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Down and Out in Paris and London: a Book by George Orwell
George Orwell is mostly known for Animal Farm and 1984, and it seems a lot of people do not know of any of his other works. «Down and Out in Paris and London» is, however, often considered to be the book in which Orwell found his voice as an author, it is his first full-length work, and it is in many ways an excellent novel. The book is half-biographical, telling the tale of Orwells poverty, which he really did experience. Some freedoms have been taken, and there is some discussion of about how much, but it is definitely worth a read. So to start, what is the story?
Poverty in Paris
Orwell is famous for the worlds he create, rather than the characters in them. Do many people remember much about the main character of 1984? No. And «Down and Out» is the same. The point is not so much what the main character goes through, but the society he is in, and the general feeling of people in his position.
That said, our narrator, whose name is never revealed, starts of as a poor man in Paris, who has just lost his job as a tutor. He slowly sees his money leaving, and there is a lot about his shame for his poverty, and how he tries to keep up appearances. The ways he goes about pretending to have money are rather amusing and insightful. You sometimes hear of those who become poor by their own choice to identify with the inconvenienced, but Orwell here shows the understanding that those people lack: while the hunger and filth are big problems, most time is spent on not looking the landlord in the eyes, pretending that you can afford what you can not, keeping up appearances while considering yourself a failure, and being terrified of other people learning this.
He tries to get work in several ways, and is in the end employed in the kitchen of a hotel. It is sort of amusing how the narrator disappears for a while here. We get several pages with descriptions of the terrible conditions food is made in at the hotel, with the narrator rarely being brought up. We are really studying the backdrop here, but as mentioned, that is often the most interesting part of Orwell's novels. This is no exception, we really get a look into a complicated and filthy world, all told in a manner that makes you want to learn more about what is going on in the depths of the hotel.
A Bum in London
The narrator does find other jobs, some even worse than the hotel, but eventually leaves France for London. The promise he got for money is however wuickly betrayed, so after spending some nights at a truly horrible lodge, he ends up as a street bum, traveling from place to place, being chased by the police. We follow him for a while, as he tries to make money on the street, tries to get food, talk to the other homeless. Another lesson he has learned here, is the shame of being given money, how demeaning depending on others like that are. Some tramps feel humiliated. I also especially liked the character Bozo, a pavement artist, formerly an astronomer, until tragedy struck.
The London part is shorter than the time spent in Paris, and the book ends with some remarks from the author about social justice and showing compassion for the poor. And so the book closes.
There is not much to the plot. The conflict is simple: “How will I get food, and where will I sleep?”, but it carries the story as the plot drifts from place to place. Do not expect any action, though, very little happens. But it is a good story, one of my favorite books, and though it is perhaps not an accurate representation of his life, it certainly tells of his experiences. It is not about an oppressive regime, as he would be famous for writing about, but about an oppressive society which make the poor's life hell. The writing is excellent, and the world portrayed is one which has furthered my understanding of the lower classes both in the 1930's, but also today. Absolutely recommended.