Down and Out in Paris and London is a story of poverty. George Orwell makes it clear from the beginning that his book, which has been described as both a memoir and as an autobiographical novel, is meant to dash misconceptions about the poor and illustrate the effect that being poor has on the human psyche. Orwell attacks the idea (which was commonly held at the time and is even still widely held today) that poverty is something that poor people deserve because of their lack of will, merit, or ability. Instead, Orwell shows how most of the people he met during his period of destitution became poor as a result of bad luck.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the poor are not inherently different from the rich. They are not, by nature, inferior. Nor are they criminals or drunks. They are simply regular people, who, thanks to a reversal of fortune, get caught in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to escape or reverse. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Bozo, a London pavement artist who becomes destitute after an accident on the job and never recovers financially. Bozo’s story shows that bettering oneself is never merely a matter of will. Rather, privilege begets privilege because getting work often depends on already having it (or having the money that allows you to look like you have it). Orwell and his friend, Boris, with whom he spends the bulk of the Paris chapters, look the part of poor men (their clothing gives them away). Their grueling search for work and the setbacks they encounter on account of their ragged appearance reveal that the wealthy’s self-serving narrative about the poor (that they are poor because they won’t work hard and help themselves) is a lie. Lack of employment leads to poverty and poverty leads to hunger, which Orwell shows is a prison of its own.
On one hand, employers will not hire anyone who looks hungry. On the other, a scarcity of food depletes a person’s capacity to work. Trying to survive on a diet of bread and margarine has completely unmanned Paddy Jacques, Orwell’s companion in London, and a number of the men he meets in the city’s casual wards. During one extended period of hunger in Paris, Orwell himself gives into despair, reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes because “it was all I felt equal to, without food.” He writes that, “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm substituted.”
As a consequence, the poor often while away entire days in a starvation-induced fog—too tired, depressed, and weak to meaningfully improve their situation. The hungry have only enough motivation to either finish their day’s work or make it to the next homeless shelter for the night. So, while the wealthy often denigrate the poor as lazy, Orwell shows how poverty has reduced the poor to physical and mental weakness that the wealthy can’t understand. That weakness often culminates in a loss of humanity, which Orwell witnesses both in the hotels of Paris and the lodging houses and spikes of London. Wherever Orwell goes, he witnesses men fighting, usually over petty things: perceived insults, minor theft. The real cause, however, is hunger. In hotel and restaurant kitchens, in casual wards and at the Salvation Army, in muddy fields and meadows, men battle each other because their tempers are short. Malnutrition has perverted their natures and left them unable to connect on the human level.
When one is employed, well-dressed, and not struggling to feed oneself, it is easy to assume that the poor are impoverished because they deserve it. Such ideas are a destructive and prejudicial way of thinking. Poverty itself is the only thing that distinguishes the poor from the wealthy: “The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated,” Orwell writes, “by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.” The truth that Orwell discovers from his days on the streets is that no one chooses to be poor. Men come to poverty through no fault of their own, and are kept there by a series of entrenched laws and social rules that rob them of their ability to change their lot in life.
While one might argue that Orwell himself does get a job at the end of the book, and in so doing, leaves his “poverty” behind, a closer look shows that Orwell’s eventual employment still supports his argument. As Orwell describes it in the book, he only ever experiences the “suburbs of poverty.” Put another away, Orwell is never truly poor—he personally lacks money, but his family has means, and he has connections that enable him to find a job when he’s sick of his life without money. But the truly poor, lacking even those resources, can never just stop being poor the way Orwell does.
Poverty as Prison ThemeTracker
Poverty as Prison 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.
Appearance—appearance is everything, mon ami. Give me a new suit and I will borrow a thousand francs by dinner-time.
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.
If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.
People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose. They see somebody else doing a disagreeable job, and think that they have solved things by saying that the job is necessary.
Foreseeing some dismal Marxian Utopia as the alternative, the educated man prefers to keep things as they are. Possibly he does not like his fellow-rich very much, but he supposes that even the vulgarest of them are less inimical to his pleasures, more his kind of people, than the poor, and that he had better stand by them. It is this fear of a supposedly dangerous mob that makes nearly all intelligent people conservative in their opinion.
The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.
Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone, it flies towards you from all directions.
The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body, that they cannot even run a lodging house without it stinking of charity.
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.
An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. But a man like Paddy, with no means of filling up time, is as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain. That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.
A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor—it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.
Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.