Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

“Don’t you see that a man’s whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality is his income.” Gordon’s complaint to Ravelston succinctly expresses one of the main themes of the novel. Orwell had already announced it in an epigraph at the beginning of the book, an adaptation of the famous chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.” Money, not love, is the prerequisite for goodness and virtue, and Gordon, according to this theme, sinks into moral decay not because of any innate character weakness but because of his economic circumstances.

There are some symbolic elements in the novel, the most important of which is the aspidistra, a favorite plant of the English middle classes. For Gordon, it symbolizes the conventional, bourgeois life that he seeks to escape. The aspidistra in his room is sickly, and he has on many occasions tried to kill it, but “the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence.” He even has to put up with one in his poorest lodgings. It, too, is dying. Yet in the penultimate chapter, symbolically set during the coming of spring, he notices that the aspidistra has not died after all and is actually putting forth new green shoots. As part of his volte face at the book’s conclusion (the credibility of which strains the reader’s imagination), he suddenly looks more favorably on the general run of lower-middle-class life. Although civilization rests on fear and greed, “in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler.” He now sees that the common folk are, in their own way, fully and tenaciously alive, and in a sudden thought realizes that “the aspidistra is the tree of life.” His “conversion” even leads him to purchase an aspidistra himself, to put in the window of his and Rosemary’s new, middle-class home. After his futile stand against the “money-god,” he is now happy to find himself and his pregnant wife “bound up in the bundle of life.”