneyless.
He made off down the dark pavement.

Hermione always yawned at the mention of Socialism, and refused even to read Antichrist.
' Don't talk to me about the lower classes,' she used to say.
' I hate them.
They smell.'
And Ravelston adored her.

This woman business!
What a bore it is!
What a pity we can't cut it right out, or at least be like the animals—minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity.
Take a cock pheasant, for example.
He jumps up on the hen's backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave.
And no sooner is it over than the whole subject is out of his mind.
He hardly even notices his hens any longer; he ignores them, or simply pecks them if they come too near his food.

Before, he had fought against the money code, and yet he had clung to his wretched remnant of decency.
But now it was precisely from decency that he wanted to escape.
He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself—to sink, as Rosemary had said.
It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being under ground.
He liked to think of the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes...
He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal ...
It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself forever.

Literary significance and criticism

Cyril Connolly wrote two reviews at the time of the novel's publication. In the Daily Telegraph he described it as a "savage and bitter book" and said "the truths which the author propounds are so disagreeable that one ends by dreading their mention". In the New Statesman he wrote "a harrowing and stark account of poverty" and referred to "clear and violent language, at times making the reader feel he is in a dentist's chair with the drill whirring".

In a letter to George Woodcock on 28 September 1946 referring to the Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell noted that it was one of the two or three books he was ashamed of. He dittoed his comment on A Clergyman's Daughter that "it was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn't to have published it, but I was desperate for money". He added that "At that time I simply hadn't a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100."

Film adaptation

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

See also


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