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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Orwell's Down and Out

Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. (Harcourt, 1933). You can read it online at
Warning: this book may change your view of Orwell (who was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India) and will most likely turn you off eating in restaurants. 

This book vividly illustrates Orwell’s first-hand experience of poverty. After running out of money in Paris and pawning what he could, he works as a plongeur, a sort of combination dishwasher and general help behind the scenes in a hotel or restaurant kitchen. That’s where you get the details about how very far from sanitary the conditions are – even at expensive establishments. 

Later on he returns to England on borrowed funds, but his new employer is not yet around, so he is reduced to tramping and staying at prison-like homeless shelters, which he calls casual wards and experienced tramps call a “spike.” He gives a glossary of such terms in chapter 32 and then proceeds to analyze the progression of swear words with contrasts between French and English usage. This is rather amusing in this edition because no word beyond “bloody” gets spelled out. Every other word is signified only by _, so the reader really does not know which word he has in mind when he says “For example, __” (p. 177). Here he also remarks on the surprising fact that “cow” is the worst insult for women in both France and England, despite the fact that “cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them” (p. 178). He also notes that an Englishman will desist from swearing in front of a woman, though a Frenchman does not, and French women swear themselves.

Orwell does not just analyze language here, but the attitudes towards the poor. He concludes that the poor are kept down and wrongfully classified as being of a different order than those with more money. He is highly critical of the social policies set up for the homeless in England. He argues that both the French plongeur and the English tramp is cut off from what is considered normal life because he cannot marry. The working man doesn’t have the time or the money with 15 hour days being the norm and wages just adequate to keep him alive with an occasional night out drinking. The tramp, he says, also does not have access to women. He ponders why there are so few women tramps and concludes that a woman is better off because she has the option to attach herself to a man and not suffer as much from poverty. That conclusion astounded me because Orwell constantly refers to prostitutes and includes a story told to him in Paris in which a young man boasted of the pleasure he had in abusing a young woman who was likely sold into the brothel by her parents. Victor Hugo depicted the fall into poverty of such women very well in Les Miserables, but Orwell does not give any thought to their point of view with all his pondering on the wrongs of society and the mistreatment of the poor. 

The book is filled with numerous character sketches and anecdotes. In England, we meet a “screever,” a pavement artist. Though he can earn quite a bit when times are good, he earns nothing from his craft on rainy days, and his life is nothing like the sunny one Dick Van Dyke portrays in the character of Bert in Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins - Bert The Pavement Artist) . In Paris, Orwell teams up with the Russian Boris who recounts the rather funny way he got out of his vow to a saint – and he is a self-declared atheist. There are also characters who tell stories about other people. One involves an elaborate scheme to smuggle cocaine into England from France. When the police come, the ones who have it try to pass it off as face powder, and … well, I won’t give that away. But the mastermind of the scheme and the swindle in the story is a Jew. 

Any time a Jew is mentioned, it is to bring up a bad character. Orwell even quotes a saying in chapter 13: “Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don't trust an Armenian.” And he takes that as absolute truth in connection to a story about being cheated by a man he took to be an Armenian. The pawn broker who cheats his customers is a Jew. And Boris who is reduced to sharing the room of a Jew when he has no money considers himself to have descended to the lowest depths because Russians consider Jews too lowly to spit upon. Orwell also shows his prejudice toward other races. In chapter 22, when he insists on the equality of men of all classes in these terms: “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like Negroes and white men.” He also seems rather appalled to see that blacks are allowed into the same casual houses as white. Though Orwell may be liberal in his view on the working poor and the destitute, they do not extend to women, minorities, or Jews.

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