Midway through Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell is making a point:
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.
Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well.
Orwell is reacting to the general feeling among the non-poor of England of his time — and it’s true today in the United States — that people who live in poverty are somehow less than full people. That they’re of a different breed, a lesser breed.
Yet, in this book about his own experience living in extreme poverty over the course of more than three months in late 1929 and early 1930, Orwell makes again and again the strikingly obvious point: that the poor are human beings, just like the rest of us.
“Ordinary human beings”
For instance, writing about his time among tramps and beggars in London and its environs, Orwell notes:
It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes toward them.
People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary “working” men. They are a race apart — outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes.
Beggars, he writes, are dismissed as people who don’t work. They’re simply parasites. They don’t earn a living.
Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people…[Begging] is a trade like any other, quite useless, of course — but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless….He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering…Why are beggars despised?…I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living.
In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable….Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.
If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately.
“A dead cat”
Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, was Orwell’s first book in print. He went on to write two of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Animal Farm and 1984. In both, he showed an ability to look clear-headed at Western society, past all the bombast and conventions, and that ability is on display in this book as well.
For instance, needing to spend a month in London before a promised job would materialize, Orwell sold his clothes, receiving a pittance and worn, dirty replacements.
I had worn bad enough things before, but nothing at all like these; they were not merely dirty and shapeless, they had — how is one to express it? — a gracelessness; a patina of antique filth, quite different from mere shabbiness.
In a snap, Orwell, an educated man from one of the lower levels of the upper class, found that, with his new clothes, he had entered a “new world.”
Everyone’s demeanor seemed to have changed abruptly. I helped a hawker pick up a barrow that he had upset. “Thanks, mate,” he said with a grin. No one had called me mate before in my life — it was the clothes that had done it.
For the first time I noticed, too, how the attitude of women varies with a man’s clothes. When a badly dressed man passes them they shudder away from him with a quite frank movement of disgust, as though he were a dead cat.
In other words, Orwell was the same guy before putting on the clothes and after donning them. Yet, society saw him as someone completely different.
Orwell also makes it clear that poverty is no vacation from responsibility. Indeed, its wages are suffering.
After his low-paying job in Paris as an English tutor dissolves when his students move away, Orwell suddenly finds himself with only pennies. Yet he discovers that poverty isn’t what he had envisioned.
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.
The complications included the secrecy Orwell needed to adopt so that his landlord didn’t know that, although he had paid his rent for the month, he had no idea of how he could get the money for the next month.
Trying to get by on small coins each day, Orwell learned:
Mean disasters happen and rob you of food. You have spent your last eighty centimes on half a litre of milk, and are boiling it over the spirit lamp. While it boils, a bug runs down your forearm, you give the bug a flick with your nail, and it falls plop! straight into the milk. There is nothing for it but to throw the milk away and go foodless.
Hunger, true hunger, was also a startling discover. Orwell would eat a piece of bread with margarine and then look longingly into shop windows.
Everywhere there is food insulting to you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones.
He relates that hunger left him in “an utterly spineless, brainless condition.” And he goes on:
It is as though one had been turned into a jelly fish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…
And what to do with one’s time? That’s the rub.
Boredom, Orwell finds, is perhaps the greatest bane of living in poverty:
the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed…Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who had gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessary organs.
In an introduction to my edition of Down and Out in Paris and London, Irish writer Dervla Murphy notes that the book still has “pungent immediacy” because, unlike other middle-class writers who have gone to live among the poor, Orwell “was not then ‘playing a game.’ ”
Because of his background, Orwell had ways of eventually getting out from under his lack of money.
But, for those three-plus months, he was as poor as anyone in the two major Western capitals. Some of the details of what he experienced would no longer hold true today.
The essence, though, of what he went through is what poor people go through today, trying to keep body and soul together at the bottom of a society that has a top and a bottom.
A top and a bottom.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review is one of six about books describing poverty over a century-long period. The six books are How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, The People of the Abyss by Jack London, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans, The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell and The American Millstone: An examination of the nation’s permanent underclass by the staff of the Chicago Tribune.