Valenti tells Orwell the story of the five days when he went without food. His story is remarkably like that of Orwell and Boris. Valenti can’t afford to buy a drink at the café where people engage waiters, so he lies in bed all day, growing weaker and more depressed. On the fifth day, he says a prayer to a picture on the wall. The picture is, he believes, of Sainte Eloise. He asks her to send him just enough money for some bread and wine. If she obliges, he will burn a candle in her honor. Valenti is an atheist, but he’s also desperate.
Valenti’s story of not having enough money to secure work is a poignant reminder of poverty’s insidious ability to hold a man hostage in a penniless state. The fact that Valenti has resorted to praying to a saint he doesn’t believe in is likewise important. Hunger can make a man superstitious and force him to abandon his own values in favor of more expedient ones.
At that moment, Maria, a peasant girl living in Valenti’s hotel, comes to visit and exclaims at his corpse-like appearance. He challenges her to find any money sitting around his apartment. She finds an oil can, which Valenti paid a deposit on. When he returns it, he’ll get his money back. Maria takes the can to the grocery and with the money buys Valenti two pounds of bread and a half-litre bottle of wine.
Orwell has made the point previously that the hungry man cannot think straight. If Valenti had been better nourished, chances are good he would have discovered the oil can’s potential. Instead, he needed Maria to solve the problem for him.
Valenti eats and drinks, is immediately revived, and wants a cigarette. He has just enough change to purchase one, but then he remembers his prayer to St. Eloise. He realizes he needs to buy a candle to light in her honor instead. Maria is incredulous. He thinks the picture on the wall is of a saint? It’s of Suzanne May, the prostitute for whom the hotel they’re staying in is named. So he can have his cigarette after all.
On the surface, this story of near starvation is light fare for easy consumption, but Orwell is making a serious point about men like Valenti who spend days alone and starving, praying to prostitutes. There are no saints in the Latin Quarter, Orwell suggests, and no real sinners, either.