The experience of poverty, unnecessary wealth, and humanity in between.
Although Orwell may be better remembered for Nineteen-Eighty Four and Animal Farm, both landmarks in political fiction with their notions of authoritarianism and symbolism, Down and Out in Paris and London is perhaps his most underappreciated work.
Unlike the former’s dystopian hell with its ubiquitous Thought Police, or the latter’s farm animals, which acted as a wider-metaphor for the early politics of the Soviet Union, Down and Out is a memoir of Orwell’s personal experiences living in ‘20s/‘30s Paris and London, in dire poverty.
Down and Out undoubtedly has relation to the modern day. We are living in times of economic uncertainty due to COVID, and there have been numerous implications because of it; whether it be the US’ 15% increase in unemployment in April, or Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, which having gone into administration towards the end of 2020, putting 13,000 jobs at risk. The period Orwell wrote about of course also had its issues, with the Great Depression proving to be one of the worst events of the last century, and one which can be characterised by damning figures, such as a 25% global unemployment in 1933.
However, these links are not what make Down and Out a powerful memoir. It is actually its insight into the fundamental experiences of poverty – which Orwell intended to do, with the book educating the middle and upper-classes – that make it so. Down and Out ends up essentially becoming a insight into poverty. Whilst in Paris he’s a dishwasher, working fifteen hour shifts and living in a small room, in London he’s on the streets and going from spike to spike for refuge (workhouses), picking cigarette butts up off the floor. It is these told experiences which give the reader a look into the lives of many who are forced to live in similar conditions.
Even in our current age with all its technological and societal advancements, poverty is just as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago, and this isn’t just due to COVID’s impact. The reality is, is that society has constantly co-existed alongside a state of poverty for centuries, and it is a state that much of the general population are unaware of how close they could ever come to succumbing to themselves. The idea of a person working two jobs just to be able to have access to basic amenities such as gas or water has become so normalised, and even the means to be able to access higher education via university – has become such a costly burden that it could almost be characterised as a luxury.
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Outside of these notions, this period of recession itself was built off the back off another recession, which the world was just gradually beginning to grow out of in 2008. Since 2010, the policies of austerity, which were a result of the ’08 crash, in the UK have had a notable impact on the country. For example, the use of food banks has doubled over a four year period between 2013 and 2017, there has been an increase of 3.6 million children living in poverty between 1998 and 2019, and there are even a supposed 120,000 deaths that can be directly linked to austerity (an unofficial figure that is debatable, however). We have just as much have always been living in a world that is rife with poverty and destitution as the one that Orwell described himself. All that has seemed to change from Orwell’s memoir to the present day are factors such as attitudes towards the poor, the welfare state, perceptions of wealth, labour laws/human rights amongst others. This essential idea of what it means to live in poverty is still there though.
Orwell also touches upon the idea of wealth being unnecessary, which is shown by class divide throughout the book. Orwell’s tenure as a waiter in the elite Parisian ‘Hotel X’ highlights this concept the most, and gives the memoir its notions of human selfishness and greed. He later contrasts this against his experiences being homeless in London, which is actually at times the opposite with selfless people, such as when a homeless man offers him some tobacco from the ends of cigarette butts (after Orwell did the same to him the day prior). There is a feeling of solidarity among these people living in similar conditions, as the roughness of their lives binds them all together. With COVID we’ve even seen a greater increase in class divide, of course there are the new levels of unemployment and job insecurity. Simultaneously however, corporations have universally benefitted, with companies such as Amazon and Microsoft having consequently increased their profits and revenue drastically.
Overall, this society in poverty Orwell shows the reader is in reality, not that different from the current day. Whilst elements of class and poverty may change, it seems like the foundational aspects of it do not. To be Down and Out can be at anytime, and anywhere. But for a twenty-something Orwell, it was just a case of being in Paris and London in hard economic times.