This too-often overlooked masterpiece by George Orwell is really nonfiction (although embellished and placed in an abstract world). The major concern in both cities is the hopelessness of the impoverished condition – the social barriers to climbing out of poverty. For example, in London the poor houses are a long walk apart, and the rules state that no person can stay in the same night shelter two nights in a row. Consequently, the poor must spend their entire day –all their waking hours – simply getting to the next shelter – no time to look for work or find family or otherwise ameliorate their situation.
In Paris, where the contrast between the rich and the poor is exemplified in the kitchens of expensive restaurants, the poor are in close proximity to the well-off, but invisible to them, disembodied, non-human “machines” that somehow produce delicious meals. Emblematic of the falseness of these two worlds is the treatment of the food – if a broiled chicken is dropped on the dirty floor of the kitchen, it is simply washed off and served anyway – because all is illusion, and what is not perceived isn’t real. So long as these two worlds are kept apart, there is no chance to move from one to the other.
In his most famous work, Animal Farm, Orwell is fictionalizing, even dramatizing, the duplicity, the artificial divisions in society. Animal Farm is the most transparent example, but Down and Out deserves its place alongside Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities as a book-length allegory of the great divide in our society, one that freezes itself in its own rules. These limitations are universal, as shown by the portraits of these two cities.