Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163
The main character in George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air is George Bowling. He is a middle-aged man, complacent in his life. He works as an insurance salesman and has a wife and two kids. The story is told from his point of view, as he looks back on his life (and travels to Lower Binfield, his childhood home). His wife, Hilda Bowling, is a serious, somewhat depressed woman. Their life, with its struggles with money and children, have made her persistently worried, and their marriage has made them both unhappy.
Elsie is George’s old girlfriend, a woman he remembers as beautiful and feminine. When he goes back and sees her, he finds that she is nothing like his memory; she has aged and lost the beauty and allure she once held. Old Porteus is George’s friend, an old school teacher whose depressing company and inability to see the present clearly sparks George’s interest in returning to happier times.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance representative. Fat and sentimental, with a mouth full of false teeth, George is in every way the lower-middle-class Englishman, even to his love of reading and his nostalgia for an Edwardian, pre-World War I past that can no longer be found, except perhaps in memory. In order to escape the increasingly bland routine in his London suburban home, as well as his complaining wife and children, George fantasizes about taking a trip to his childhood home of Lower Binfield, a small town in rural Oxfordshire. He discovers, however, that one cannot go home again, for Lower Binfield, as many towns have, has become devoid of individuality as a result of “progress.” The childhood carp pool George dreams about fishing in again, for example, has become a rubbish dump in the middle of a housing tract of fake Tudor homes. George’s family home and the family business of Samuel Bowling, Corn & Seed Merchant has been reduced to Wendy’s Tea-Shop. George is a sentimentalist who gets teary over primroses, a middle-aged man who fantasizes about women without being able to do anything about them. He wants only peace and an authentic England, and he is right in his predictions about the start of World War II and about what will happen to England after the war: It will become even more standardized. George is a fleshy, three-dimensional character who is both a sentimentalist about the past and a prophet of the future. The other characters in the novel pale in comparison to him.
Hilda Bowling, George’s wife of fifteen years. Hilda has been worn down by marriage and by trying to rear two children on George’s limited income. She no longer shares any of George’s dreams and walks through her days with a “perpetual brooding, worried look in her eyes.” It is largely because of Hilda—if only in reaction to what their married life has become in fifteen years—that George’s adventures take place.
Elsie Waters, George’s first lover. George romanticizes his relationship with Elsie, which occurred years before in Lower Binfield. When he finally sees her in the present, however, he discovers that she has become a shapeless old woman.
Joe Bowling, George’s brother, with whom George shared many childhood adventures, particularly fishing, an activity which in his present fantasies has taken on almost epic proportions. Joe is dead now, as is the past that George hoped to find in Lower Binfield.
Porteous, a retired English public-school master and an old friend of George. George respects “old Porteous” but is shocked to realize how out of touch the older man is. The retired schoolteacher recognizes neither the real threat of Adolf Hitler nor the impending doom of England after the war.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458
George Bowling is one of George Orwell’s most memorable fictional creations, which is all the more remarkable considering that the author himself was a thin, tubercular, leftist intellectual at the time of this writing. Orwell created a three-dimensional imaginary character who is almost totally unlike his creator. (The only points at which they meet are in their love of reading and in their nostalgia for a past that can no longer be found, except in memory.)
George Bowling is not a pretty character: fat and forty-five, with a mouth full of false teeth. (“No woman, I thought as I worked the soap round my belly, will ever look twice at me again, unless she’s paid to.”) He is in nearly every way normal: “But I’d been a good husband and father for fifteen years and I was beginning to get fed up with it.” He scrutinizes himself often in this novel of mid-life crisis, and his self-appraisal is fairly accurate:I’m vulgar, I’m insensitive, and I fit in with my environment. So long as anywhere in the world things are being sold on commission and livings are picked up by sheer brass and lack of finer feelings, chaps like me will be doing it.
On the other hand, George complains, people often forget that a fat man has feelings; “I’m fat, but I’m thin inside.”
Most of George’s feelings are for his past, for the happy childhood years in Lower Binfield. Even though change was occurring even then (his father, after all, was slowly being strangled economically), his Edwardian, prewar youth continues to glow for George in memory. “Is it gone for ever? I’m not certain,” he muses at the end of book 1, before plunging down the rabbithole of memory. “But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.” Yet if George spends most of his time in memories of the past, he spends the rest of it in worries of the future.
Orwell directs the reader’s sympathies to this fat, sentimental figure, a man who gets teary over primroses, who wants only peace and peacefulness, who fantasizes about women but is too awkward and overweight to do anything but dream. The other characters in Coming Up for Air, however, are hardly as sympathetic. George’s wife, Hilda, lacks “any kind of joy in life” and carries “a perpetual brooding, worried look in her eyes.” Elsie Waters is even sadder. (“It’s queer how these women go to pieces once they’re married,” George muses.) He shows little sensitivity to others who may be trapped in the same middle-class existence that he is trying so desperately to escape.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18
Hammond, J. R. A George Orwell Companion, 1982.
Lee, Robert A. Orwell’s Fiction, 1969.
Patai, Daphne. The Orwell Mystique, 1984.
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