While Orwell shows how poverty shrinks the horizons of the poor, he does see it as having two redeeming qualities: it frees its victims from the sometimes-stifling demands of traditional respectability, and it renders moot any worry they might feel about the future.
To Orwell, being poor gives a person license to be different, and he does indeed meet a number of poor eccentrics in both Paris and London. “The Paris slums,” writes Orwell in the first chapter of the memoir, “are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.” The Hotel des Trois Moineaux, where Orwell lives when he first experiences Parisian poverty, is a den of odd characters, including an old, dwarfish couple that sells fake pornographic postcards, and a sewer worker who refuses to speak, having lost his fiancé to another man. Orwell likewise encounters a host of odd people at the Hotel X and among the tramps in London. Bozo is perhaps Orwell’s most extreme example of a man set free by poverty. Unlike Paddy Jacques, Bozo never allows lack of money to get him down. Looking at the stars is free, he tells Orwell, and so is acquiring knowledge. All Bozo needs to be content is a dry surface on which to paint and a clear sky overhead. The moneyed and educated classes, Orwell suggests, cannot boast of such colorful characters, since many eccentrics have been freed by financial ruin to be themselves without fear of recrimination.
Secondly, Orwell writes that having very little money means the poor do not have to agonize over how best to spend or invest their capital. They live day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, and that can leave a person with little to no anxiety. Why lose sleep over the possibility of advancement at work or in one’s social life when neither is within one’s grasp? There is no need to feel anxious about a future that will never come. The impoverished are free from the working man’s worries of job security, mortgage, and other expenses because they care only to survive and to obtain as much comfort as is available to them. A man in possession of a little money—enough to eat on, perhaps, but not enough to pay the rent—does experience panic, but if he is down to his last coin, he shrugs. When there is no light at the end of the tunnel, the darkness of the present becomes bearable, even boring. And there is, Orwell observes, a certain amount of consolation to be found in the fact that one has hit rock bottom. “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself genuinely down and out,” he writes. “You have talked so often of going to the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.”
At the same time, Orwell makes it clear that both the freedom to be eccentric and the “relief” that results from having no future to worry about are cold comforts. With nothing of substance to look forward to, the poor are confined to living in the past or holding on to shreds of hope that their luck just might change for the better tomorrow. Predictably, it rarely does. When good luck does strike, it does so in such a modest way only one’s immediate needs—a cigarette, an evening’s rent—are met. And because bad luck often lands people in poverty, many poor people have only their memories of better times to comfort them. Boris, for instance, has his medals from his time of service in the war. Back aching and confined to a bed while bugs crawl across his ceiling, Boris pulls his medals out and relives his past, doing his best to forget his dark present.
Given that Orwell, aristocratic by birth, was completely capable of escaping poverty at any time, his claims about the upsides of poverty are suspect at best. The men and women he associated with in Paris and London were not as privileged, and might, had they the chance to tell their side of the story, have given very different accounts of what it meant to them to hit rock bottom. Paddy Jacques, for instance, is somewhat eccentric, but his odder qualities—his talent for spotting cigarettes on the sidewalk, or his steadfast refusal to educate himself—are most definitely a result of poverty, and Orwell is very direct in his assessment of Paddy’s character: “He was probably capable of work, too, if he had been well fed for months. But two years of bread and margarine had lowered his standards hopelessly. He had lived on this filthy imitation of food till his own mind and body were compounded of inferior stuff. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood.” So much for eccentricity. In reality, poverty is, for the most part, dehumanizing. It grinds away at a man’s personality and pride and sense of hope until there is little left but a beast divorced from his own desires.
Poverty as Opportunity ThemeTracker
Poverty as Opportunity Quotes in Down and Out in Paris and London
Poverty forces them from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.
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.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.
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.