My Hero's Origin Story
The only superhero emerging from a houseplant
Several years ago I set out on a quest to read everything I could find of George Orwell’s. To my surprise, his most popular writings, Animal Farm and 1984, were outliers of his broader catalogue. Aside from a voluminous number essays and journalistic bylines, his bibliography includes nine novels with non-fiction books like The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia. More interesting to me, is that his lesser known fiction books have a dramatic stylistic divergence from his previously mentioned, better known fictions. Books like Coming up for Air and Burmese Days are grounded in the world that Orwell existed in, as opposed to Animal Farm and 1984 which were allegory. It was one of his last books, among his least read and most poorly reviewed, which gave birth to my nom de guerre in this Substack(luck you!)
Note - spoiler alert for basically the entire book. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Orwell published Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936, and seems to be one of the most critically misunderstood books I have read (maybe even by Orwell himself). The protagonist, is a lower middle class man named GordonComstock (where have you heard that name before?). He works in a local bookstore, and is the author of a published (though not often read) book of poetry. Though he’s had opportunities to financially improve his circumstances, he has sworn off money and has no clear goals in life aside from trying to have sex with his girlfriend Rosemary and publishing his next poetry book, which he only works on sporadically. In essence, he is a professional useless person.
Ultimately, he is able to complete and sell his new poetry book, receives an advance from a publisher, and proceeds to destroy his life in one night by wasting it all on hookers, booze, and having hookers steal the rest to buy booze. The night is capped off with his arrest which is published in the newspaper, and leads to a cascading series of events leading him to absolute poverty. On the plus side for good old Gordon, Rosemary comes to visit and have pity sex with him (yeah!)…but she gets pregnant (oof).
I’ll pause here and remind you again, that the critics did not think highly of this novel, and what they did like, they saw as utterly bleak. One critic noted this was a “savage little book” and a “harrowing and stark account of poverty”. Another wrote the book was “a summa of all the criticisms of a commercial civilization that have ever been made" Hell, even Orwell regretted writing it. However, I think they all have it wrong, including Orwell. Not to play armchair psychiatrist, but it’s possible that Orwell hated the book because it makes a point which he didn’t intend to make.
Back to the book - after Rosemary gets pregnant, the couple agree to raise it themselves, get married, and give the baby the best life possible. From here Gordon drops the poetry, gets a job at an advertising agency which he had previously rebuffed and goes “respectable”.
Did Gordon "sell-out”? Yes, but here’s the thing, for the first time in the novel, Gordon is happy. Not simply trying to convince himself of his happiness, but truly happy. It is not until he has something to live for, beyond himself that he finds contentedness. To me, is was the message of the story…not a man giving up his dream, not about the horrors of a commercialized society, and for sure not about the evils of money. It is to live for something beyond yourself.
It’s possible that this novel resonated with me so strongly because I believe the critics go it so wrong and ignored the happiness Gordon finds at the novels conclusion when he is “tied down”. Gordon spends his entire life rebelling against society and being miserable, however once he conforms (and I don’t use that word as a pejorative), he finds responsibility, and in that responsibility, he finds peace. Maybe the critics and Orwell alike dislike the novel because it reveals an uncomfortable truth…there is wisdom in society, and rebelling for the sake of rebelling will not necessarily bring you happiness.
When society has policies in place which are truly oppressive, then rebellion is appropriate in order to right a wrong, but rebellion without purpose, simply for the sake of rebelling will not bring fulfillment. That’s certainly what I’ve found in my life.
So thanks for this story George, even if I took away something you didn’t intend to leave there.
edit - previous version said Keep The Aspidistra Flying was written in 1936, when it was actually written between 1934-35 and published in 1936.