Orwell has lived in the Latin Quarter for a little more than a year and a half when he suddenly finds himself with only 450 francs to live on. Having subsisted on a meager salary from giving occasional English lessons, he hopes to go in search of better work, but then a young Italian compositor makes duplicate keys and robs a number of rooms in the hotel, including Orwell’s, leaving him with even less money than he had before. Suddenly, he discovers the complicated juggling act that is living in poverty.
The poor are always just one misfortune away from real disaster. This is particularly true for men like Orwell who value honesty and are therefore not prone to the kind of criminality that could alleviate some of their money troubles. This scenario of people preying on the poor will repeat throughout the book, revealing that the poor often live at the mercy of the corrupt.
Orwell begins to describe what it means to live on six francs a day. It means lying to people—having secrets and covering them up. It means going without milk because a bug ands in it, and cutting one’s own hair, and giving in to filth. It means suffering a million little humiliations in the day-to-day interactions those with money take for granted. It means knowing hunger—true hunger that strips a man of his humanity and recasts him as a self-pitying sack of organs living on instinct.
Orwell suggests that the suffering poverty causes is less about unfulfilled desire or even physical discomfort than it is about the humiliation of seeing one’s humanity reduced. Hunger, for example, is painful for Orwell less because it’s physically miserable than because it makes him feel animalistic for relying on instinct and focusing on basic survival concerns.
This brand of poverty, Orwell discovers, is not necessarily terrible; it is merely tawdry and boring, and it requires a certain secrecy. The people whose services he used to patronize (the laundress, the tobacconist) wonder why he no longer visits them. He invents excuses so as to not have to tell the truth about his impoverished state. A hundred little disasters follow until eventually Orwell resorts to selling his clothes to an angry and resentful man, a Jewish clothing store owner, in order to buy food. The store owner takes great pleasure in cheating his clientele. Orwell wishes he could punch the man in the nose, but he can’t afford to.
Orwell demonstrates the cyclical nature of poverty: selling one’s clothes is necessary to eat, but a man without good clothes has virtually no chance of landing a job. This section’s focus on the personal humiliation of having to hide a fall in status from former acquaintances underscores that Orwell focuses only on the kinds of poor people who have known better times. The Jewish clothing store owner is the first instance of Orwell’s tendency towards anti-Semitism. The clothing store owner is a stereotype and nothing more.
Orwell’s six francs a day existence lasts three weeks and acquaints him with poverty’s silver lining. Poverty, for the most part, is degrading, demeaning, and boring, but it also erases worry. When one has no money (or very little money) there’s no reason to be concerned about the future, since it would be impossible to prepare for what’s to come.
This is a particularly problematic and nihilistic silver lining to find in poverty, since it suggests that Orwell is seeing poverty as a vacation from his upper-class worries. This moment undercuts Orwell’s authority, since it shows a lack of empathy for the experiences of others—it’s difficult to imagine, for example, someone with children being comforted by their inability to plan for the future.