Coming Up for Air

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.

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