Down and Out in Paris and London: Orwell's Account of Social Injustice

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Down and Out in Paris and London is the first full-length work by English novelist, essayist, and journalist George Orwell. Published in 1933, the novel is a combination of fiction and factual autobiography in which Orwell describes and partially-fictionalizes his experiences of poverty. Through the observations on social injustice articulated in Down and Out, Orwell set the stage for his later major works of political observation and criticism: the allegorical novella Animal Farm and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Summary of Plot

Down and Out in Paris and London begins as the story’s unnamed narrator, a British man in his early twenties, is living in the Latin Quarter of Paris during 1928. In keeping with the novel’s main theme of poverty, the narrator finds himself nearly out of funds after being robbed by one of his many eccentric neighbors. After briefly working as an English teacher and a restaurant plongeur (pot-washer), the narrator finds that he must pawn his clothes and other belongings to avoid starvation.

Sensing that the stress of the daily struggle to survive without regular income might be affecting his mental and physical health, the narrator reaches out to an old friend back in his hometown of London. When his friend sends him money to get his clothes out of hock and help him find a job, the narrator decides to leave Paris and move back to London. The year is 1929, and the American Great Depression is just beginning to hurt economies around the world.

Once back in London, the narrator works briefly as a caregiver for an invalid. When his patient leaves England, the narrator is forced to live on the streets or in Salvation Army charity hostels. Due to vagrancy laws of the day, he must remain on the move, spending his days as a beggar in search of free housing, soup kitchens, and handouts.

As he wanders London, the narrator's interactions with fellow beggars as well as charitable (and not so charitable) individuals and institutions give him a newfound understanding of the struggles of people living on the margins.  

Major Characters

The Narrator: The unnamed narrator is a struggling writer and part-time English tutor in his early twenties. He works at several menial jobs in Paris before accepting the charity of a friend and moving back to his hometown of London, where he looks for work but remains largely unemployed. Through his daily efforts to scrape up food and housing, the narrator comes to appreciate the constant humiliations of poverty. Unlike many of the characters he encounters, the narrator is a well-educated English aristocrat. He ultimately concludes and societal norms prevent the poor from breaking free of the cycle of poverty. 

Boris: The narrator's close friend and roommate in Paris, Boris is a former Russian soldier in his mid-thirties. Once the picture of health and virility, Boris has become obese and partially crippled by arthritis. Despite his disabling pain, Boris is a perpetual optimist who helps the narrator plot schemes to escape their poverty. Boris’ plans eventually succeed in finding work for two of them at Hotel X and later at the Auberge de Jehan Cottard restaurant.

After the narrator has returned to Paris, he learns that Boris had achieved his often-expressed lifelong dreams of earning 100 francs a day waiting tables and moving in with a woman “who never smells of garlic.”  

Valenti: A kind, good-looking 24-year-old waiter, Valenti worked with the narrator at Hotel X in Paris. The narrator admired Valenti for being one of his only acquaintances who had succeeded at working his way out of poverty. Valenti knew that only hard work could break the chains of poverty. Ironically, Valenti had learned this lesson when on the verge of starvation, he prayed to what he believed to the picture of a saint for food and money. His prayers, however, had gone unanswered because the picture turned out to be that of a local prostitute.

Mario: Another of the narrator's co-workers at Hotel X, Mario has been working as a waiter for 14 years.

An outgoing and expressive Italian, Mario is an expert at his job, often singing arias from then opera “Rigoletto” as he works in order to increase his tips. Unlike most of the other characters the narrator encounters on the streets of Paris, Mario is the epitome of resourcefulness or “débrouillard.”

The Patron: The owner of the Auberge de Jehan Cottard restaurant where the narrator and Boris work, the Patron is a pudgy, well dressed Russian man who uses far too much cologne for the narrator's taste. The Patron bores the narrator with stories of golf and how his work as a restaurateur prevents him from playing the game he loves. The narrator, however, sees that the Patron’s real game and main occupation is cheating people. He tricks the narrator and Boris into remodeling his restaurant for free by lying to them about the constantly-impending opening date.   

Paddy Jacques: After the narrator moves back to London, his first stay in a free hostel unites him with Paddy Jacques, an Irishman who knows the ins-and-outs of the city’s charitable facilities. Though he feels shame about it, Paddy Jacques has become an expert at begging and is eager to share whatever food and money he gets. Given Paddy Jacques’ determination to avoid education, the narrator views him as a prototypical laborer whose inability to find steady work has doomed him to poverty.

Bozo: Crippled while working as a house painter, Paddy Jacques’s best friend Bozo now survives by drawing art on the streets and sidewalks of London in return for handouts.

Despite being broken both financially and physically, Bozo never surrenders to self-pity. As a dedicated atheist, Bozo refuses all forms of religious charity and never hesitates to express his views on art, astrology, and politics. The narrator admires Bozo’s refusal to allow poverty to change his uniquely independent personality.

Main Themes

The Inescapability of Poverty: Most of the people the narrator encounters truly want to escape poverty and work hard trying to do so, but constantly fail due to events and circumstances beyond their control. The novel argues that the poor are victims of circumstance and society.

Appreciation for the ‘Work’ of Poverty: While observing the daily lives of London street dwellers, the narrator concludes that beggars and "working men" toil in much the same way, and that beggars work in worse circumstances and often with their very survival at stake. The fact that their performances or goods have no value should make no difference because, as the narrator suggests, neither does the work of many regular businessmen, who "[are distinguished by] their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”

The ‘Freedom’ of Poverty: Despite the many evils of poverty, the narrator concludes that poverty does afford its victims a certain degree of freedom. Specifically, the book contends that the poor are free from worrying about respectability. This conclusion is drawn from the narrator's many encounters with eccentric individuals on the streets of Paris and London.

The narrator writes, "Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.”

Literary Style

Down and Out in Paris and London is an autobiographical memoir combining factual events with literary embellishment and social commentary. While the genre of book is mainly non-fiction, Orwell applies the fiction writer’s techniques of exaggerating events and rearranging their chronological order in an effort to make the narrative more compelling.

In the introduction to the French version published in 1935, Orwell wrote, “I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.”

As a depiction of what it was like to be poverty-stricken in France and England before the implementation of post-World War I welfare programs, the book is widely considered as a classic example of the semi-historical documentary with a clearly-identifiable point of view.

Historical Context

Orwell was part of the Lost Generation, a group of young expatriate writers attracted to Paris during the 1920s by the city’s Bohemian atmosphere of personal freedom and artistic creativity. Examples of their best-known novels include The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The events in Down and Out in Paris and London take place shortly after the end of the “Roaring Twenties” following World War I. Famously depicted in literature by the Lost Generation writers, this euphoric period of financial prosperity and excessive self-indulgence soon gave way to dismal poverty as the effects of America’s Great Depression spread to Europe. By the time he started to write the novel in 1927, 20% of the population of the United Kingdom was unemployed.

Key Quotes

Though they were written more than 85 years ago, many of Orwell's insights about poverty and social injustice still ring true today,

  • “The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.”
  • “It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
  • "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 towards them.”
  • “For, 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. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry.”

Down and Out in Paris and London Fast Facts

  • Title: Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Author: George Orwell
  • Publisher: Victor Gollancz (London)
  • Year Published: 1933
  • Genre: Memoir/Autobiographical
  • Setting: The late 1920s in Paris and London
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original language: English
  • Major Themes: Poverty and society's treatment of the poor
  • Main Characters: An unnamed narrator, Boris, Paddy Jacques, The Patron, Valenti, Bozo