Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Orwellian Passive Antiheroism Features Within Modern Capitalism
Nowadays, financial and employment-related matters frequently become the subject of concern for many people. A widespread system, capitalism implies that individuals themselves are to take care of their bread and butter, but not everybody succeeds in these conditions. However, this situation is hardly new. In his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell touches upon the same subject and examines what may happen to a person under these circumstances. On the example of Gordon Comstock, the writer examines how a unique type of an antihero develops. Similar to the protagonist, contemporary members of capitalistic society may become a passive antihero notable for their distorted attitude toward money, job, friendship, and romantic relationships which makes the novel relevant to the present. Money is portrayed as the manifestation of evil the absence of which paradoxically makes a human being unhappy and pathetic. The main character loathes money because he lacks it and, consequently, life values are unavailable to him. At the same time, he knows every detail associated with the object of his contempt and its acceptance by salespersons: “…that absurd little thing, all by itself, sticking on the end of your finger like a tiddley-wink. The shop-girl sniffs. She spots immediately that it’s your last threepence in the world.” He is maniacally scrupulous about the impression he makes on people in relation to his financial opportunities and almost always thinks about what he hates – money. With these constant thoughts, Comstock has a masochistic desire to make himself small and miserable. In other words, he not only simply notices the fact that he is poor, but also “savors” it as if trying to humiliate himself. Rather than try to find new, better sources of income, at least temporarily, he prefers doing nothing except counting coins and being in debt.
On the surface, it seems that Gordon despises money. The further events are, however, surprising: in the course of time, he faces the choice between applying his skills in advertising and shifting with little money; when he chooses the first option, he turns out to be…happy. What makes the character an antihero is that he secretly, passively longed for wealth and denied it as a form of psychological defense, unable to admit it openly. Whether people who loudly criticize money and wealth actually want it may be questionable, yet the story gives modern readers food for thought: would they be happy if they had a chance to obtain money this way? Is there such an antihero lurking in their minds?
Similar to changing the attitude toward money, job-related issues also demonstrate that the protagonist is an antihero. As the story runs, a reader learns that Gordon used to have a well-paid job in an advertising company “New Albion,” but eventually quitted and started working in a book store, even though he was paid little. His dream to become a writer clashes the harsh reality; just like he accepts money in his life, he is involved in advertising again in the end – again, the act of betrayal is present. Due to this double disloyalty, the ending feels like the gloomy final chapter of “1984” because Winston’s rebellion is turned into loyalty to The Party. Indeed, what looks like a happy ending is actually the funeral because the Gordon has lost the core of his character and turned into one of the ordinary middle-class citizens with no ambitions or desire to express himself. The moment when Comstock finds his poem draft is especially illustrative. As he looks at the unrealized work of his, it seems absurd for him that he wanted to write: “The sole fruit of his exile, a two years’ fetus which would never be born. Well, he had finished with all that. Poetry! Poetry, indeed! In 1935.” This dramatic change speaks for itself: once an intelligent, promising poet who just lacked luck and sensitive audience, Gordon is now an empty body and antihero belittling the power of art and life inspiration. This transformation becomes a warning for a modern reader who might consider choosing the job they do not like since the salary is good – it is a perfect opportunity to step back and look at the situation from the outside.
The antiheroic nature of the main character is also materialized in his relationship with his friend Philip Ravelston. Unlike the self-centered, resentful protagonist, Philip is more empathic and perfectly understands his friend’s needs because he “could always see another person’s point of view.” Still, Gordon cannot eliminate his fixed idea that money matters in every aspect of human existence and even close connections are not the reason to relax and enjoy interaction. Comstock childishly avoids viewing their friendship as the territory free of prejudice because he never believes that people might be generous and sincerely mean good to other people. In fact, it is likely that Gordon projects this attitude from his own: as an antihero, he is unable to be a real friend and stop expecting a wicked trick from everywhere. The author emphasizes how stubborn Gordon is when it comes to friendship and money: “His friendship with Ravelston was only possible on the understanding that he paid his share of everything.” Having realized it, a reader may reconsider their social network and make sure that only for antiheroes, everything is measured with wealth. Thus, the main character’s antiheroism manifests itself in his inability to be on equal terms with his friend which devaluates the very concept of friendship and suggests that Gordon will never change for the better, for he has no values related to interpersonal integrity and trust.
Finally, love suffers the same fate as friendship: instead of enjoying it, the passive antihero stays away from it, too scared to take first steps and dare build his life outside the conventional norms. That is why, after all troubles he had given to Rosemary, such as touching her up against her will, he ends up marrying her because the woman is pregnant – Gordon can do it and accept the ordinary lifestyle only after he betrays himself and turns into a complete antihero. It is symbolic that Gordon wants an aspidistra in his new house – the plant stands for a settled and simultaneously stagnant life. His desire is derived from the fact that “’it’s the proper thing to have” – thus, it is apparent that the character’s moral decay is complete. In a similar way, many modern people consider marriage as a way of growing up and settling down rather than the quintessence of love; the novel becomes an implicit critical comment on such actions.
Overall, the modern world is very much alike the world pictured in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. People face the same challenges related to earning money, choosing a career, making friends, and finding one’s love. Because the world demands to give up fantasies and cherished dreams, Gordon gradually becomes an antihero who refuses to sell his abilities for the sake of the “money-god.” Instead, he consciously ceases to act and complaints about the reality ignoring people who wish him only good and betraying his ideals. Considering the similarity between the issues discussed in the book and today’s problems, the modern generation will probably look at the subject from a different angle and reflect on finding balance between self-realization and surviving.