Most people have read George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm (or both). But less famous is his autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, which chronicles a nameless young British freelance writer who takes menial jobs in the aforementioned cities. It’s a pretty slim book, but it is packed with the occasionally grotesque nature of being impoverished.
In Paris, our protagonist stays in various flophouses and attempts to rely on equally down-on-their-luck acquaintances. He works as a dishwasher in a Parisian hotel, becoming accustomed to the heat, filth, and abuse. Small pleasures include sneaking off for an illicit cigarette, but mostly his life is filled with drudgery and stasis. Apparently he is well-educated and has sold pieces to newspapers, but it’s never explained why he has come to this menial life.
When Pseud0-George moves back to Britain with the hope of tending to an “imbecile” in the countryside, he finds that said imbecile has left for some time, and thus he resumes his existence at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. Whereas in Paris the protagonist worked for a meager living, in London he roves from spike to spike (“spike” was slang for a state- or community-run homeless shelter/workhouse), having to move each day because men were not permitted to stay longer than a night at a time. It’s a dreary, sad existence, living on tea and bread, moving with fellow downtrodden men. It feels real, so I assume that Orwell in fact experienced this life for a while before resuming/beginning his career as a writer.
Some details stayed with me: most notably, when the protagonist goes to sell his clothes in Paris, he has to sneak his flimsy suitcase out of his flophouse, because if the owner of the flophouse saw him selling his clothes, he would be thrown out of the flophouse, too. Essentially, the cycle of poverty sticks to the protagonist like a filmy residue; it doesn’t even wash off in his home country. It’s inescapable without being able to hold down a job long enough to rise at all in station or to earn any kind of livable wages. I suppose that’s true for a lot of people today, even in industrialized nations. For the protagonist, it seems especially demeaning because he is clearly from the middle class and has an education.
Most of the book is just narrative, but at the end, we get a harsh social critique. He notes that the life of a “tramp” means that a man is cut off from all social acceptability, including marriage. His nutrition is poor, and he does no useful work. Orwell argues that the spikes or the state should raise gardens that the vagrants could tend, thus giving them meaningful work and better food. It’s a succinct, cogent argument that anticipates and refutes potential counterarguments. The entire book almost seems like a lead-up to this final analysis, as Orwell/the protagonist has proven his ethos as a speaker (thank you, freshman rhetoric!), having lived such an “extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life.”
Here’s a snippet of this analysis from the book’s final pages, as Orwell writes about one of the three evils of a tramp’s life: hunger, isolation from women and society, and idleness:
The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually. And there can be no doubt that sexual starvation contributes to this rotting process. Cut off from the whole race of women, a tramp feels himself degraded to the rank of a cripple or a lunatic. No humiliation could do more damage to a man’s self-respect.
Thus, it’s not an uplifting book to read, but one gritty with detail. I wouldn’t say that I liked the book as such; however, I found it intriguing and convincing. It’s good to be shaken from complacency from time to time, and Down and Out in Paris and London seems like a forerunner to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, her modern tale of working for minimum wage in America.
Have you read books about living in poverty? What did you think of Nickel and Dimed?