In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is prone to a casual bigotry that was common in his time and place in society. While he reserves most of his ire for the rich, he also maligns Jews, Armenians, women, and gay people, treating them unsympathetically as stereotypes. This is particularly notable in light of the purpose of Orwell’s book: to argue for the humane treatment of those who are economically marginalized. While Orwell recognizes that the poor are unfairly maligned by society, he does not simultaneously recognize that his own treatment of people from marginalized groups is equally unfair, which shows how pervasive such prejudices were.
Sometimes the book’s disdain for minority groups comes courtesy of one of Orwell’s friends or companions. When Orwell first introduces Boris, for instance, Boris mentions his roommate, an auto mechanic who reportedly owes Boris three hundred francs and is paying him back slowly, at a rate of two francs per day. The mechanic, who later refuses to pay Boris even that paltry allowance, is referred to only as “the Jew.” And Boris, in an anecdote meant to illustrate the general moral fiber of the Jewish people, tells Orwell about a man he met during the war who tried to prostitute his own daughter to a group of Russian soldiers. “Have I ever told you, mon ami,” Boris says to Orwell, “that in the old Russian Army it was considered bad form to spit on a Jew? Yes, we thought a Russian officer’s spittle too precious to be wasted on Jews.”
Orwell himself is not immune to such prejudice. He characterizes one particularly immoral shopkeeper—a man who seems to take pleasure in under-paying his clients for their castoff clothing—as a “red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man” whom Orwell would have taken pleasure in beating, had he the luxury of doing so. “It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose,” Orwell writes. In this particular scene, as in the case with Boris’s roommate and the man who attempts to prostitute his daughter, Orwell equates the shopkeeper’s swindling nature with his identity as a Jew.
The only thing worse that being Jewish, according to Orwell, is being Armenian, and he comes to this conclusion during his stint as at Hotel X plonguer. He discovers too late that the doorkeeper of the hotel has been pocketing a portion of Orwell’s wages, cheating him out of more than 150 francs, which Orwell never receives. “He called himself a Greek,” Orwell observes, “but in reality he was an Armenian. After knowing him I saw the force of the proverb ‘Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.’”
Nearly everyone Orwell associates with in the book is a man, and the women he does meet rarely become more than a stereotype. They are, for the most part, great, clumping peasant women, stubborn virgins, bitter tramps, or hapless prostitutes, usually described only in terms of their appearance. When writing about the artistry practiced by cooks in “smart” Parisian hotels, Orwell writes, “It is for their punctuality, and not for any superiority of technique, that men cooks are preferred to women.” Then he builds on this baseless stereotype by adding that women really have no place in a restaurant kitchen, not even as plongeurs, whose work “has not a trace of skill or interest; the sort of job that would always be done by women if women were strong enough.” When Orwell does finally encounter a female cook at the Auberge, she is continually falling into weeping fits and subjecting the staff to silly whims and superstitions. Orwell relegates women to the background of his book, basically ignoring the plight of poor women all together.
A fourth marginalized group that Orwell targets is gay people, or, in his words, “nancy boys.” In London during Orwell’s first stay in a casual ward, a tramp tries to get intimate with Orwell in the middle of the night. “A nasty experience in a locked, pitch dark cell,” Orwell writes. When the old man eventually treats Orwell to his life story, he admits he hasn’t been in the company of women in quite some time. Orwell then concludes that homosexuality is a side effect of poverty for men. Later, Orwell and Paddy stay at a lodging house rumored to be popular with gays, or “a notorious haunt of nancy boys.” According to Orwell’s depictions of them, homosexuals are almost exclusively predatory.
By perpetuating ugly and nonsensical stereotypes about Jews, Armenians, women, and gay people, Orwell is falling prey to the same brand of lies he hoped to counter by writing this book. A casual hatred of the poor, perpetuated by the rich and even adopted by the poor themselves, ensures that a stratified society remains so, and scorning minority groups has the same effect, particularly when that scorn comes from Orwell, a supposed moral authority. It must be noted, too, that anti-Semitic sentiment, pervasive in Europe at the time, helped pave the way for the Third Reich. The first step toward violence is convincing one population that another is inferior or otherwise lacking in humanity.