This short novel is something of a period piece. Written during the 1930s, it describes the life and loves of an anti hero, Gordon Comstock. The themes are well known from Orwell’s other works – poverty, class and alienation. These ideas, deriving from Marxism and the widespread belief that a better system than capitalism was within mankind’s grasp, still seem a little dated despite the evident vacuity of today’s political offerings. Orwell labours his point about money or, more particularly, the lack of it, and its corrosive effects in a way that echoes Tressell’s ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. He is however more in tune with today’s sensibilities than Tressell in his clear recognition of the gulf between human decency and the implacability of all ideological systems. The anti hero and his only friend in the novel are socialists but only in an abstract sense. They are not able to live their socialism, in the misguided way that Orwell was always so scathing about, to the point that they abjure decent food and a warm fire. As in much of his writing, he points out nicely and neatly the remoteness of ideology from human experience and, in consequence, its dangerous irrelevance to it.
In modern parlance, the anti hero needs to get out more. Actually, when reading it, I felt Orwell was often describing a person with depression. But that is to medicalise, daftly, a situation that he uses to tell us a social fable.
The anti hero’s redemption or return to the social currents whence he came is a simple narrative trick that feels a little rushed. But the pleasure of this book lies in Orwell’s keen eye for the workings of class and social hierarchy in Britain. I suppose it is a rather British book – the aspidistra, the blameless plant that Orwell uses to symbolise the conformity and suffocating propriety yet deathlessness of lower middle class England, is a common houseplant in Britain – but Orwell writes such beautiful, beautiful prose I recommend it to all lovers of the English language.