Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Keep the Aspidistra Flying was Orwell’s fourth book, and its major themes are also to be found in his other works from the same period. All are concerned with poverty and its debilitating effects on the human spirit and with Orwell’s belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way human society was organized. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) has the same circular structure as Keep the Aspidistra Flying: Dorothy Hare is forced to escape her middle-class background, she gains firsthand experience of poverty, and then finally returns to her former life with renewed vision. In The Road to Wigan Pier, which followed in 1937, Orwell reports on his own experiences of life with the working-class poor in northern England, and it is in this book that he first advocates socialism as a way of reforming society. Although Orwell’s subject matter during the 1930’s was always grim, he had not yet reached the pessimism of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Orwell disliked Keep the Aspidistra Flying and refused to allow it to be reprinted or translated. He had only allowed it to be published in the first place, he said, because he needed money. There is no doubt that the novel has serious flaws; the plot is sometimes unconvincing, the symbolism is heavy-handed, and there are lapses in the presentation of character (in particular, Ravelston’s failure to extricate himself from the encounter with the prostitutes, which is so unconvincing that it undermines the credibility of the whole episode).

The novel does at times possess considerable force, however, a force which lies in the honesty and directness of Orwell’s writing. He is ruthless and unsparing in his portrayal of the sordidness of poverty, down to its smallest detail, and it is this which gives Keep the Aspidistra Flying a place in the tradition of the novel of poverty, a tradition which includes Charles Dickens (on whom Orwell wrote a perceptive essay), George Gissing (whom Orwell acknowledged had an influence on his own work), Honore de Balzac, and the contemporary novelist and critic John Wain.