Orwell lived on equal terms with the working class in Paris and with the vagrant homeless in London, which made his first non-fiction work authentic and gave us an eloquent account of people living in poverty and their plight. His observations are enlightening and his objectivity turned through awareness and first-hand experience into sympathy.
Matthew Desmond, the author of the acclaimed 2016 book, Evicted, described his method as ethnography, writing, “To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold to your own as fully and genuinely as possible” (318). This is what Orwell accomplished in Down and Out. Despite the differences in subject matter, I found many similarities in method and objective between the two books and they were certainly complementary reads.
The people Orwell met, working as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel and as a ‘tramp’ in London, were often in a trance of complacency caused by exhaustion, either from work or malnutrition. They lacked the energy and perhaps education to organize and fight for better worker’s rights and standards regarding more humane lodging. Orwell realized that one of the great evils of poverty he experienced was hunger.
“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 all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger” (280).
Orwell also noticed how not having money enough for tomorrow’s food or bed produced an odd psychological advantage. Namely, that being in survival mode, one can only afford to give attention to the present, relieving one of concern for anything beyond that. Orwell called this a “great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry” (263). This side-effect of being undeniably at rock bottom has the confounding feeling of relief at realizing that you are “at last genuinely down and out,” which takes away the anxiety of the descent.
Another of his revelations was the superficiality of societal classes; there are ultimately no fundamental differences between them except for the shelter and security money affords the rich.
“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…Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?” (355).
To that end, Bozo, a smart and contented screever (street painter) argued that, “If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, ‘I’m a free man in here’” – he tapped his forehead – “and you’re all right” (396). This point illustrates the value of an education to people of any social standing.
When discussing how outright begging is against the law in England, Orwell defends beggars who spend most of the day outside and endure insufferable lodgings by asking, ‘What is work?’
“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. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised” (404).
To sum up the life of a beggar, vagrant, or tramp Orwell calls it “an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life” (431). He consolidates what he has learned by being ‘hard up’ stating, “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” (441). He took extreme pains to understand the poor’s quality of life and did so in an approachable manner without looking down on them or putting them on pedestals.
Orwell perhaps had a guilty conscience about being from the upper class and knowing that no one from his class would ever mingle with the poor, did so himself and sufficed to advocate for them in the form of this well-worded and entertaining chronicle of their trials.
What I underlined:
The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up on trying to be normal and decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work (251)
Work in the hotel taught me the true value of sleep, just as being hungry taught me the true value of food (329)
People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary, an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work even more than he needs money (410)
A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature (414)
Edition: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010