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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

In 1938, at a point when Orwell had developed a distinct and known literary voice (but was not yet famous), he decided to write a novel that would achieve three things: warn against war, remind people of the values of traditional English life, and offer a glimmer of hope for...

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In 1938, at a point when Orwell had developed a distinct and known literary voice (but was not yet famous), he decided to write a novel that would achieve three things: warn against war, remind people of the values of traditional English life, and offer a glimmer of hope for the future during a dark time. Coming Up for Air, released in 1939, does this and is also, in the words of Orwell biographer, Bernard Crick, the "most English of his novels."

In this first-person novel, 45-year-old George Bowling journeys back to the home of his boyhood. Bowling, who has won some money betting on horse racing, keeps the news hidden from his wife and children and decides to use the winnings to finance a trip to his childhood home. This, to Bowling, is "coming up for air." He has faced the unpleasant fact that a war is coming and wants to go to a tranquil place where he doesn't have to think about it for a time. He also wants a brief vacation away from his West Bletchley suburban London home's stresses: he wishes to get away from his bullying wife as well as the ceaseless pressure to earn a living.

Bowling has idyllic memories of his childhood home in Lower Binfield from the period before World War I. However, when he returns, not surprisingly, everything has changed. It is not the tranquil place of fishing ponds that he remembers (his fishing pond has turned into a trash dump). The town has grown; it has a munitions plant; his childhood home has been turned into a tea shop; and his old girlfriend Elsie is now old and ugly. However, as the fat and toothless (he has false teeth) Bowling says to himself, no woman would ever look at him again unless paid—an acknowledgement of his own loss of looks.

Bowling is not foolish or sentimental enough to think he can reclaim the past in Lower Binfield, and he also recognizes that, as a middle-aged man, he can't expect to regain the optimism of youth. The novel has an anti-climatic ending, as Bowling returns on the train to London without any great event or transformation having occurred.

He muses, “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare.” He thinks, therefore, that at best, he has shored himself up for what is to come: a grim future in which perhaps a collective sense of cultural Englishness that remains a part of people, despite all the changes, may sustain him.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092

Coming Up for Air was George Orwell’s last conventional novel before he went off to write the two antiutopian fictions, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), for which he is most famous, and the only novel he ever wrote in the first person. It is a book with little plot in the usual sense, more a memory play and prophetic fantasy. Yet it is an important novel of ideas focusing on the radical changes experienced in England in the first four decades of the twentieth century—and the frightening changes still to come, in a decade of world war, mass death, and unprecedented destruction.

The novel is divided into four books, and the structure helps the reader to separate past from present. In book 1, George Bowling awakens (on “the day I got my new false teeth”) to a solution for spending the seventeen pounds he has secretly won on the horses. It is January of 1938, and George feels trapped, “never free,” not only because of his own family, or the bland and plastic world England is quickly becoming, but also because of the threat of war that looms overhead in the bombers George is always hearing. George is in “a kind of prophetic mood” this day; “I felt as if I was the only person awake in a city of sleep-walkers.” George will escape the “prison” of his middle-class existence by returning, after a break of more than twenty years, to the Oxfordshire village some fifty miles north of London where he was born and reared.

Book 2 is a series of memories of George’s childhood in Lower Binfield, a rich evocation of English village life at the turn of the century. Among other recollections, George describes how he and his brother would go fishing and how one day he discovered a pool at the Binfield House estate with “enormous” carp in it. As things in life often work out, George was never able to go back and fish for them. George’s father is a seed merchant, and life for this class of small shopkeepers is changing for the worse in the early 1900’s. When the big retail seedsmen move in, that life is effectively killed. George escapes the village by way of World War I (he is sent to France, wounded, and spends the rest of the war in a remote English outpost), but he has ever since held on to his memories of this idyllic life before the war: market days in Lower Binfield, “walking out” with Elsie Waters, working in Grimmett’s grocery. Life was actually harsher then and people worked harder, George knows. Yet people also had more: “A feeling of security, even when they weren’t secure. More exactly, it was a feeling of continuity.” The war helped George pass “right out of the shop-keeping orbit,” and he has not been back to Binfield since his mother’s funeral. He has since married, fathered two children, and worked for the Flying Salamander insurance company for “close on eighteen years,” and yet he knows that his “active life, if I ever had one, ended when I was sixteen.”

By book 3, little has actually happened in the present, but the memory play is over and George and Hilda attend a lecture on anti-Fascism, where George’s prophetic mood returns:The old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots. I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think.

George suddenly realizes that other people, such as his friend Porteous, a retired schoolteacher, cannot see the enormous changes coming.They think that England will never change and that England’s the whole world. Can’t grasp that it’s just a left-over, a tiny corner that the bombs happen to have missed. But what about the new kind of men from eastern Europe, the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets? They’re on our track. Not long before they catch up with us. No Marquis of Queensbury rules for those boys. And all the decent people are paralysed.

On June 17, George escapes the threats of the present and future for the peacefulness of the past. He has never felt happier than when he was fishing as a boy; he will return and fish that pool with the enormous carp in it.

As book 4 demonstrates, however, “you can’t go home again,” for “home” no longer exists. Lower Binfield, a village of two thousand souls when George knew it as a child, has “been swallowed” and become a “good-sized manufacturing town” of twenty-five thousand. The signs of change are all around George as he wanders through the town in search of his past. His family home and business of “Samuel Bowling, Corn & Seed Merchant” has become “Wendy’s Tea-Shop.” (“The only shop that was still in the same hands was Sarazins’, the people who’d ruined Father.”) Elsie Waters, whom he recognizes and surreptitiously follows, has become “merely shapeless . . . a kind of soft lumpy cylinder, like a bag of meal.” The carp pool that George has fantasized about for so long has become a rubbish dump in the middle of a housing tract of “faked-up Tudor houses.”One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere.

George’s revelations, however, are not over. The stocking factory in Lower Binfield is now making bombs—which is why George hears bombers overhead all the time during this visit—and on his last walk around his childhood village, he witnesses the devastation when a bomb is accidentally dropped on the town. George has had a double vision. “The old life’s finished, and to go about looking for it is just waste of time.” Yet what does exist, in place of this idyllic past, is the horrifying future: “War is coming. 1941, they say.... It’s all going to happen.” The horror of this prophecy is only lessened by Hilda’s attack on George when he returns home, when his vision of the future, like his memories of the past, fades when he confronts the ugliness of the squabbling present.

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