I have just read the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell. It is the fifth book of his I have read, after Animal Farm, Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1984, and Burmese Days.
It is not really a very good novel, and the only reason why I read it is because Orwell is one of my favorite writers. Most people use the name "Orwell" as synonymous with "Totalitarian," as if 1984 were the only important thing he ever wrote. Actually, I think his greatest writing is in his essays, particularly "Politics and the English Language" and "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool." Orwell's strength was the ability to state things simply yet eloquently, to show how matter-of-fact most things really are when you sit down to think about them. I will admit that this novel, relatively obscure today, might be obscure for a reason.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a story about a man who declares war on money. People have been spouting the phrase "money is the root of all evil" for centuries; but the novel's protagonist, Gordon Comstock, actually decides to work against his own desire to earn money, and he intentionally takes a low-paying job at a bookstore while writing poetry on the side that he knows will never bring him any fame or pecuniary compensation. Although he sometimes must borrow money from his sister, Gordon refuses charity from his friends (of which he has few, since he deliberately keeps up an unclean appearance).
Gordon was born into a lower-middle class family. As a boy, he suffered the indignity of his inferior economic position when he went to school:
"Even at the third-rate schools to which Gordon was sent nearly all the boys were richer than himself. They soon found out his poverty, of course, and gave him hell because of it. Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to school among children richer than itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown-up person can scarcely even imagine. In those days, especially at his preparatory school, Gordon's life had been one long conspiracy to keep his end up and pretend that his parents were richer than they were."
He comes to see money-worship as a kind of religion, and decides that possession of money has replaced morality - that people judge a person according to how much money he has, without caring at all about his actual virtues or ideas. Thus, Gordon wages his war against the money-god by suppressing his ability to earn money, because he fears turning into one of the bullies who made him miserable in grade school. Gordon forgoes all opportunities to make money, and bitterly complains to his friends that money is constantly conspiring to make him miserable - even though he is willingly reducing himself to abject poverty.
The novel, essentially, portrays one man's tirade against capitalism. We know that Orwell hated capitalism as much as he hated communism - in a letter to a friend in 1937, Orwell wrote, "Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism" - but the novel's protagonist goes to such extremes to reject all forms of economics that, by the end, Gordon is practically reduced to a caveman. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a rather strange combination of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, Sinclair's The Jungle, and Plath's The Bell Jar (okay, The Bell Jar did not exist yet when Orwell wrote this, but maybe he kept a time machine somewhere). The strong resemblance to Notes From Underground is difficult to ignore, especially when the single word "underground" is used ten times in Orwell's 248-page novel, and the phrase "under ground" is used five additional times. Orwell was a fan of Dostoevsky - he praised Dostoevsky in an essay which can be found in a collection here.
The aspidistra, a house-plant that is known for surviving long periods of time without much sun or watering, is used in this novel as a symbol of the mediocrity that the middle-class tenants have come to accept in their lives when they buy into the mindless product-placement of commercial corporations. They believe what they see on the advertisements and posters, and so they brainwash themselves - but they have an aspidistra in the window, and so they look and feel respectable.
Ultimately Orwell does not assert Gordon's viewpoint as true. Gordon later admits that "to abjure money is to abjure life," and that we must "keep the aspidistra flying," that is, find a way to live with the world even if we have to compromise some of our principles.
In the end, I don't think Orwell accomplished much with this novel, and I think he knew it. Instead of telling a realistic story or a clever satire, Orwell unsuccessfully tried to do both, creating an absurdly confused protagonist who tries to take a stand against the age-old concept of money, but he ends up so dirty and beaten that his journey is too pitiful to be profound. This book is not really interesting in itself but in the lesson that Orwell might have learned from the experience of writing it: that writing satire is a tricky business.