Madame Monce, the proprietor of a hotel on the Rue du Coq D’Or in Paris, is arguing with one of her lodgers, whom she accuses of squashing bugs on the wallpaper. Other lodgers on the narrow, squalid street jump into the fight. George Orwell, the narrator of this memoir of poverty, paints a picture of the neighborhood, a typical early 20th Century Paris slum where rents are reasonable and crime and vermin are as common as drunkenness.
Madame Monce is callous and even cruel to berate her lodger for damaging her walls when, in fact, the lodger was trying to handle a bug infestation caused by her poor management. Madame Monce, like so many others in this book, cares more about her property than the well-being of the poor.
Orwell’s hotel, the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, is owned by Madame F and her husband, decent types who charge fair rents. Still, the hotel is bug-infested and dirty, and the insects stream across the ceiling like invading armies. The only defense against the bugs is to try to smoke them out into someone else’s room. However, since everyone in the hotel inevitably resorts to the same tactic, the bugs simply roam from one room to another.
Here, the bug infestation symbolizes the vicious cycle of poverty. Just as the bugs cannot be eradicated, it’s nearly impossible for the poor to reverse their fortunes. Just when a poor man thinks he has found a solution to his problems, bad luck strikes, and he is right back where he started.
The people who live with Orwell at the Hotel des Trois Moineaux are, for the most part, a floating group of foreigners, eccentrics, and tradesmen. They include a Bulgarian student who makes fancy shoes, a Russian mother and her son, a Romanian man who refuses to admit that he has a glass eye, and the Rougiers, an elderly couple who sell fake pornographic postcards.
Henri, a mostly mute sewer worker, is another eccentric who resides at the hotel. Orwell tells Henri’s story to illustrate the typical life trajectory of a man whose bad luck lands him in a hotel in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Henri wasn’t always a sewer worker. At one time, he was a chauffeur making good money, but then he fell in love and his fortunes changed. The woman he loved only returned Henri’s affections when he kicked her and stabbed her. Otherwise, she was unfaithful, and Henri, driven mad by her infidelity, spent time in prison only to come out and discover that she was carrying another man’s child. Henri went on a bender, ended up in a jail again, and, upon release, began working in the sewers. He also stopped talking, only answering people in gestures. “Bad luck,” Orwell writes, “seemed to have turned him half-witted in a single day.”
Though Orwell presents Henri’s story as typical, it’s important to note that Henri (like Orwell and many of the other people Orwell profiles) was not born poor: he fell into poverty later in life. This points to a blind spot in Orwell’s book, as he fails to consider people who were born poor and have only ever known poverty, which is the most common story of poverty. It’s also notable that Orwell attributes Henri’s change in fortunes to “bad luck.” While Henri was certainly unlucky, it’s also undeniable that he made bad choices—the woman he loved is not responsible for his violence and misbehavior. This passage shows a weakness in Orwell’s argument, and it is the first glimpse of the book’s misogynistic bent.
Orwell’s subject is poverty. He hopes to sketch a full and layered portrait of poor people and the places they call home. That is why he begins his story the way he does, with a detailed look at the Latin Quarter and the tenor of daily life there.
Orwell begins by profiling a cast of amusing eccentrics, but his goal is much more serious: acquainting his readership with the harsh realities of a life lived in poverty.