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...
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