Down and Out in Paris and London


George Orwell

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Down and Out in Paris and London: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

As Orwell gets more accustomed to the tenor of his days at Hotel X, he discovers that the restaurant and hotel staff must curse at each other and engage in fights in order to maintain the break-neck pace the work requires. Abuse is a form of motivation. Cooks are particularly vulgar and likewise uniquely skilled. The hotel rises or falls on the cooks’ punctuality, memory, and talent, and the cooks are therefore the proudest members of the staff.
The Hotel X hierarchy enables cooks to abuse those below them, and men like Orwell put up with the abuse because they see the cooks as special or superior. This dynamic is analogous to the way the rich maintain control over the poor. The rich benefit from the misconception that wealth always goes to the most deserving in society.
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Waiters, on the other hand, need to be servile or give the appearance of servility. They are constantly hovering around the rich—party to their conversations, likes and dislikes, and prejudices—so waiters are, as a result, snobs of the vicarious variety. They live through the people they serve and begin to think of themselves on their level, even though most die poor. Valenti proves this point by recounting to the narrator a splendid meal he served in Nice, telling the story as if he were among the guests instead of serving. Never, Orwell argues, feel sorry for a waiter. They are simply biding their time until they achieve a station far above their compatriots.
Again, the waiters occupy an odd position, in both the Hotel X hierarchy and society in general, and Orwell’s characterization of the waiter’s status is likewise conflicted. On one hand, Valenti’s story inspires pity and compassion. Valenti was a servant at that luxurious meal. He was not on equal standing with the guests, and therefore his memories of that dinner are rather pathetic. But, Orwell argues, waiters do not deserve pity, because they will always prosper somehow.
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Plongeurs are, by nature, different. They are stuck in menial labor because their wages are too low to allow for savings and the time commitment means there’s no time to train for another position. At the same time, the plongeurs are prideful of their resourcefulness and their ability to get the job done no matter what the challenges. They consider themselves soldiers. Everyone taking pride in his/her work makes for a comfortable, efficiently run hotel.
It is, in Orwell’s opinion, permissible to pity the plongeur. Unlike the waiter, he has no time or chance to prosper beyond his current station. The consolation he takes in being resourceful is, like Valenti’s memories of that long-ago dinner, pathetic. He might be a soldier, but his battle is pointless and therefore unwinnable.
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Much of the efficiency is the result of boulot, or the appearance of good service. If one looks beyond the good service, though, the place is incredibly dirty and the staff cares only about the appearance of cleanliness. It’s all they have time for, and actually, making good food means not only touching it, but even licking it. The more one pays for a meal in Paris, the greater the chance the cook and waiter have had their dirty hands all over it. The food, the wine, and the service at Hotel X is all a sham. The meat and vegetables are subpar, the wines cheap, and the cream diluted. Corners are cut whenever possible. Most of the Hotel X guests are clueless Americans. One, from Pittsburgh, eats the same meal every night—Grape Nuts, scrambled eggs, and cocoa. Orwell suggests that perhaps people with such poor taste should be cheated.
Money buys a man the ability to live in a state of perpetual denial. That is certainly the case at the Hotel X, where patrons are fooled by flowers and fancy tablecloths into thinking they are dining at a truly outstanding establishment. The fact is, the Hotel X’s charm is all on the surface. There is no substance to the place, and that in turn suggests that its hierarchy and the petty rules the workers must live by are all in service of a lie. One need only go behind the scenes for a short time, as Orwell does, to discover the truth.
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