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Perishing for a Smoke

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Perishing for a Smoke

Orwell’s 1936 nonfiction masterpiece about his stint with an anarchist militia in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, it takes him a full 21 pages to mention cigarettes—a record for him at this point in his career.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying begins with its protagonist Gordon Comstock, an only slightly exaggerated version of Orwell as a bookstore clerk and sometimes-aspiring poet, lamenting that he has only four cigarettes to last him until payday. He is “perishing for a smoke”, but the melancholy Comstock can’t afford to buy cigarettes because has embarked on a war against money, meaning that he has purposely propelled himself down the class ladder instead of up.

This leaves him hopelessly confused as to his station in life (another key trait of Orwellian protagonists.) His self-imposed poverty leaves him constantly either hungry, bored, anxious or angry, all of which he momentarily cures by smoking. Comstock smokes when he is able, and when he isn’t, he frets about where he will get cigarettes. This obsession with money makes him an insufferable wretch, and Orwell uses scenes involving cigarettes to bring out both Comstock’s pathos and his humanity.

cover art

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

George Orwell

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Mar 1969)

In one such scene, Comstock is on his way to a literary tea party, but he has not enough money to buy a pack of smokes. He finds an empty carton of “Gold Flakes” and buys a single cigarette from a vending machine to put in the empty pack, explaining:

You can’t, of course, go to other people’s houses with no cigarettes. But if you have even one it’s all right, because when people see one cigarette in a packet, they assume that the packet has been full. It is fairly easy to pass the thing off as an accident … after that, of course, your hosts press cigarettes upon you.

Comstock’s scheming reveals a craven, moochy side to his character that exposes his “war” against “the money-god” for what it is—a pose designed to mask his social problems under a cloak of affected eccentricity. Comstock may hate money, but he seems to hate himself even more.

When he shows up and finds the party has been cancelled, he decides he must have been intentionally snubbed, and though he knows he will spend the rest of the night in withdrawal, he immediately lights that last cigarette. “It gave him no pleasure to smoke, walking fast. It was a mere reckless gesture,” one that momentarily balms his hurt feelings. But the image of the scorned protagonist striding hatefully down a quiet sidewalk, trailing a cloud of smoke, is one that stays in the reader’s mind. It gives the full impression of Comstock’s pathetic and self-flagellating nature. Not every reader will identify with this puffed-up anti-hero, but at least Orwell does his job in rendering him, and he does so by referencing tobacco.

Smoking in Keep the Aspidistra Flying takes on other roles, as well. It simulates torture, as when Comstock confesses to having ground out cigarettes on the Aspidistra houseplant in his room, which for him symbolizes the chintzy allure of middle-class existence. It also plays a large part in Comstock’s character development, as when he saves and scrounges to take his girlfriend Rosemary on a trip to the country, even knowing he will have to sacrifice cigarettes for a week afterwards.

The trip goes badly and Comstock runs out of money, but he refuses to take even bus fare home from his more well-off girlfriend. At the end of the chapter, Rosemary, in an act of kindness and generosity, stuffs a pack of cigarettes into Comstock’s pocket before running into a subway car. Here, cigarettes symbolize love and acceptance—traits sorely lacking in Comstock’s personality. (Chapter VII, pg. 165, Penguin, 1989)

The act also symbolizes the pervasive nature of commodities such as cigarettes, for by accepting the smokes, Comstock violates his own rules regarding gifts from Rosemary. While he won’t take her money, deeming such a gesture somehow improper and crude, he will take her cigarettes, basically a cash transaction once-removed. Somehow, Comstock reasons, it is alright to be addicted to tobacco but not to the money necessary to buy them with.

Orwell’s own addiction to tobacco was by this time well established. But far from cursing the weed, he continued to celebrate it as a fundamental necessity of life. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s 1936 nonfiction masterpiece about his stint with an anarchist militia in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, it takes him a full 21 pages to mention cigarettes—a record for Orwell at this point in his career.

But he makes up for it by proclaiming tobacco to be one of the five essential needs of a soldier at the front. (The other four are firewood, food, candles and the enemy.) Orwell’s love of smoking is apparent in each of the 26 passages of Homage to Catalonia that have to do with tobacco. The tone is set with the first reference and reinforced about once every ten pages.

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Homage to Catalonia

George Orwell

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Oct 1969)

In Homage to Catalonia, cigarettes come to symbolize the defeat of the Spanish Republic by Franco’s fascists, and by extension, the defeat of international socialism as a revolutionary movement. In the beginning of Orwell’s account of the war, smokes are plentiful, issued to militiamen at the rate of one pack per day. There is such a feeling of class unity and esprit d’ revolution among Republican soldiers, that “If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious.”

But as the Communists and fascists take over and the war begins to slip away from the workers, cigarettes grow more and more scarce, until only the bourgeoisie are able to afford them. After a few months on the lines in Aragon (by which time the cig ration has been dropped to five a day), Orwell returns to his starting point in Barcelona to find that the fledgling classless society he had seen on the way to the front has been smothered in its sleep. To portray this development, Orwell reaches for a tobacco reference:

A small but significant instance of the way in which everything was now oriented in favor of the wealthier classes could be seen in the tobacco shortage. For the mass of the people the shortage of tobacco was so desperate that cigarettes filled with sliced liquorice-root were being sold in the streets. I tried some of these. (A lot of people tried them once) …  Actually there was a steady supply of smuggled foreign cigarettes of the more expensive kinds, Lucky Strikes and so forth, which gave a grand opportunity for profiteering. You could buy the smuggled cigarettes openly in the smart hotels, and hardly less openly in the streets, providing you could pay ten pesetas (a militiaman’s daily wage) for a packet. The smuggling was for the benefit of wealthy people and therefore connived at. If you had enough money there was nothing you could not get ...

Orwell goes on to explicitly blame Franco for the tobacco shortage, as “he held the Canaries, where all Spanish Tobacco is grown.” This accusation captures Orwell’s associations between tobacco and freedom. Obviously he did not travel to Spain in order to fight for smoker’s rights. But the freedom to work, to assemble, to write and even to smoke, were one and the same for Orwell, who nearly gave his life opposing Franco and the usurpation of personal liberty he came to represent.

When Orwell is shot in the neck by a fascist sniper in Homage to Catalonia, his first thoughts are “conventionally enough, for [his] wife,” yet as soon as he is stabilized in a field hospital not far from the front lines, he immediately asks the nurse for a cigarette.

Smoking in hospitals today is considered by most to be at best, comical, and at worst, repugnant, but in 1936 it was accepted, and even endorsed, by medical experts. In Gunshot Injuries  a late 19th century field manual for military surgeons, one of the preeminent doctors of the day declared:

The use of tobacco in field hospitals is to be recommended … on account of its sedative qualities. No one can doubt that it has a soothing effect on men suffering from the pain of wounds, and produces a state of calm which is very beneficial under the circumstances … Perhaps none of the presents from aid societies as in time of war have been so much appreciated in hospitals as the presents of tobacco ...

The hospital staff has no cigarettes for the wounded Orwell, but luckily some Spanish chaps, “kids of about 18”, do. They, “as a way of demonstrating to me that they were sorry I was wounded,” Orwell writes, “suddenly took all the tobacco out of their pockets, gave it to me and fled before I could give it back.” This episode, reminiscent of Rosemary’s gift in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is exemplary of another common theme illustrated through tobacco in Homage to Catalonia—that of the honest and generous character of the Spanish people.
“How typically Spanish,” he proclaims the “kids” who gave him tobacco. “I discovered afterward that you could not buy tobacco anywhere in town and what they had given me was a week’s ration.”

Orwell also mentions a group of laborers from southern Spain who “had an extraordinary dexterity in rolling the dried-up Spanish tobacco into cigarettes … It was so dry that even when you had succeeded in making a cigarette, the tobacco promptly fell out and left an empty cylinder. The Andalusians, however, could roll admirable cigarettes… ” High praise from George Orwell.

A decade later, the tobacco-falling-out-of -the-cigarette motif would resurface in Orwell’s final work, 1984, where it is used to encapsulate the general shabbiness of life under totalitarianism.

Josh Indar is a recovering journalist who currently writes novels and short stories. He lives in a little college town in Northern California, where he tutors homeless & foster youth and plays in a band called Severance Package. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. email:

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