Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of George Orwell

Eric Blair was born in India to an aristocratic English family at the height of British colonial rule. His father worked for the Indian Civil Service. His mother, raised in Burma, returned to England with Blair and his sisters a year after his birth. Blair’s family was blue blooded but not wealthy, and it was only thanks to the maneuverings of a family friend that, as a teen, Eric was able to attend a prestigious boys’ school. He showed a talent for writing from a young age, and eventually won a scholarship to Eton, England’s most celebrated public school, only to drop out at 18. Because Blair’s academic performance was sub-par, his parents encouraged him to enter the Imperial Police, and he did so in 1924, traveling to the Irrawaddy Delta in 1924. His experiences as a police officer in Burma serves as the inspiration for his 1934 novel, Burmese Days, and his 1936 essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” both scathing critiques of British colonial policy in the region. He left his post in Burma in 1927, having contracted dengue fever, and, while on holiday with his family in England, decided to devote his working life to writing. He then spent the next several years among the poor in London and Paris, and his experiences in those cities solidified his political allegiance to Democratic Socialist ideals and gave rise to a number of stories and essays chronicling the many indignities suffered by the impoverished at the hands of the rich. In 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London was published by Victor Gollancz under Blair’s pseudonym, George Orwell, to spare his family any embarrassment they might have felt when reading about his experiences as a “tramp.” Blair wrote more exposés afterwards, including The Road To Wigan Pier (a look at the bleak lives of industrial workers in Northern England), and Homage to Catalonia, detailing his experiences fighting as provisional soldier in the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a poet who shared his political convictions. The pair, unable to have children (Orwell was sterile), later adopted a child, Robert Horatio Orwell. Orwell, gradually making a name for himself as a public intellectual figure and muckracker, was, thanks to respiratory issues, declared unfit for military service in 1939, and spent the war writing for countless journals and magazines while at the same time producing his two most seminal works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984. The novels resonated strongly with the post-war public and made Orwell a household name. He died of tuberculosis in a London hospital at the age of 46.
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Historical Context of Down and Out in Paris and London

The action in Down and Out and Paris and London takes place in the wake of the so-called Roaring Twenties, a period of prosperity following World War I. The economic uptick gave way in the latter part of the decade to the Great Depression, which impacted not only the United States but Great Britain, as well. The country’s industrial sector suffered greatly, and unemployment rate in the UK soared to 20 percent of the population.

Other Books Related to Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell often went behind the scenes to tell stories of underserved and underrepresented population groups, embedding himself with the poor, the working class, and even with foreign soldiers in an attempt to invest those stories with more authority and authenticity. Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s first-person account of the Spanish Civil War, is one such story, as is The Road to Wigan Pier, an exploration of working class life in northern England. For more works that chronicle the corrosive effect of urban poverty on family life, read The Shame of the Cities by Lincoln Steffens and The Bitter Cry of the Children by John Spargo. Turn-of-the-century urban blight arose directly out of the deplorable working conditions common at the time, and these conditions, as well as their effects on the workers themselves, are the subjects of both The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about immigrants working in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, and Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company. Like Sinclair and Tarbell, Orwell was a muckraker, but he was also part of the “Lost Generation,” a group of expatriate artists drawn to Paris and its promise of creative and personal freedom in the 1920s. For a glimpse into how other expatriates lived in Paris while trying to write the great American novel, check out Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.
Key Facts about Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Full Title: Down and Out in Paris and London
  • When Written: 1927-1931
  • Where Written: The slums of Paris and London
  • When Published: January 9, 1933
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Memoir/Autobiographical novel
  • Setting: The late 1920s, Paris and London
  • Climax: NA (Down and Out is a series of anecdotes, that, in their repetitive nature, represent the grueling and relentless sameness of a life in poverty)
  • Antagonist: Poverty
  • Point of View: First person from the point of view of George Orwell (unnamed)

Extra Credit for Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell: Person of Interest. Britain’s spy agency, MI5, kept an active file on Orwell from 1929 until his death. Orwell’s bohemian clothing, supposed communist sympathies, and writings for leftist publications were all cited in the file, which was made public in 2007. In the end, the agency declared Blair’s communism unorthodox and non-threatening.

Orwell is the New Black. Orwell once attempted to have himself arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. His hope was to be imprisoned at Christmastime so he might write about jail conditions and inmate life in 1930s England, but he only spent two days in a police cell before returning home to his family.