After quitting the British Imperial Police Force in 1927, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) moved to Paris and tried to write about the oppressed. His experiences as a member of the working poor over the next several years became the basis of his first work of literary journalism, Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell works as a dishwasher at “Hotel X” in Paris, as a chef’s assistant in a new restaurant, and then becomes a tramp on the outskirts of London.
I read this book as part of a group project on George Orwell, and I can’t say that I loved it. Orwell is most well-known for the strong anti-totalitarian, pro-socialism voice that he adopts in his fiction like Animal Farm and 1984. Down and Out was written much earlier, and I think Orwell just hasn’t found his voice yet. Without that voice, the book ends up feeling flat.
One thing I enjoyed about the book was Orwell’s use of description. When he’s working as a dishwasher he describes in disgusting detail all of the things that go on in the underbelly of a highly respected Parisian hotel. While loafing around London, his descriptions of how tramps are treated in the government sponsored spikes are eerily reminiscent of how Jews were treated by the Nazi’s in WWII. These descriptions are so vivid that they seem to demand outrage, yet Orwell’s irritatingly objective voice refuses to take a stance.
The best example of what I didn’t like about this book comes at the conclusion. After Orwell finally escapes his life of poverty to take a job as a teacher, he reflects on his experience with this passage:
At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. 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, not be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, no refuse a handbill, no enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.
To me, the conclusion of this book warrants a statement a lot stronger than that. While I recognize and respect the contributions this book made to literary journalism and how it informed Orwell’s later career, I don’t think it’s his best work and wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a hardcore George Orwell fan.