50 pages 1 hour read

George Orwell

Coming Up for Air

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide


Coming Up For Air is an interwar novel written by British author George Orwell shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Originally published in 1939, the novel was written in Morocco while Orwell was recovering from injuries received while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Set in the late 1930s, the novel follows a middle-aged insurance salesman named George Bowling as he struggles with anxieties about the coming war. Like Orwell’s more famous novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), Coming Up For Air explores trauma, surveillance, totalitarianism, and nostalgia. Coming Up For Air was a commercial success upon publication, and although it is less popular than Orwell’s other novels, it offers critiques about capitalism and the threat of war that resonate with modern readers.

This guide uses the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Kindle edition, based on the 1969 edition published by the same company.


The novel consists of four parts, which alternate between the present and the past. It begins on a cold day in January as George Bowling sets out to get a new pair of false teeth. Bowling is a 45-year-old insurance salesman living what he considers a very dull life in the outskirts of London. However, Bowling has an exciting secret: He recently won £17 betting on horses. Rather than spending the money on his family, Bowling decides to spend it on himself.

The rest of Part 1 narrates his journey to London and his movements there, interspersed with a seeming miscellany of incidents and musings on Bowling’s part. Leaving the house, he reflects on how people perceive him and meditates on homeownership, which he considers to be a scam. Bowling enters a general store and watches a worker get yelled at by her boss. As he rides the train into London, he watches a bombing plane flying overhead. When another passenger calls him “Tubby,” Bowling fixates on his body. Bowling watches the suburbs of London pass by and predicts that the city is unlikely to remain peaceful for long.

In London, Bowling drops off some papers at his office and walks toward his dentist’s office. He’s early and so goes into a modern diner. Bowling is disturbed by the diner’s shiny aesthetic and repulsed by the food he orders. As he walks through London, he imagines the effects of the impending war on the people and cityscape and then reflects on his childhood church experiences in the small town of Lower Binfield.

Part 2 of the novel consists of Bowling’s memories of his life up until this point. Bowling’s father and mother held traditional roles within their family. His father had inherited an animal feed shop, and Bowling describes him as an honest, hardworking man.

Central to Bowling’s memories of his childhood are the days spent with his older brother, Joe, and Joe’s gang of boys, the Black Hand. So is fishing, from the first time he went fishing with the gang to his habit of leaving school as often as possible to try to catch fish. He recalls having once found a hidden pool full of giant, ancient fish, which he kept a secret.

Bowling hasn’t fished since he was 16. The last time he had a chance to do so was during the World War I, when he and another soldier found a pond and engineered a makeshift fishing kit, but their company was shipped out before they could fish. Since the war, Bowling has been too busy to go fishing. He once suggested that he and his wife, Hilda, go, but she dismissed it as an expensive lark. Beside fishing, the thing Bowling loved most as a boy was reading. He began reading on his own, and as an adult he reads multiple novels each week.

Shortly before his 16th birthday, Bowling’s father pulled him out of school because the family shop was being overtaken by a new retail chain, and he needed Bowling to make some extra money. His time working for a local grocer called Grimmett was the happiest of Bowling’s life, despite the fact that his father’s business was failing and his brother ran away. He dated a girl named Elsie Wells and joined the army just two months after England declared war on Germany.

In 1916, while his company was crossing No Man’s Land, a shell exploded near Bowling, leaving fragments in his back and legs. Bowling was sent to recover in a hospital on the southeastern coast of England and received an officer’s commission shortly after. He recalls the circumstances of his mother and father’s deaths: His father died during the war, while Bowling was overseas, and his mother died suddenly of stomach cancer. Bowling explains that he spent the war as the commanding officer of a tiny army base designed to hold rations; the job felt meaningless while soldiers were dying, but he was grateful to be safe. During his free time, he reads books previous officers had left on the base.

After the war, Bowling struggled to find a job, but through a chance encounter with one of his former commanding officers, he became a traveling insurance salesman. Bowling relates the circumstances that led him to marry Hilda. He was nearly 30 and doing well; Hilda was 24 and, to his mind, childish. Bowling doesn’t know why he married Hilda, but speculates that their class difference may explain his attraction. In the early years of their marriage, Bowling fantasized about killing her; over the years, this desire faded.

Part 3 of the novel begins as Bowling ends the day he began in Part 1, still unsure of how to spend his £17. He joins Hilda at a Left Book Club meeting featuring a speaker on the rise of fascism. Bowling speculates that Hilda and her friends cannot understand the speaker, though he himself stops listening soon after the lecture starts. Dissatisfied with the meeting, Bowling visits Porteous, a retired schoolmaster. Although Bowling doesn’t understand everything Porteous says, he appreciates the collegiate atmosphere surrounding the old teacher.

Two months later, Bowling is driving when he spots a field of primroses so beautiful that he stops to pick a bouquet of primroses, which makes him happy. He speculates that the previous war and the upcoming war have made people too anxious to appreciate nature. After a while, Bowling notices an oncoming car, becomes self-conscious, and abandons his flowers. He decides to return to Lower Binfield and imagines returning to the carp pond at Binfield House.

Three months later, Bowling heads for Lower Binfield. He has lied to both his boss and his wife in order to take the trip and briefly considers canceling the plan and confessing to his wife. Bowling begins to feel paranoid, as though he’s being followed.

Part 4 of the novel begins as Bowling approaches Lower Binfield. When he arrives at the outskirts of town, he is shocked to find that it is now an industrial city. As Bowling drives through the new, unfamiliar streets, he quickly gets lost. He eventually finds his way back to the old town center and checks in to the George, which was once a pub and is now an upscale hotel.

At the George, Bowling spots an attractive blonde woman and thinks about sleeping with her. He walks through town to his old home, which has been turned into a teashop; Bowling thinks he can see the home as it used to be. Inside the teashop Bowling feels guilty and leaves. He visits his parents’ graves, feeling nothing. The church looks exactly as Bowling remembers, but when the vicar from his childhood approaches, he does not recognize Bowling. Returning to the George, Bowling attempts to flirt with the blonde woman, but she is not interested. Bowling retreats to the hotel’s bar and talks with locals about how the town has changed. He learns that Binfield House has been transformed into a mental health institution.

The next morning, Bowling wakes up hungover. He is surprised to see school children marching in a military formation with signs reading “Britons Prepare.” He spends two days exploring the town, imagining the way it used to be. On Sunday, Bowling goes fishing and is shocked to find that the riverbanks are crowded with young people. As he leaves, he tries an arcade game that guesses your weight; he learns that he’s gained weight and attributes it to his drinking.

Later that afternoon, Bowling spots a woman he thinks he recognizes. He follows her for a while before realizing that it’s Elsie Wells, his first serious girlfriend. Bowling is shocked to discover how much Elsie has changed. Bowling follows Elsie to a dirty tobacco shop and speaks to her under the pretense of buying a pipe. She does not recognize him. He meets Elsie’s husband and leaves without buying a pipe. That night, Bowling goes to a pub and gets drunk with a traveling salesman. He wakes up the next morning feeling worse than ever.

Bowling is determined to visit the pool at Binfield House. He thinks about how Lower Binfield has changed and wonders about the state of the pool. As he approaches Binfield House, he is relieved to see that the forest of beech trees he remembered still exists. When he reaches the pond where he used to fish with Joe and the gang, he finds that it has become a popular swimming hole for a new housing development. While talking to a resident, Bowling learns that his secret childhood pool has been drained and is now a garbage dump. He returns to the George, and at the hotel, he hears an emergency radio broadcast claiming his wife is seriously ill. Bowling assumes it’s a trick of Hilda’s and ignores it.

The next day, Bowling is walking through town when he hears bombers flying overhead. When he hears a bomb whistling through the air, Bowling throws himself onto the ground. The bomb explodes, causing bricks and rubble to fly everywhere. Bowling waits anxiously for a second bomb. Eventually he stands and sees children in gas masks running down the street. He learns that the bomb was dropped by a Royal Air Force plane running a training exercise. Bowling leaves Lower Binfield, confident that the town he knew as a boy no longer exists. As he drives past London, Bowling imagines the war that is coming.

Bowling begins to wonder if Hilda really is sick and feels guilty about the five days he has spent in Lower Binfield. At home, he is relieved to find that Hilda has not been sick. His relief quickly fades when he realizes that Hilda has seen through his lies and knows that he was not in Birmingham, as he had said. Despite his protests, Hilda is convinced that he has been with a woman. Bowling’s anxieties about the war fade as he is pulled deeper into the fight with Hilda. As the novel, closes, Bowling considers whether or not to tell his wife the truth.