George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Orwell and England: attempt at coming up for air

November 18, 2011 · Leave a Comment

What does it mean to come up for Air? I often envision a sea turtle whose head breaks through the surface of the ocean in order to get the air that it needs. In Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air the reader witnesses a character who is trying to reconnect with his past in order to escape the barren life that he is living. Unlike Orwell’s previous novels, this one sets a different tone. The type of writing seen in this novel is more like that found in 1984 and Animal Farm than that seen in Keeping the Aspidistra Flying and Burmese Days. In our presentation my group showed the involvement that Orwell had in England when Hitler was gaining power in Europe. He wrote many criticisms on the attitude of the British people during that time, particularly their apathy. At the same time Orwell expressed his admiration for individuals who did not allow their works to be influenced by new ideologies like Communism, but instead “lived inside the whale”. In his work Coming Up for Air the reader encounters an individual who struggles with this dilemma. On the one hand Bowling can ignore the news of Hitler’s progress or he can choose to help in fighting against the spread of communism. George Bowling, the protagonist, characterizes the attitude of the British people saying, “I felt as if I was the only person awake in the city of sleep-walkers” (29).

Although he is not exactly like the characters in past novels, he shares their sense of feeling isolated ,as well as,  the feeling of being the only one aware of the wrongs in society. He continues writing of English people, “They think that England will never change and that England’s the whole world. Can’t they grasp that it’s just a left-over, a tiny corner that the bombs happen to have missed” (188). He feels that he is the only one that cares about coming events, but does not really attempt to wake those around him or offer up a solution. Instead readers see him attempt to reconnect with the past, where for him things were simple and secure before World War I. He is going back not only to reconnect with the past, but at the same time seeking out a way to escape from his concerns with the upcoming war as well as his cold and unhappy marriage. But to no avail, because he realizes that just as he has changed so has the town that he grew up in. Many of the people that he knew have died or left and even the girl that he once dated has aged with time, to such a degree that he at first does not recognize her. He goes back only to realize that the reality does not match up with the idealized image that he has constructed.

So what is the significance of the book’s title Coming Up for Air? In class this question was posed for us to ponder. I think its answer is shown in Bowling’s attempt to leave London in order to gain some clarity and insight. Like a drowning person gasping their first breath of air, Bowling wants to feel and come alive. When describing his view of what death is like for a human being he states, “Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea…There are a lot of people like that” (188). He is expressing the notion that one can’t live only in routine or through history, but new ideas and information needs to be taken in to verify that one is living. In this novel Orwell is showing a character who feels as though he is only one awake and seeks to escape in order to come up for air.

Categories: Coming up for Air
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