Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981
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 summarizes his case against the exploitation of the plongeur, the dishwasher, as a wage slave:He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.
To his audience of humane, educated readers, Orwell argues that plongeurs (who, after all, are symbolic of “numberless other types of workers”) have faces and souls and must be understood in order not to be feared.
His message at the end of the London episode (chapter 28) makes the same point—that the down-and-outers are human beings, not ciphers:I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of plongeur and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty.
He concludes by lecturing his readers not to think of all tramps as drunken scoundrels and not to expect a beggar to be grateful when he is offered a penny. The narrator’s commentary is modest, muted, a plea rather than a screed; yet he has proved to the reader that he has earned the right, through brutal personal experience, to deliver this lecture.
For most readers of Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s social message, no matter how powerfully urged, is incidental to their enjoyment of the book as a novelistic narrative. Although the work is written in the form of a memoir, Orwell transforms crude experience through the art of a novelist into a semblance of real life, with sharp detail, lucid evocation of scene, deft characterization, and a sustained, episodic plot.
In its mythic structure, the plot resembles that of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Among variations of that survival myth are romances such as Johann Rudolf Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1813) and R. N. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857), or symbolic fiction such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Typically, the plot has four basic components. First, a person (or group of persons) departs “civilization” by being abandoned at a solitary, savage place, such as an island. In this place, the protagonist finds a companion or shares in companionship. The protagonist is—at first—disadvantaged in this savage place but manages to survive by accommodating himself to the rigors of the environment. Finally, the protagonist leaves the uncivilized place and returns, triumphant, to civilization.
Down and Out in Paris and London is an urban adaptation of the survival myth. The narrator is not literally “abandoned” upon an unexplored island, but he is cast off from his social class and is effectively set adrift to fend for himself. His savage place is represented by the lower depths of two great cities, which are in every degree as dangerous as an unexplored island. To survive, he must learn the ways of the city, must seek out companions from a community of survivors. Finally, he must “escape” his predicament through luck or cunning, so that he may return at last to civilization a wiser, more fully seasoned man. Because Orwell’s book traces the powerful symbolic pattern of the Robinson Crusoe myth, although in an altogether different setting, his work remains a delight for readers who may otherwise choose to ignore the writer’s social message.
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