Down and Out in Paris and London Critical Essays

George Orwell


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 981 words.)