Coming Up for Air

by George Orwell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This compelling realistic fiction novel by Orwell focuses on the life, thoughts, and reflections of a man named George Bowling. As the book was published in 1939, before the beginning of World War II, Orwell combines a nostalgic look back at Bowling's childhood in London with Bowling's fear of the inevitable war approaching.

In the quote below, Bowling reflects upon a simpler time, when he was young.

1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It'll never come again. I don't mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you've either had and don't need to be told about, or haven't had and won't ever have the chance to learn.

As an adult, Bowling is disappointed by his present circumstances with his family, and his demeanor is somewhat melancholy. He attends a lecture by an anti-fascist speaker with his wife, but he is weary of the speaker's severe rhetoric.

It's a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let's all get together and have a good hate.

Bowling's thoughts reflect the typical foreboding of Orwell's writings:

War is coming. 1941, they say. And there’ll be plenty of broken crockery, and little houses ripped open like packing-cases . . . 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 or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows.

It’s all going to happen. I know it—at any rate, I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.

In an effort to "come up for air," Bowling returns to the village where he grew up, Lower Binfield. He hopes to be regenerated with joy and happy memories. But the whole town has become modernized. After an airplane accident in Lower Binfield occurs when Royal airmen are training (and Bowling thinks the war has begun), he reflects on how he felt when he heard the crash.

A noise like the Day of Judgment, and then a noise like a ton of coal falling on to a sheet of tin. That was falling bricks. I seemed to kind of melt into the pavement. ‘It’s started,’ I thought. ‘I knew it! Old Hitler didn’t wait. Just sent his bombers across without warning.’

Mainly it gives you a vision of bursting metal. You seem to see great sheets of iron bursting open. But the peculiar thing is the feeling it gives you of being suddenly shoved up against reality. It’s like being woken up by somebody shying a bucket of water over you. You’re suddenly dragged out of your dreams by a clang of bursting metal, and it’s terrible, and it’s real.

In his distinct style, Orwell combines real-life situations with deep analysis and great deliberation.

Life's here to be lived, and if we're going to be in the soup next week—well, next week is a long way off.

You know how it is when you’re...

(This entire section contains 827 words.)

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in a car alone. There’s something either in the hedges flying past you, or in the throb of the engine, that gets your thoughts running in a certain rhythm. You have the same feeling sometimes when you’re in the train. It’s a feeling of being able to see things in better perspective than usual. All kinds of things that I’d been doubtful about I felt certain about now.

Here, Bowling contemplates how war affects individual lives forever:

The bombs aren’t made that could smash it out of existence. And the chaos of it! The privateness of all those lives! John Smith cutting out the football coupons, Bill Williams swapping stories in the barber’s. Mrs Jones coming home with the supper beer. Eight million of them! Surely they’ll manage somehow, bombs or no bombs, to keep on with the life that they’ve been used to? Illusion! Baloney! It doesn’t matter how many of them there are, they’re all for it. The bad times are coming, and the streamlined men are coming too.

After his disappointing visit to his hometown, Bowling returns to his apathetic life with his family.

Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea.