Orwell dispels some common misconceptions about tramps. The first myth is that tramps are inherently dangerous creatures. School children are taught to fear the tramp—to think of him as a blackguard—but nothing could be further from the truth. People struggle with such misconceptions in part because vagrancy in itself is such an odd phenomenon. Why would tens of thousands of men spend their lives traipsing across England when there are jobs to be had and shelter to procure? Vagrancy is a result, Orwell argues, not of laziness or obstinance, but of the law. Men are only allowed one-night’s stay in the London casual wards, meaning they have to keep moving, day after day, night after night, for no real reason.
Orwell’s arguments may seem obvious on the surface, but the fact that he has to make them at all reveals just how entrenched misconceptions about the poor really are. The lies begin in childhood and continue, mostly unquestioned, through adulthood. Then those adults communicate those lies to their own children, thereby ensuring generations grow up thinking the worst of the poor. The aim of Orwell’s book can, in many ways, be understood to be to transform popular conceptions of the poor.
Indeed, according to Orwell, most of the stereotypes surrounding tramps do not hold up to even the most shallow of inquiries. Take, for instance, the idea that tramps are monsters. If they were dangerous, would casual wards admit them by the hundreds every night? Rather than hardened criminals, tramps are, in general, timid, broken-spirited creatures who are easily bullied by the casual wardens. Likewise, they are not drunkards. Alcohol is too expensive for most tramps to afford. Finally, they are not hardened moochers. They are, instead, deeply ashamed of their impoverished state, and most would change places with the working class if they were able. Orwell is not suggesting that every tramp is of shining character, only that they are ordinary human beings, brought low by bad luck and circumstance.
Orwell uncovers the truth about poverty by embedding himself among the poor, but this kind of extreme approach is not really necessary. One need only educated oneself to discover that the poor are just like the rich. The only difference is, as he points out time and again, income and opportunity—or, in other words, luck. Those who suffer from bad luck might find themselves on the street and a few nights of exposure can lead to a few more. Before a man knows it, he loses control of his own destiny.
Orwell argues that anyone who suggests that a tramp deserves his fate has obviously not stopped to consider what that fate is really like. The tramp is doomed to a life of hunger and celibacy. The latter is a result of the fact that, without money or purpose, the tramp cannot attract a woman. He has no hope of marriage and can only aspire to paying a prostitute now and then. Sexual starvation, Orwell contends, is almost as ruinous to the tramp’s psyche as lack of food. Deprived of the chance to start a family, the tramp despairs and often resorts to homosexuality and rape to satisfy his urges.
Sexism again creeps into Orwell’s arguments here. While it might be true that the bulk of London tramps are men, he is ignoring whole other populations of poor people, including children and women born to the state. Likewise, his contentions that poverty leads to homosexuality suggests that sex between heterosexuals is the only healthy sex. These prejudicial sections of the text stand in contrast to his otherwise mostly progressive mission.
Using three examples of as proof, Orwell argues that, while female tramps do exist, they are greatly outnumbered by men. Tramps, in his experience, are almost exclusively male. Unlike men, though, Orwell writes, women always have the option of improving their financial situation through marriage.
Women might have the option of marrying into better circumstances, but Orwell is ignoring the downsides of such a position. Women forced to marry for money are not free to determine the course of their own lives.
Another evil of the tramp’s life is, Orwell suggests, enforced idleness. Tramps who stay in casual wards are basically locked up all night with no meaningful work to do, and they spend their days walking to the next spike, where they are again confined to prison-like cells with absolutely nothing to occupy their time. The cure for this needlessly pointless state, according to Orwell, would be for each casual ward to have its own garden. Tramps could earn their keep by working in the garden and two problems would be solved simultaneously: the malnutrition most tramps suffer from and the soul-killing idleness that characterizes the tramp’s daily life.
This is first time in the text that Orwell offers a possible solution to the poverty he encounters. It is perhaps a simplistic solution, as it’s unlikely that a garden could be enough to feed the entire casual ward population. There are surely other factors contributing to poverty to consider. It is, at least, a start, but Orwell of all people should consider the poor man’s need for mental stimulation as well. Physical activity is one thing, but education is another, and arguably more essential, factor to consider.