George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London

“Poverty is what I'm writing about.”

George Orwell (1903 – 1950) wrote influential moralistic fiction and political outspokenness that has deep roots in his journalistic writing.

Down and Out is the 1933 publication of the journals Orwell kept during the years he lived among the poor in Paris and London. In his writing memoir, Why I Write, Orwell credits this experience with focusing his literary skills towards political activity.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles.

Of course, the situation was simulated. By the late 1920s, George Orwell, though not established as a novelist, was well-educated, well-known, and firmly middle-class. That being said, he generally forewent entitlements to live the impoverished life of those he observed.1

You discover the boredom which is inseparable from 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 can lie on your bed, feeling like your jeune squelette in Baudelaire’s poem.
Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.

London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, in Down and Out, there is a distance between author and subject. Orwell reports stabbings, rape, and theft with dispassionate curiosity. The individuals he meets feel a bit shallow, their most interesting traits exaggerated. He treats many as characters, not people. He shoulders the burden of witnessing their lives, but it keeps him apart.

Nevertheless, Down and Out is full of penetrating observation, clear, unadorned writing, and a nascent passion to speak for the socially downtrodden. The man who conceived such unique, enduring work as 1984 and Animal Farm is molded here.

When you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.

This “annihilation of the future” and the separation of man from his soul due to hunger are exactly what Elie Wiesel observes in his clear and horrifyingly true story of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Desperate, sustained hunger—especially at the hands of others—can remove one’s humanity by making a man merely a body.

I travelled to England third class via Dunkirk and Tilbury, which is the cheapest and not the worst way of crossing the channel. You had to pay extra for a cabin, so I slept in the saloon, together with most of the third-class passengers. I find this entry in my diary for the day:

‘Sleeping in the saloon, twenty-seven men, sixteen women. Of the women not a single one has washed her face this morning. The men mostly went to the bathroom; the women merely produced vanity cases and covered the dirty with powder.’

A novelist is often tempted by a need to see and gather “truth,” even fodder for their story. Compare Down and Out to the journalist and travel writing of novelists John Steinbeck (who wrote Travels with Charley at the end of his career) or Laurie Lee (who wrote nostalgically of his hometown in the Cotswolds).

Illustration of George Orwell.