(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)