Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Coming Up for Air is a novel of ideas, and it contains them about all three of the time zones that humans inhabit: past, present, and future. Orwell sees what has happened to England in the past and what is happening to it in the present, and he is worried about what is going to happen to his country in the near future.

The strongest parts of the novel evoke George’s youth, that period between the Boer War and World War I when rural England existed in a kind of extended nineteenth century sunset. Orwell is clearly as sentimental about this bucolic past (through the richness of his descriptions) as his narrator George Bowling is. The present that George is trying to escape, on the other hand, is simply awful. Yet readers can see the changes coming even in George’s childhood, when small shopkeepers were being forced out through economic growth. That same “progress” has continued unabated to George’s present in 1938, and it infects both the London where George now lives (in the ugly “Building Society” row homes in West Bletchley) and the bustling manufacturing town that Lower Binfield has become by the time that George revisits it.

Orwell’s sharpest social criticism is reserved for this bland and plastic present. George stops by a “milk-bar” (fast-food stand) in book 1, and his frankfurter that tastes like fish leads to a diatribe on the cheapness and artificiality of contemporary English life:That’s the way we’re...

(The entire section is 560 words.)