Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
In the form of a memoir, interspersed with passages of journalistic reportage, George Orwell narrates a selective account of his actual experiences in two great European cities. The book is retrospective, reflecting upon episodes that show vivid contrasts between the lives of the very poor and the affluent. Orwell’s first published work, Down and Out in Paris and London not only shows the extent of misery inflicted by society upon its rejected and destitute underclass but also presents a socialistic formula for the reform of society’s institutions.
The book is neatly divided into two parts: the first focusing on the narrator’s experiences in Paris, the second on his experiences in London. In the first section, generally more vivid, tart, and humorous, Orwell treats a relatively large group of nearly Dickensian eccentric types. Among the more notable sketches are those of Charlie, a bland young man who reveals his psychopathic fantasies of abusing virgins; Boris, a Russian waiter, Micawber-like in his optimism that he is “getting ahead,” yet generally spiteful and cunning rather than enterprising; and Furex, who spouts Communist sentiments when sober but, drunk, becomes violently chauvinistic. Included in this section are many snapshot images of minor figures, all part of a collage of portraits, sordid and amusing, which brings the Parisian underground to life.
The narrator’s experiences center on two major areas: the Rue du Coq d’Or (captured with its clangorous noises, its smells, its conflicts) and the Hotel X (a grandiose residence for the opulent of Paris, where the narrator and many of his companions toil as dishwashers in the bowels of its fashionable restaurant). Orwell describes in sharp, plangent detail a noisy, confused atmosphere, a phantasmagoric world of contrasts between the ugly and the swank.
The second section of the book, more muted in tone, treats the lodgings of “spikes,” or tramps, in London. In order to keep the population of drifters moving, British authorities of the late 1920’s devised a method of forcing tramps to travel from one “spike” house to another, allowing the indigents barely enough time to settle in for a night’s sleep or enjoy a ration of “tea and two slices” (of bread). Just as Boris had been the narrator’s guide through the Paris underworld, Paddy is his guide to the environs of London. By the time the narrator has served his time as a down-and-outer, he is prepared to lecture to his comfortable readers about conditions of life among the truly uncomfortable, and to urge a solution of practical reform that will end the tramp’s cycle of wandering, sickness, and eventual collapse from tuberculosis or other maladies.
To provide continuity between the two sections, Orwell must account for the narrator’s escape from near starvation at the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. A former schoolmate, identified as “B,” informs the narrator that he has a job waiting for him in England. The job is to look after a “congenital imbecile.” Ironically, when the narrator crosses the English Channel, third class, he discovers that the imbecile has been traveling abroad for a month. Without money and too proud to beg, the narrator settles into the role of down-and-outer in London. He sells his clothes and sinks to the level of tramp. As a person stripped of social class, educated well enough to observe his condition dispassionately yet too powerless to effect a change, the narrator speaks from inside the “body of the whale,” as an authentic voice from the underground.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60
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