Coming up for Air essay

Within Orwell’s 1939 Coming Up For Air, what meanings does he attach to late 1930’s modernity by portraying George Bowling as a character in paralysis?

George Orwell’s 1939 Coming Up For Air features George Bowling as its protagonist: “a middle-aged overweight insurance salesman with false teeth, a semi-detached house, a wife, and two children,”[1] who is in a loveless marriage and to escape his paralysis, decides to rediscover himself by returning to his childhood country town of Lower Binfield.  It is this paralysis, as defined as “the state of being powerless; a condition of helplessness or inactivity; inability to function properly,” [OED] that allows Orwell to comment on marriage and family relationships during late 1930’s modernity.  Through taking a Historicist approach Orwell explores how structural events such as the First World War affected men like George Bowling.  He is exploring how men felt alienated from their time periods due to being excluded from the collective experience of fighting in the First World War, as well as being alienated from their own bodies due to the increasing consumerism.  Orwell also uses representations of class and capitalism, to constitute his critique of the alienation and stagnation of men like George Bowling that arose from the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the countryside.

Bowling is alienated from his own body, due to being overweight and having false teeth.  Orwell gives the reader a description of Bowling’s appearance, before his personality: “false teeth,”[2] a “brickly-red face […] that go[es] with butter-coloured hair and pale blue eyes” (CUA p. 7) and being a “hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby.” (CUA, p.8) Bowling relies on false teeth because his natural teeth have failed him, thus signifying his loss of control over his body.  Michael Carter proposes that:

To enter Bowling’s world is to become instantly detached from the origins of things.  The ‘idea’ in the opening sentence […] is associated with false teeth. […]  But principally the ‘idea’ is a response to the false, an urge towards the recovery of a time when the self felt its authenticity, because it was rooted in the primordial.  The teeth, having no roots are not his own; they have no foundation in his Being.  They come from the outside, replacing the inside.[3]

Bowling feels detached from himself, as he possesses something that was never originally his.  The artificially created teeth symbolise external stimuli invading Bowling’s body and replacing its internal functions.  Bowling says that “Fatty [is what] they mostly call me.  Fatty Bowling.  George Bowling is my real name.” (CUA, p.8) Through Bowling identifying himself through his insulting nickname of “Fatty Bowling,” (CUA, p.8) before giving his real name, he demonstrates how external stimuli have invaded his body and corrupted his perceptions of himself.  Orwell’s use of Bowling’s alienation from his own body is a comment on how “the English intelligentsia [have been] Europeanised.”[4] Within Orwell’s 1947 essay ‘the Lion and the Unicorn,’ he argues that English intellectuals:

take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.  In the general patriotism     of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought.  England is perhaps the      only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” [5]

The intellectual classes of England have become so absorbed and affected by the external stimuli of foreign cultures and countries, that they have lost their true identities.

Orwell was also criticising the rising capitalism and industrialisation of late 1930’s modernity.  From the novel’s beginning, Orwell’s disappointment with capitalism is obvious:

We’re all respectable house-holders-that’s to say Tories, yes-men and bumsucksers.  […] And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghostly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely, increases the effect.  We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money.  (CUA, p.16)

The three-fold repetition of “we’re all” (CUA, p.16) conveys Orwell’s cynical disillusionment concerning capitalism.  The use of the plural ‘we’re’ is accusatory and deterministic, as Orwell is condemning the middle-classes for becoming slaves to capitalism.  Orwell is arguing that man, in fear of losing his material possessions, has compromised his moral integrity by becoming sycophantic towards the ruling classes.  This rising capitalism has therefore severed man’s connection with himself.  Orwell is further criticising how this rapid acceleration corroded the strong, collective spirit that existed in small country towns.  Mark Connelly observes that “Orwell found dignity, honesty, and most importantly personal identity in small town life.  He did not romanticise the past, but he saw what losses the rush to utopia would entail.  No character better embodies these observations than George Bowling.”[6] Through Lower Binfield’s rapid twenty year transformation, it lost its individuality and charm as a country town and became a busy, industrialised town.  Bowling soon becomes disillusioned when he returns to Lower Binfield.  His childhood home has swollen from a population of “about two thousand in the old days [to] a good twenty-five thousand.” (CUA, p.177) All of the people he knew have either died or moved away and nobody recognises his family name.  When Bowling goes to check into a hotel, he expects to be recognised as “one of the […] Bowlings of Lower Binfield.” (CUA, p.183) He argues: “though in a way it’s painful to be recognised, I’d been rather looking forward to it.” (CUA, p. 183) However, the clerk fails to recognise Bowling or even register him as anything more than another paying customer.  For Bowling this is just another unpleasant reminder of how much things have changed.  The only familiar sight for Bowling is the supermarket chain Sarazin’s who ruined his father’s and many other small businesses in Lower Binfield.  For Bowling and Orwell, Sarazin’s symbolises an ugly totem pole presiding over the town, as an embodiment of the corrosive, destructive nature of capitalism.

With the rapid growth and industrialisation of late 1930’s modernity came the urbanisation of the countryside.  Lower Binfield’s transformation from a quiet, country town to a thriving miniature city is a microcosm of this extreme urbanisation.  Accompanying this urbanisation are undertones of uniformity and banality.  Upon moving out of Lower Binfield, Bowling eventually resides in West Bletchley, Buckinghamshire.  He asks the reader:

Do you know the road I live in- Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty other exactly like it. You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs.  Always the same.  Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses […] as much alike as council houses and generally uglier.  (CUA, p. 13)

The second-person narration coupled with the rhetorical question convey Orwell’s resignation concerning the ubiquity of these suburbs.  Bowling thus feels paralysed, as West Bletchley lacks the individuality and charm that Lower Binfield had and is instead just another generic suburb.  Jeffrey Meyers observes: “in old Lower Binfield there was no rush and no fear […] in the past the aeroplane was a flimsy, rickety looking thing, […] in the pre-war world fish swim in the pond.”[7] Before Bowling’s departure, Lower Binfield was in a state of stagnation.  There was no fear of any approaching war nor any rush to arms.  For Orwell, the urbanisation of the countryside detailed the end of not only small country towns, but also of the way of life that accompanied them.  Connelly observes:

Modern life is made disagreeable not because of an economic system, but because science and technology have created an inhospitable world for the free individual.  Orwell accepted progress and saw that it had eradicated past problems.  But on the whole, he sensed that science was poorly used.”[8]

Orwell is criticising the rapid acceleration in technology and urbanisation, as despite how it contributed to medical and industrial advances, it was also squandered on the creation of new weapons and warfare that were present during the First and Second World Wars.

The First World War provided a shared collective experience that gave men identity for years to come.  However, Bowling missed out from this experience, thus contributing to his paralysis in later life.  After Bowling was wounded in action in late 1916 and removed from the front lines, he laments on how:

The war did extraordinary things to people.  And what was more extraordinary than the way it killed people was the way it sometimes didn’t kill them.  It was like a great flood rushing you along to death, and suddenly it would shoot you up some backwater where you’d find yourself doing incredible and pointless things and drawing extra pay for them.  There were labour battalions making roads across the desert […] there were ministries of this and that with armies of clerks […] which went on existing years after their function had ended, by a kind of inertia. People were shoved into meaningless jobs and then forgotten by the authorities for years on end.  This was what happened to myself.” (CUA, p.116)

The militaristic imagery of “labour battalions” (CUA, p.116) and “armies of clerks” (CUA, p.116) conveys the scope of the damage that the First World War had produced.  Whole legions of men were displaced, not just Bowling.  After he was wounded, he became part of the “West Coast Defence Force” (CUA, p.117) that had “some vague idea of establishing dumps of rations and other stores.” (CUA, p.117) He is sent to the “Twelve Mile Dump […] to find out whether any stores existed [which] nobody seemed certain about,” (CUA, p.118) before being officially designated “O.C Twelve Mile Dump for the rest of the war.” (CUA, p.118) Following this, Bowling is promptly forgotten about.  Orwell thus uses the collective paralysis experienced by Bowling and those who were displaced by the war, as a warning of entering another world war.  Orwell feared seeing generations of men being once again mistreated by the state if England entered another world war.  Connelly observed that “the war brought conscription, taxes, rationing, regulation.  All those changes illustrated how the state now considered its citizens as a resource to be directed, processed, and consumed to further its ends.”[9]  The state not only commodified its men and disposed of them when they had expired their purpose, but they also manipulated young men to fight for them in the Second World War.  At a Left Book Club meeting, Bowling encounters an overzealous youth who is desperate to “smash Fascism once and for all” (CUA, p.151) and despite Bowling’s warnings that war is “a bloody mess” (CUA, p.152) and “you don’t feel like a hero,” (CUA, p.152) this does little to temper the youth’s enthusiasm.  In Orwell’s 1940 essay, ‘my Country Right or Left,’ he discusses how:

as the war fell back into the past, my particular generation, those who had just been too young became conscious of the vastness of the experience they had missed.  I spent the years 1922-7 mostly among men a little older than myself who had been through the war.  They talked about it unceasingly with horror […] but also with a steadily growing nostalgia.[10]

Just like Bowling and the overzealous youth, Orwell also missed out on the collective experience of fighting in the First World War and like Bowling, he is cautious about entering another one.  Carter asserts that:

George Bowling is the first of Orwell’s characters to be historicised, […] immediately distinguishable from Flory, Dorothy, and Comstock, who […] were not necessarily symptomatic of their age. […] The external forces which gave shape to their lives were local: their family, their work, their community.  These forces had their sources in things that were known and were, […] potentially controllable.  […] Power did not come suddenly and unpredictably from the outside.  […]  It was something you either grew up with or gradually came to understand as a condition of existence.  […] It never collapsed under a siege of otherness.  The Great War in Coming Up for Air is such a siege.[11]


Through how Orwell situates Bowling, within the First World War, he portrays the overwhelming force that it had on him.  Bowling’s perception of himself was altered by an external, historical stimulus.  Through Bowling’s self-paralysis of missing out on the shared experience of fighting in the war, Orwell highlighted the callous attitude that the state held towards its men and how this should act as a warning for any young men hoping to prove themselves in the Second World War.

Orwell uses class to comment on the alienation of the middle-classes during late 1930’s modernity.  Bowling is repeatedly emasculated by his wife Hilda.  This, in addition, to their different social classes makes Bowling feel alienated.  Bowling asks himself “why did I marry Hilda” (CUA, p.133) and he answers “I can only say that because she came of totally different origins from myself it was very difficult for me to get any grasp of what she was really like.” (CUA, p.133) Due to their contrasting starts in life, Bowling found it difficult to relate and identify with his wife.  He failed to understand her beyond any superficial interpretation.  He continues:

Hilda belonged to a class I only knew by hearsay, the poverty stricken officer class.  […] They’d never had any money, but […], none of them had ever done anything that I should recognise as work.  […] There’s a kind of snob appeal in that, if you belong as I do to the God-fearing shopkeeper class.  […] I don’t mean that I married Hilda, […] with some notion of jockeying myself up the social scale.  It was merely that I couldn’t understand her. […] And one thing I certainly didn’t grasp was that the girls in these penniless middle-class families will marry anything in trousers just to get away from home.” (CUA, p.133)

The use of ‘hearsay’ implies that Bowling has only heard about this social class from fragments and rumours and has never had any direct interaction with them.  This therefore mysticises the officer’s-class.  Their marriage is not founded on love, but rather ulterior motives.  Whilst Hilda wanted to escape from her “penniless middle-class” (CUA, p.133) family, Bowling had a curiousity about the middle-classes that he wished to satisfy.  This emphasises how Bowling is influenced by external stimuli.  Both Hilda and Bowling’s false teeth are exterior objects that have invaded and conquered Bowling’s system, thus altering his perceptions of himself.  Orwell attaches a symbolism to the false teeth.  They are a denominational marker of middle age progressing into old age.  Whilst Hilda’s constant grumblings gradually erode Bowling, it is his false teeth that catalyse him into deciding to return home: “the idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” (CUA, p.7) Orwell further uses class to comment on the alienation of the middle-classes, when he portrays Hilda’s family, as remnants of Anglo-Indianism.  When Hilda first takes George to meet her family, it is such a new experience that he is compares it to “discovering a new world!” (CUA, p.133) Once he enters the house he says it is similar to being “in India in the eighties.” (CUA, p.134) Bowling continues by describing the “carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall […] the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets […] it’s sort of a little world of their own that they’ve created.”  (CUA, p.134) Through Orwell’s description of Hilda’s home, he further mysticises the officer’s class.  The ornate nature of the house exoticises Hilda and her family, thus increasing her appeal and desire.  In Orwell’s 1940 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ he criticises British Imperialism from his position as a policeman in Burma.  Orwell reports that he “was hated by large numbers of people” [12] and that Buddhist priests were “stand[ing] on street corners and jeer[ing] at Europeans.”[13] Despite, the anti-Europeanism within Burma, Orwell had already decided that “imperialism was an evil thing [and] that theoretically-and secretly of course- I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.”[14]  Bowling and Orwell parallel each other.  Whilst they are both on the margins of Imperialism, their positions of exclusion are juxtaposed.  Orwell who served as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma feels excluded and out of place there.  Bowling feels excluded from Hilda’s home due to the “dusty tiger-skulls” (CUA, p.134) and the “yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets.” (CUA, p. 134) The use of ‘dusty’ and ‘yellow’ implies that Hilda’s home is ill-maintained.  Whilst her parents enjoy displaying these objects, they put little effort into keeping them presentable.  This thus attaches an antiquated, outdated and superficial perspective towards Hilda’s home and Imperialism.  From his position in Burma as an Imperial Police Officer, Orwell bore witness to the decline of British Imperialism.  Whereas Orwell, in an Imperial position, felt displaced in the primitive setting of Burma, the lower class Bowling feels displaced within the Imperialist setting of Hilda’s home.  Orwell uses Bowling’s paralysis concerning the class disparity between him and his wife, as a commentary on Imperialism at the time.  He portrays British Imperialism, as an oppressive, outdated and decaying regime, which like Hilda’s parents, enjoys flaunting its past successes, if putting little effort into maintaining their present-day image.

For Orwell fishing was the “symbol of England’s green and pleasant land”[15] and this observation is no more present than it is in Coming Up for Air.  Fishing is one of Bowling’s biggest hobbies and is one of his fuelling desires to return to Lower Binfield.  Despite how much Bowling loved fishing as a child, “after I was sixteen I never fished again” (CUA, p.80) thus contributing to his paralysis in later life.  He explains: “I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing.  Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison, even women,” (CUA, p.80) thus asserting that as a child, fishing gave him a vitality and energy that he lost, as he matured.  He continues: “if you gave me the choice of having any women you care to name, but I mean any woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time.” (CUA, p.80)  Through the comparative reference to women, Bowling is portrayed as having something akin to a romantic relationship with fishing.  The fact that he would pick it over “any women you care to name” (CUA, p. 80) implies that he has an irreplaceable love for fishing.  It acts as a surrogate wife, nurturing him and helping him to mature more so than his real wife Hilda does.  One reason why Bowling never goes fishing again is how when he expresses a desire to do so, Hilda berates and chastises him:

The idea of wasting all that money on a thing like that! Absurd! And how dare they charge ten shillings for one of those silly little fishing-roads.  It’s disgraceful! And fancy you going fishing at your age! A great big grown-up man like you.  Don’t be such a baby George.  (CUA, p.87)

This humiliation is exacerbated, when Bowling’s children join in with their mother “chanting: Farver’s a baby! Farver’s a baby!” (CUA p.87) The use of the noun ‘baby’ infantalises Bowling and changes his relationship with Hilda from husband and wife to an angry mother reprimanding a petulant child.  However, what is more embarrassing for Bowling is Hilda’s fixation on how much a waste of money fishing is.  The one-word exclamation of “absurd!” (CUA, p.87) encapsulates her disbelief at the illogical nature of such a thing.  Out of the two of them, Bowling is the one with the job, theoretically placing him as the family’s patriarch and the one in charge of money.  Yet, it is Hilda’s criticisms of Bowling’s supposed reckless spending that subverts their gender roles.  Where Bowling was the family’s patriarch, his wife’s constant worrying has seen him be usurped and Hilda being installed as the family’s matriarch.  Meyers argues that “Orwell has a keen desire to establish a continuity between the England of the past and that of the future.”[16] However, within Coming Up For Air, Orwell succeeds in the complete opposite of this.  By focussing on how much Lower Binfield has changed within twenty years, Orwell, rather than connect the past and present, completely severs their attachment with each other.  By concentrating on the rise of consumerism and industrialisation, Orwell highlights how much the present has changed from the past.  As a child, Bowling discovered a secret pool, where he sees “an enormous fish.  I don’t exaggerate when I say it was enormous. […] It was by far the biggest fish I’d ever seen.  […] The pool was full of them.  They were carp I suppose.” (CUA, p.78) Bowling always wished to return to the pool and catch the fish, “but as it happened I never went back.” (CUA, p.79) However, this desire to catch the fish stays with him and when he returns to Lower Binfield, his first thought is to “go fishing! […] I wanted peace, and fishing is peace.  And then the biggest idea of all came into my head.  […] I’d go catch those big carp in the pool at Binfield House.” (CUA, p.170) However, he is spiritually crushed to discover that all of his old fishing ponds, including the one with the enormous carp had either been privatised and commercialised with “water-meadows” (CUA, p.200) being replaced by “tea-houses, penny-in-the-slot machines, sweet kiosks, and chaps selling Wall’s ice creams,” (CUA, p.200) or turned into rubbish dumps.  It is at this point that Bowling, so broken at how much Lower Binfield has changed, admits that he is:

Finished with this notion of getting back into the past.  What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist.  Coming Up for Air! But there isn’t any air.  The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere.  (CUA, pp.215-216)

The rhetorical question coupled with the exclamation conveys Bowling’s exasperation at the pointlessness of his mission.  He returns to Lower Binfield to escape the suffocation of city-life, but he is dismayed to find that urban life has contaminated the peaceful, country way of life he once knew.  This further contradicts Meyers’ assertion that Orwell sought to connect the past and present.  By highlighting the extreme differences between the once peaceful, relaxed Lower Binfield and the busy, industrial town it became, Orwell is not aiming to create a continuity between the two, but rather accentuating how much has changed and how this change is irreversible.

Orwell writes George Bowling, as a character who is difficult to identify with.  Regardless of how Bowling’s aim of a spiritual rediscovery by returning home might be relatable for some, his relationship with his family is less so.  Concerning his marriage to Hilda, he admits that “right from the start it was a flop” (CUA, p.135) and when he explains why he married her, he says that “these things happen to us.” (CUA, p.135) Bowling feeling like he could not do any better and making no effort to do so settles for marrying Hilda without protest.  After this he asks the reader whether they will:

Believe that during the first two or three years I had serious thoughts of killing Hilda.  Of course in practice one never does these things, they’re only a kind of fantasy that one enjoys thinking about.  Besides, chaps who murder their wives always get copped.  […] When a woman’s bumped off, her husband is always the first suspect- which gives you a little side-glimpse of what people really think about marriage.  One get used to everything in time.  After a year or two I stopped wanting to kill her and started wondering about her.  (CUA, pp. 135-136)

Bowling’s passive fatalism is conveyed again.  He contemplates the option of actively changing his fate, yet decides against it, using logic to shield his cowardice.  Orwell’s use of ‘one’ as a substitution of ‘I’ generalises Bowling’s thoughts to a wider population of men.  Orwell is using Bowling as an example of the men who felt alienated within their own marriages and explored alternatives to escape, but never pursued them.  Bowling, like the other men that Orwell was writing about, eventually got used to his wife and settled into a comfortable routine with her.  Orwell is further criticising the men of this period, arguing that like Bowling they have effected their own self-paralyses by failing to take action to change their futures.  Through making Bowling a character that is difficult to identify with Orwell not only alienates him from his own family, but also from the reader, thus increasing his isolation within the text.  By having Bowling not being able to identify with his family or his time period, Orwell is using Bowling as an example of the other men across Britain who were experiencing identity crises and felt alienated from their own time periods.

Through how Orwell takes a Historicist approach to Coming Up For Air, he explores how external stimuli as small as false teeth or as extensive as the First World War contributed to Bowling’s paralysis.  He, like so many men, was neglected and mistreated by the state during the First World War, thus contributing to his paralysis in later life.  However, the most significant meanings that Orwell attaches to late 1930’s modernity is the negative impacts of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and consumerism.  Bowing’s development and maturation mirrors that of Lower Binfield’s.  Upon their separation, they rapidly develop and mature until they both stagnate in 1938.  Orwell uses Bowling’s and Lower Binfield’s paralysis as micro and macrocosms of the vastly accelerating world around them.  As society experienced exponential progress due to industrialisation and urbanisation, it inadvertently led itself into its own stagnation.  Modernity’s biggest achievement, its rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, proved to be its biggest downfall.

Word Count: 4393


Carter, Michael, George Orwell and the Problem of Authentic Existence (Kent: Croon Helm, 1985)

Connelly, Mark, The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom (Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1987)

Meyers, Jeffrey, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (London: Thames and Hudson LTD, 1984)

Orwell, George, Coming Up For Air (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962)

Orwell, George, Essays, ed. by Bernard Crick (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000)

[1] Mark Connelly, The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom (Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1987) p. 74

[2] George Orwell, Coming Up For Air (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962) p. 7 All subsequent quotations were taken from this edition and all future references will be mentioned in parentheses after quotations in the text.

[3] Michael Carter, George Orwell and the Problem of Authentic Existence (Kent: Croon Helm, 1985) p. 142

[4] George Orwell, Essays, ed. by Bernard Crick (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000) p. 155

[5] Orwell, p. 155

[6] Connelly, p.16

[7] Jeffrey Meyers, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (London: Thames and Hudson LTD, 1984) p. 104

[8] Connelly, p. 109

[9] Connelly, p. 79

[10] Orwell, p. 135

[11] Carter, pp. 140-141

[12] Orwell, p. 18

[13] Orwell, p. 19

[14] Orwell, p.19

[15] Meyers, p.105

[16] Meyers, p.107

*Author’s Notes*

This is an essay I wrote for our Independent Research Projects.  Our Independent Research Projects were very much practice dissertations.  We could write about any subject and any text we wanted.  I decided to write about George Orwell as he is one of the few canonised authors that I actually like and can understand.  I wanted to write on something different to 1984 or Animal Farm, so I wrote on his novel Coming Up for Air, which is one of my favourite texts of his due to how it isn’t overtly political.  I received a 2:1 for this essay.


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