Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a discontented and embittered young man, who believes that “all modern commerce is a swindle,” attempts to drop out of the monetary system altogether. He refuses to advance himself in life, obstinately defying pressure from family and friends. He falls willingly into the mire of poverty and self-neglect, until he is trapped by circumstances into embracing the very values that he formerly despised.
Gordon Comstock is twenty-nine years old, is well educated, and comes from a middle-class background. As the novel opens, he is working as an assistant in a bookstore in London. It is a routine job, and he earns only two pounds a week, but he prefers it to his former position at the New Albion Advertising Company, in spite of the fact that he showed promise as a copywriter. He refers disparagingly to this as a “good” job and wants no part of it. He sees himself primarily as a poet and is very proud of his one published volume, which was well reviewed but little read. Having declared war on what he calls the “money-god,” he wants to live by his own values, not those of a corrupt, materialistic system which grinds the life and spirit out of people.
Having declared war on money, however, he soon finds that money is all he thinks about. He does not find happiness having renounced the values that others live by. Forced to live in unpleasant lodgings, with a nosy landlady, he believes that others reject and despise him because of his poverty. He cannot relate to his amiable, moneyed friend Philip Ravelston on equal terms (he refuses even to go into Ravelston’s apartment), and he even blames his poverty for the fact that his girlfriend, Rosemary, will not go to bed with him. Nothing seems to go right. When he and Rosemary manage to scrape together enough money to spend a day in the country, he is humiliated by a waiter at an expensive hotel and this ruins his attempt to seduce Rosemary later in the day.
His situation changes dramatically when he receives a check for fifty dollars from an American journal to which he had submitted one of his poems. He promises to himself that he will give half this amount five pounds to his sister Julia, since he has frequently borrowed from her in the past. The remainder, however, he is prepared to spend. He decides to take Rosemary and Ravelston out to dinner, but to the dismay of both his companions, he is needlessly and ostentatiously extravagant. Later, having become hopelessly drunk, he makes insistent and rough sexual demands on Rosemary in the street; she slaps his face and runs off. After further drinking, he meets two prostitutes, and he and a reluctant Ravelston take a taxi to a sordid hotel where Gordon attempts, but fails, to have sexual intercourse with one of the women. The next day, he awakens in a police cell and is charged with being drunk and disorderly, although he remembers nothing of his behavior.
This episode marks the central dividing point in the novel. Now Gordon’s downward slide begins. He loses his job, and although he eventually finds a position at another bookstore, the pay is even lower, only thirty shillings a week. He is forced to take inferior lodgings, but Gordon no longer cares. In his defeated frame of mind, he actually wants to be dragged down to the depths; he finds himself admiring the world of tramps and beggars, an “underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of...
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kingdom of ghosts where all are equal.” He believes that he can be freed from his distress only by having nothing in the world to call his own and no prospect of acquiring anything. He enjoys his own apathy and hopelessness.
Gordon is saved from total disintegration only by the loyalty of Rosemary. For some unaccountable reason, she sticks by him, and finally, out of pity, she becomes his mistress, an act which gives neither of them much pleasure. When she later comes to him and confesses that she is pregnant, he is faced with a choice: Either he can refuse to marry her and leave her to face the resulting social stigma; he can marry her and fail to support her; or he can marry her and reclaim his old job at the advertising agency, which is still available. After a day of deliberation, he chooses the last option: The thought of the growing baby has somehow reignited his spirit. The circular structure of the novel now becomes apparent: The couple settle down to enjoy the middle-class existence which Gordon had formerly rejected and despised. He finds that it is what he secretly desired all along.