Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Three months after the publication of Coming Up for Air, World War II broke out in Europe. If George Bowling was prophetic, his creator was a seer. Others saw the war coming, especially those on the Left, who, like Orwell, had fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascist forces under Francisco Franco, which would soon metastasize under Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, millions of others in England and elsewhere in the late 1930’s were, like the proverbial ostrich, hiding their heads in sand and wishing the future away.

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Coming Up for Air marked several changes in Orwell’s career. The novel was the last of four that Orwell wrote in the 1930’s, but it is immediately preceded by two important works of nonfiction: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), a moving journalistic account of poverty and unemployment in England in the middle 1930’s, and Homage to Catalonia (1938), a book about Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War that is still one of the best accounts of that conflict. Coming Up for Air was thus Orwell’s last attempt at the conventional novel; in the next (and last) ten years of his life, he would turn his energies increasingly to political and literary journalism (he wrote some of the finest in the English language) and to the political allegories—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—for which he is most famous. (The themes of both these dystopian novels can be seen in Coming Up for Air.)

Orwell’s novel is in the great tradition of English fiction and may remind readers of a number of fairly traditional precursors, from George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), to H. G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly (1920), to W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930). Yet the clearest thematic parallels may be drawn to Orwell’s American contemporary Sinclair Lewis, who in Babbitt (1922) created a fat, middle-aged man (also name George) who wanted to escape his middle-class life and who later wrote a novel (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935) warning readers of a Fascist future.

Coming Up for Air is not a great novel; among other problems, the parts pull in different directions (such as past and future) and are not tied together coherently, even in George’s masterfully idiosyncratic narration. In the history of twentieth century literature, however, as well as in the canon of Orwell’s own work, Coming Up for Air will always hold a high rank. It is a novel of ideas that contains a great character, a rich evocation of the English past, and an accurate assessment of the future. If it is not a book to rank with those of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, it is a major work by a writer who now ranks with those other names among the greatest contributors to twentieth century English literature.

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