You may know George Orwell from his famous works like 1984 and Animal Farm. Down And Out in Paris and London is one of his first works published when he was 29.
The theme of this book is poverty. It is semi-autobiographical, but often also called a fictional memoir. Separated into two parts – Paris and London – it is set in an important period in the 20th century. The time between 1927-1933 was filled with turmoil. There was worldwide unemployment and Wall Street had crashed in 1929.
George Orwell, or Eric Blair (his real name), graduated and went to Eton College. After that, he went to serve the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. Since he had no love for the British Empire, he left after 5 years on the pretext of ill health. In reality, he wanted to write full-time.
So, he came to Paris because of the intellectual freedom it offered, in 1928. He resided in a cheap hotel where he was robbed by a fellow Italian lodger. He could’ve gone to his rich maternal aunt who resided in Paris, but this was his literary chance to experience poverty. In this quest, he took up a dishwasher job at a luxury hotel.
Note: No one knows if Orwell had any financial help from his aunt in Paris. Both possibilities of ‘no assistance’ and ‘some help’ exist.
The Paris we see with Orwell is of the slums, not of the Eiffel Tower. Working seventeen-hour days as a dishwasher in horrible working conditions, George Orwell describes destitution and poverty with a mastery of disgust. He doesn’t just tell you “poverty is bad” because – duh?! He writes in a way your stomach churns, your throat tightens, and your nose twitches with the odious surroundings.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never read a book that’s written so well that it’s truly odious. I’ll definitely ask you to not read this book while you are eating.
But Orwell absolutely doesn’t write with disgust towards the poor or poverty. It is clear that he blames the system that makes poor people outliers. He gives a human face to the poor who are often seen as “less human”:
“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well.”
In the London part, Orwell is a tramp. I’d admit that this part is really bleak. Orwell uses the street language of the tramps, experiences true hunger, and meditates on what it means to be poor.
I couldn’t help but gulp down gallons of food to gain some comfort when I read the following passage:
“the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed…Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who had gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”
There are a lot of individual stories, local color, and depressing fates of people in the underbelly of society. But it also contains the power of resourcefulness, the resilience of people. Ultimately, it is triumphant and not cold.
It’s the kind of book that makes you want to put it down and think. On poverty, Orwell says:
“You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”
There are also many different entertaining characters in the book – like Boris, Orwell’s Russian acquaintance in Paris. There’s Bozo, the artist, amateur astronomer, and fellow tramp of Orwell in London. With them, Orwell describes what it means to be a vagrant, a plongeur with real-time slangs, painful rawness, and a political outlook.
A line that stayed with me is a comment on the systemic problems of money:
“In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable….Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately.”
Shortcomings of “Down And Out In Paris And London”
Honestly, you can read this book for its writing style alone. The story is definitely worth it. But it isn’t free of authentic questions:
1. Orwell had a financial privilege to fall back to, eventually. This inevitable certainty of escaping a lack of money can pose creative questions on how true Orwell’s experience was of poverty.
2. It remains unclear how many parts of this story happened and how many are fictional. The flow is certainly kept to ensure engagement and doesn’t vouch for the linearity of events. Take, for instance, the fact that the London part happened before the Paris part, and it is the other way around in the book.
Read Down And Out in Paris And London. Despite its minor dubious creative shortcomings, it is 10000% worth reading.
Find this book on Amazon here.