Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.

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...

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