While Orwell hopes for a radical transformation of society that will eliminate the sort of poverty he experienced, the world he portrays seems to offer slim chances of that happening. Orwell ultimately sees society as being built on deception. Put another way, over the course of the book Orwell discovers that truth telling does not pay in a culture that is, at its heart, rotten.
According to Orwell, the rich lie to get richer. Sometimes they lie to the poor; often, they lie to each other. Either way, by depicting the unethical behavior of two Paris restaurant owners, Orwell shows that dishonesty pays off. The Patron of the Auberge in Paris, for example, is an incurable liar who deceives Orwell and Boris into performing renovations on the restaurant for free. Furthermore, the owner of the Hotel X regularly cheats his customers, charging them exorbitant prices for minor services and bad food. The customers, who are rich themselves, pay without a care because they’re so wealthy that details don’t matter to them.
The poor, meanwhile, lie to survive. As is the case with the rich, Orwell shows how lying often benefits the poor, but not to the same extent. Rather than accumulating wealth through deception, the poor often manage only to secure a piece of bread or a bed for the night. Orwell finds out the hard way that lying is a necessity when he admits to the Hotel X hiring manager that he’ll need to leave his post in two weeks when the Auberge opens. The hiring manager immediately fires Orwell, who then finds out that the Auberge is actually nowhere close to opening. Boris, a veteran of the restaurant industry, berates Orwell for his need to be truthful. “Honest! Honest!” Boris shouts. “Who ever hear of a plongeur being honest? You see what hotel work is like. Do you think a plongeur can afford a sense of honour?”
Meanwhile, in the London casual wards, men are not allowed to have money, since the law states that they must be completely and utterly destitute when they enter. While the law is presumably meant to ensure that people with money don’t take advantage of these free hostels, in practicality no one who could afford it would want to stay in the prison-like casual wards in the first place. Further, the law makes the poor vulnerable to extortion from the porters at the casual wards. These porters search the poor entering the casual wards and, if they find money, they either steal it or, if the poor person resists, they send that person to jail. Out of necessity, veterans of the casual wards have learned to be dishonest: they sew any money they might have into their clothes in order to hide it.
Orwell shows that even charity—which is held up as the most selfless of acts—is a manipulative attempt by the powerful to either control or profit from the weak. Orwell discusses, for instance, how the Salvation Army and other religious-based organizations might provide the poor with food and shelter, but at a cost. Usually the men are forced to pray or to take part in long church services that they find not only tedious, but also condescending. The men often submit because they need the food, but their hearts and minds are not in it. Orwell suggests that if charity came without strings attached, both sides would benefit. The religious would get the satisfaction of a good deed, and the poor would not have to debase themselves through false praying. Furthermore, at many of the casual wards in and around London, men are given meal tickets that they can take to nearby coffeeshops. However, the coffee shop proprietors make a killing by overcharging charitable organizations for such tickets and then not delivering the amount of food that’s promised. Orwell notes that this practice is well known, but, despite its illegality, it flourishes because impoverished men are, in effect, beggars, and they don’t feel worthy of asking for what they’re owed.
Though Orwell comments that he values honesty, during his time as a plongeur and later as a London “tramp,” he comes to realize that no one—not his fellow poor men, not the middle class, and certainly not the rich—adheres to a code of honor. Once again, Orwell doesn’t offer a clear solution to the issue. Rather, he focuses on clearly diagnosing what’s wrong. Orwell explains that in a capitalist society each individual benefits by lying. This state of affairs is due mostly to the fact that those in power take advantage of the powerless, and there is no one more powerless than the poor man, who often has to pray to a god he doesn’t believe in for his dinner, and is always on the verge of being out of work or without a bed for the night. Lying is, of course, not strictly moral, but it is practical, and for the impoverished, practicality must be valued above all things.
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Honesty Does Not Pay Quotes in Down and Out in Paris and London
You have thought so much about poverty—it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all
so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.
To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment.
Another thing to remember is to keep your money covered up, except perhaps a penny in the hat. People won’t give you anything if they see you got a bob or two already.
In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue…A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.