When Down and Out in Paris and London begins, the narrator, George Orwell, a British man in his early twenties, is living in Paris’s Latin Quarter, in a bug-infested hotel run by Madame F and occupied by various eccentrics. Orwell, who supports himself by giving English lessons and writing articles that once in a while get published, is down to his last four hundred and fifty francs. His financial situation grows even more dire when a thief robs a number of rooms in the hotel. Orwell is not left destitute, but nearly so, and thus his first experiences with true poverty begin.
Life on six francs a day, Orwell discovers, is a precarious existence, full of daily setbacks and humiliations. The impoverished man meets misfortune at every turn. Having spent his last cent on milk, for instance, chances are good a bug will spoil it before he has a chance to drink it. He subsists on bread and margarine, nutritious food tempts him from shop windows, and he is always just one misfortune away from real disaster.
Orwell, an aristocrat by birth, refers to this life as “the suburbs” of poverty, and it is worth noting that Orwell’s experiences as a poor man are, in many ways, less desperate than those of the men with whom he keeps company. Although never explicitly stated in the book, Orwell remains among the poor of Paris and London in part so that he might tell their story with authenticity and authority. Poverty is inescapable for many of the people he writes about. Not so for Orwell.
It is during the six-franc days that Orwell remembers his Russian friend, Boris, who said that Orwell should pay him a visit any time he was in need. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that Boris is even more hard-up than Orwell. Lame from his time as a soldier, Boris wiles away his days in a dirty attic apartment and dreams of better times. Despite his penniless condition, Boris is a persistent optimist, and he tells Orwell that they’ll soon have work, and with it more money and mistresses than they can handle.
Instead, Orwell and Boris struggle for days to find work, hanging out in doorways and alleys, hoping one of Paris’s many restaurant managers will take them on. They’re passed over again and again, however, mostly because of Boris’s limp and both men’s pathetic appearance. Boris is forced to leave his apartment, a tricky business since he wants to sneak out without paying the rent, so he won’t be noticed by the landlord. Boris and Orwell have a narrow escape, and, after a series of misadventures, end up pawning their overcoats for a tidy sum that will keep them in food for days.
This money isn’t enough to live on for long, however, and soon Boris has a new scheme for keeping them afloat: Orwell will write about British politics for a Parisian Bolshevik newspaper. Orwell, who is not well-versed in politics, reluctantly agrees, only to discover that the entire operation is actually a scam. Boris and Orwell continue to drift, and, after three days, they go to meet up with a connection of Boris’s, a Russian who is intent upon opening a Norman-themed restaurant. The Russian, called the Patron in the book, is a fat, disingenuous man who is deeply impressed by Orwell’s English background. He agrees to hire both Orwell and Boris when the restaurant opens, which the Patron says will be any day now.
The restaurant, however, never opens. Orwell spends two hungry days, obsessed with the thought of food and convinced he’ll never find work, when Boris arrives, announcing he’s found them both jobs at the Hotel X, a luxurious establishment near the Place de la Concorde. Boris will work as a waiter, Orwell as a plongeur, or dishwasher.
Orwell is overjoyed, but the joy soon turns to weariness. The work is back-breaking and thankless. As a plongeur, he is near the bottom of the complicated hotel caste system, which favors waiters and cooks over those who slave away in the hotel’s hot, reeking basement. The restaurant, outwardly luxurious but filthy upon close inspection, is a scene of manic activity. The staff argues, bullies, and drinks their way through feeding sixty nightly guests, and there is violence, thieving, and all kinds of immoral behavior. Still, the work gets done, and, after an 11-hour shift, Orwell and Boris fight their way onto the Metro (the name for the subway in Paris), wolf down a quick meal, and go to bed. Then they wake up and do it all again. Their only real pleasures during this time are sleep—whenever they can sneak it in—and drinking in the hotel bistro on Saturday nights.
Orwell works at the Hotel X for nearly a month, then quits when Boris assures him the Auberge—the Patron’s restaurant—is on the verge of opening. The fact is, though, that the Patron has done no more work on the place since the last time they visited, so Orwell and Boris, as well as another waiter and a cook, work round the clock to try to make the restaurant presentable and ready to serve customers.
If the Hotel X was an unpleasant place to work, the Auberge is almost unbearable. The kitchen is filthy and underequipped, rats run rampant, and the staff is able to keep the place open only through their own cunning and by working 17-hour days. The Auberge is, to Orwell’s surprise, a success, but he cannot abide the schedule. The joyless life of a plongeur, argues Orwell, is completely unnecessary. Why should a man devote his waking hours to the kind of grueling work that only serves to keep the wealthy in silly luxuries? Eventually Orwell writes to B, a friend of his in London, asking if he might know of work available there. B gets back to Orwell right away, saying he knows of a “congenital imbecile” who needs looking after. Orwell gives his notice at the Auberge and sets sail for England.
Upon arriving in his home country, Orwell finds out that the family for whom he’s supposed to work are abroad and won’t have a position for him for a month. Having spent the bulk of his money on his passage and without an income, Orwell resorts to selling his clothes, hoping the money will hold him over until his job begins. The merchant who buys his clothes gives him only a pittance and some hobo rags in return, and now Orwell experiences a new brand of poverty—that of the tramp trying to get by on the streets of London.
For the next month, Orwell spends the night in a series of dirty and comfortless lodging houses, casual wards, and charitable establishments run by religious organizations like the Salvation Army. During this time, Orwell meets the man who becomes his companion, Paddy Jacques, a generous but willfully ignorant Irishman who survives on a diet of bread, margarine, and self-pity. Like many of the men Orwell writes of, Paddy came to poverty through bad luck and now, thanks to a system weighted in favor of the wealthy, he is unable to pull himself out. The same is true for Paddy’s friend, Bozo, a pavement artist. Unlike Paddy, however, Bozo is incapable of feeling sorry for himself. He paints and star gazes and walks around the city on his bad leg, laughing at misfortune and refusing charity from religious organizations because he is a staunch atheist. Orwell thinks Bozo is an exceptional man. In all of his time on the streets, Bozo is the only man Orwell comes across whose personality has not been at least somewhat warped by poverty.
Just as Orwell found the life of a plongeur to be needlessly difficult, he regards the existence of the tramp to be largely avoidable. If the people who ran the casual wards—which are also called “spikes”—and London lodging houses were to invest in more comfortable beds, nutritious food, and clean linen, tramps like Paddy Jacques might soon find their way out of poverty, buoyed by good food and hope for a brighter future. But instead the lodging house owners grow rich on the suffering of others, and the system grinds on.
The month passes and Orwell’s job begins, and with it his time as an impoverished man comes to an end. Orwell states that during the time he spent in the hotels and restaurants of Paris and the lodging houses of London, he learned several important lessons, including the fact that beggars and tramps are not criminals, and that he has no good reason to expect to receive gratitude when he lends a poor man a penny. Also, he promises to never again patronize a “smart restaurant.” Orwell recognizes that his realizations might not be enough to change the world for the better right away, but, for him, they constitute a beginning. Born to wealth, Orwell’s consciousness has been altered by living among those for whom poverty can often be a death sentence.