Coming Up for Air

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Coming Up for Air is a 1939 critically acclaimed, satirical novel written by famed English novelist and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, most commonly known as George Orwell. It is, essentially, a critique on England’s apathy and disinterest towards Hitler and the new totalitarian regime, and the people’s belief that the War won’t reach them. In the novel, Orwell expresses his opinions about the current state of England, his nostalgia about the old British ways and the joys of childhood, and even gives his own foresight about what might happen with the English society at the start of the Second World War.

The novel tells the story of George “Fatty” Bowling, a forty-year-old successful insurance salesman who leads a simple, ordinary, and dull life. He lives in a good suburban neighborhood, he has a comfortable, action-less job, and he is unhappily married to the humorless Hilda, with whom he has two ungrateful children. One day, he unexpectedly wins a bet he made on a horse which had little chance of winning. In hopes of escaping the reality he currently lives in and reconnecting with his past, he decides to spend the money by going back to his idyllic childhood home of Lower Binfield.

He expects to find some peace and serenity, however, he soon realizes that nothing is the same as he remembers. Many of the old people he once knew were long gone and almost no one recognizes him anymore. Just like Bowling himself has aged and changed over the years, the village and the people have transformed as well. He realizes that he could never feel the same peaceful, joyful feeling he felt when he was just a boy, without a single worry in his mind.

Moreover, he is shocked to find that almost the entire village has been turned into one big weapons production factory and a training camp for British pilots. As one of the bombs accidentally goes off, he is reminded that no one can escape the impending war, thus Bowling decides to return home to his wife and children and continue his monotonous day-to-day routine.

Many readers argue that Bowling’s awareness of the war and the dangers of the new political regime and movement, but also his unwillingness and powerlessness to do anything about it, reflect Orwell’s own pessimistic attitude and helplessness. Through Bowling, Orwell explains how apathy and disinterest are two of the most toxic feelings a person (or even a society) can feel. He argues that “a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea . . . ” This is why many readers and literary critics think that Comping Up for Air carries a powerful message; and the title itself is a literal metaphor of a drowning person trying to breathe again, or in other words, a powerless person trying to escape their negative reality.

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