Freed from his work as a plongeur, Orwell spends his time prior to traveling to London sleeping, drinking beer at the Auberge, and saying his goodbyes. On his rounds, he meets up with Charlie, who tells him the story of Roucolle the miser. Orwell doubts the tale’s veracity, but he is amused by it and narrates it to the reader.
Orwell’s moving on from his life as a plongeur is relatively painless, and his story of easy escape stands in stark contrast to what happens to Roucolle, a legitimately poor man who lacks Orwell’s resources and privilege.
The story deals primarily with Roucolle’s downfall, which takes place as a result of a cocaine smuggling scheme gone wrong. After much persuading, Roucolle finally agrees to hand over six thousand francs to a Jew in exchange for ten pounds of cocaine. Everything seems to go well until word of the deal spreads around the quarter and the police come to raid the hotel. At the last minute, a neighbor of Roucolle’s, who sells tins of face powder on the side, has the idea that they should hide the cocaine in the tins. They do so, but the police aren’t fooled. They take Roucolle and his partner, a Pole, into the station where they have the powder in the tins analyzed.
Orwell works hard to contradict the rich’s assumption that the poor are, in essence, criminals. Roucolle’s story would seem to contradict Orwell’s assertion, and yet, Roucolle is portrayed as the victim in this story. The men who sell Roucolle and his Polish partner the cocaine are the true criminals. The takeaway, then, is that the poor are often forced by circumstance into committing crimes and then suffer disproportionately at the hands of the law.
Roucolle is beside himself over being arrested. He makes a scene at the station, but soon both men are exonerated. The white substance is, indeed, face powder and Roucolle, freed from custody, dies a week later of a broken heart.
Roucolle is no different from other men. He is simply poorer than most, and, in fact, has a keen sense of honor. Having violated his own moral code, he has no will to live.