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.