Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136
Coming Up for Air by George Orwell explores many themes, such as war and conformity.
War is the most prominent theme, as the protagonist George Bowling tells of his childhood backgrounded by the Boer War and World War I. The story is set in 1938, and as new conflicts arise, George worries for the future of England.
As in many of Orwell's other works, conformity is an important theme. George lives in one of many cookie-cutter row homes. His day-to-day life is bland, and the society around him is making endless sacrifices in the name of progress.
These themes represented Orwell's own concerns. Coming Up for Air was published just before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and ignited World War II. In the years prior, Orwell and millions of others witnessed the rise of brutal dictators and autocrats.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Coming Up for Air is a novel of ideas, and it contains them about all three of the time zones that humans inhabit: past, present, and future. Orwell sees what has happened to England in the past and what is happening to it in the present, and he is worried about what is going to happen to his country in the near future.
The strongest parts of the novel evoke George’s youth, that period between the Boer War and World War I when rural England existed in a kind of extended nineteenth century sunset. Orwell is clearly as sentimental about this bucolic past (through the richness of his descriptions) as his narrator George Bowling is. The present that George is trying to escape, on the other hand, is simply awful. Yet readers can see the changes coming even in George’s childhood, when small shopkeepers were being forced out through economic growth. That same “progress” has continued unabated to George’s present in 1938, and it infects both the London where George now lives (in the ugly “Building Society” row homes in West Bletchley) and the bustling manufacturing town that Lower Binfield has become by the time that George revisits it.
Orwell’s sharpest social criticism is reserved for this bland and plastic present. George stops by a “milk-bar” (fast-food stand) in book 1, and his frankfurter that tastes like fish leads to a diatribe on the cheapness and artificiality of contemporary English life:That’s the way we’re going nowadays.Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth.
Even Lower Binfield has not been spared this artificial standardization:Say what you like—call it silly, childish, anything—but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird-baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beechwoods used to be?
It is not surprising that George’s Edwardian childhood feels, even in memory, so authentic and tangible.
It is the future, however, about which Orwell is most concerned. War is imminent, and Orwell is worried, not only about the bombs that are already beginning to fall (if only accidentally) but also about the world after this war, when totalitarian regimes are certain to dominate. There is a sense of impending catastrophe in the novel and an almost apocalyptic vision: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.
What little his readers may still hold on to from their turn-of-the-century past n their plastic 1930’s present—whatever security or continuity, love of country or love of land—may forever be lost in some brutal political future. Coming Up for Air is a hymn to a vanished past at the same time that it is a scream against an almost certain totalitarian future.
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