In his essay “Inside the Whale,” Orwell describes the art of Henry Miller, who allowed himself to become “swallowed” by his experiences and so became a true underground man. For Orwell, the life experience could be transformed into realistic art only if the writer is authentic, absolutely true to his subject without distorting it. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell attempts to write as an honest observer, a plain, direct man with a passion for social reform. To achieve these ends, he employs a narrator who is candid, dryly clever, but not self-analytical. The speaker’s surface impressions, his surface irony, must carry conviction. The narrator is unflappable, unsentimental, as objective as a camera lens. The reader cannot determine why the narrator has risked his health and well-being to live among the down-and-out. Surely, as an educated man, young and (at least at the beginning of the narrative) in good health, he would seem to have opportunities to escape his predicament. Why must he deliberately starve himself to the point of death? Is he merely attempting, as a writer, to discover at first hand the sensations of misery, poverty, and famine? Or is he motivated by a masochistic urge that demands excessive punishment in return from some unacknowledged guilt? Orwell skillfully turns the reader’s attention away from these questions by focusing upon the vision of the narrator, not upon the man himself.
Similarly, when he treats the London episode, Orwell never offers a satisfactory explanation for the narrator’s descent down the social-class ladder. Why does he not seek some help—perhaps a personal loan? When he loses his job, the narrator’s first thought is to sell his “respectable” clothes, a sure means of ruining his chances for respectable employment. What sort of man would submit so passively to the condition of vagrant? Orwell never explains the psychology of his protagonist, because the reader is urged to consider the narrator’s message instead of his motivation. The point of the book is precisely to make that message clear: that poverty is degrading to both body and soul, that the authorities of Paris and London have neither concern for the poor nor a workable plan for their succor, and that a sensible (socialistic) plan could greatly improve the condition of the down-and-out.
Near the end of the Paris episode (chapter 22), Orwell...
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In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1918), Orwell’s hybrid book—partly true memoir, partly reportage—is an account of the down-and-out told from the viewpoint of a participant. Like Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer (1934), Orwell assumes the role of a major character, an “insider” who describes from personal experiences the effects of poverty upon an artistic temperament. The narrator has surrendered the privileges of education and class in order to live among the poor.
As Orwell later wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), “I knew nothing about working-class conditions. . . . What I profoundly wanted, at that time, was to find some way of getting out of the respectable world altogether.” The reason that Orwell desperately wanted to leave the “respectable world” is tied, ultimately, to an analysis of the psychology of masochistic guilt. Still, the literary fruits of this obsession are works of intense passion. Orwell brings to his subject a prophet’s vision of truth and a novelist’s eye for sharp detail.
To be sure, Down and Out in Paris and London does not tell the absolute truth about the writer’s actual experiences in poverty. In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell writes: “Nearly all the incidents described [in Down and Out in Paris and London] actually happened, though they have been rearranged.” As a matter of fact, Orwell discusses no more than ten weeks of his actual eighteen months in Paris. He not only reduced the time of his action but also suppressed any mention of his “Aunt Nellie” and of Eugene Adam, both of whom had a strong impact upon his Parisian experience. Similarly, his account of his London experience must have been carefully selected from actual events. Critics are especially suspicious about the role of “B” in Orwell’s departure from Paris; according to Bernard Crick (George Orwell: A Life, 1980), the episode “sounds contrived.”
Nevertheless, the total effect of Orwell’s book is that of directness and honesty. Yet compared to Jack London’s chilling The People of the Abyss (1903), a chronicle of the East End, Orwell’s book seems measured rather than strident, reasonable rather than emotional. Orwell manages to subordinate his agenda for social change to the power of the tale itself. While London writes with grief and anger, Orwell restrains his emotions until the end.