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  • George Orwell, Desire, and Encounters with Rural Sex in Mid-Century England
  • Jamie Wood (bio)

Wandering aimlessly through the backstreets of London's East End, Gordon Comstock, the anti-hero of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), finds himself in one of London's open-air markets.1 All afternoon Gordon's thoughts have been occupied with just the one idea: "women, women!" His thoughts on this topic have ranged obsessively from the uninhibited sexual freedom of hens to the "lewd smile" of the barmaid at his local pub (Orwell 2000e, 113). But the woman most central to his mind is Rosemary, his girlfriend, with her "small, strong body, which he had never yet seen naked." "Filled to the brim with these tormenting desires" (114), he finds solace in the bustle of the market crowd and the shouting of street hawkers. Here, under the "fine lurid colours" of the stall lights and the "hacked, crimson chunks of meat, piles of oranges and green and white broccoli," Orwell's novel of a greyscale England finally comes alive. It is a scene that fills Gordon with hope: "He liked the noise, the bustle, the vitality." "Whenever you see a street-market you know there's hope for England," he proposes. Such patriotism is derived from the market's ability to conjure energy from stasis and death, from the "stiff, glassy-eyed rabbits, live eels looping in enamel [End Page 399] troughs, plucked fowls hanging in rows, sticking out their naked breasts like guardsmen naked on parade" (116). This is the natural produce of England's countryside.

However, rather than leading Gordon to a program of national rejuvenation, these images lead him back toward the source of his desire. This transition is identified for us in the repetition of the word "naked" in the final clause of the "plucked fowls" simile. There is no obvious necessity for that second "naked": the simile is founded on the grotesque contrast between the regimented shape and color of the uniformed officers and the dead birds. But stripped of those uniforms and made naked by repetition, the guardsmen are made merely ludicrous. That second "naked" can only be Gordon's own thought pattern, leaking into the narrative voice, forcing us to see the extent to which the seemingly naturalistic narrative perspective is thoroughly infected at crucial moments by Gordon's own consciousness. The repetition dramatically emphasizes the manner in which bestial "naked breasts" have rekindled simmering human sexual desire. With Gordon now immersed in the narrative at every level, the crowd—a marketplace of meat—is transposed into a crowd of female bodies. Gordon threads through the massed girls, "invisible, save that their bodies avoided him when he passed them" (Orwell 2000e, 117), pausing to watch them in "knots of four or five, prowling desirously about the stalls of cheap underwear" (116). The voyeur's desire is unrequited and unrecognized. He observes one group of girls "over a pile of artsilk undies on a stall … three youthful faces, flower-like in the harsh light, clustering side by side like a truss of blossom on a Sweet William or phlox." The sight stirs his heart, but his voracious gaze finds no reciprocation: "No eyes for him." The girls become richly fragrant flowers of the English countryside, cultivated rather than indigenous, full of its latent potential and the promise of vitality. He catches the glance of one of the girls, who, embarrassed, turns away noticing "the hard, sexual stare in his eyes." Reflecting self-consciously in the words of Thomas Wyatt that "they flee from me that sometime did me seek," Gordon is revealed as nothing less than a sexual predator, a lascivious and ordinary man underneath the shabbiness of his learning. Such is the extent of his desire that Rosemary is quite literally summoned into being: "At this moment he looked up, and saw something that made his heart jump. He changed the focus of his eyes abruptly. For a moment he thought he was imagining it. But no! It was Rosemary!" (117, emphasis in original). Note the characteristic use of the exclamation work as an indicator of raw feeling painfully [End Page 400] exposed (Brooker...


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pp. 399-423
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