Oct 5, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London

by George Orwell

This is the second or third time I've read this book; you can read my earlier post of it here. I found that my memories of it had gotten quite mixed up with Jack London's People of the Abyss. Orwell's book is much narrower in scope than I had recalled; it details mainly his fruitless searches for work in Paris and finally landing a few jobs- first scrubbing dishes in the basement of a "nice" hotel, then working in a poorly-run restaurant (the source of my revulsion, it was much worse conditions than the hotel, which I had remembered incorrectly). In between jobs he scrapes pennies, pawns his clothes, follows up useless leads, and often just lies around bereft of energy due to hunger. The second half is about his time spent as a tramp in London, when he showed up for a job that did not materialize for several weeks. Having nowhere to go and no money he slept in various charity wards, other homeless men showing him the ropes. He analyses the system of public assistance (such as it was in his day) from the perspective of the recipients, makes suggestions for its improvement and most of all, lays bare how insulting and demeaning the offers of aid can actually feel to men in dire straits.

I had forgotten completely that the book opened with an unsavory scene where a friend of his pays a nun for the privilege of raping a girl- or so it seemed to me; the scene was more suggestive than than explicit. I think if I had been a bit more of an astute reader the first time around, this would have put me off the entire book! More interesting to me than the narrative itself this time around, what what I gleaned from the introduction. I did not realize before, for instance, that Orwell used a pen name. His real name is Eric Blair, and he assumed a pen name because his parents were appalled that he wanted to be a writer. I also found interesting the descriptions of how much he had to edit out swearwords from the original text, and the variations between the French translation and the English version. Orwell's own little list of local slang terms he encountered on the streets and their various meanings intrigued me as well.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 230 pages, 1933

more opinions:
Much Ado About Books
the Oddness of Moving Things
another cookie crumbles
wandering walls


  1. I tried to read Down and Out, last year, and the rape did put me off, so I set the book aside. I'm glad to know it doesn't continue to be all about that horrid friend. I'd heard such interesting things about it that I hated to set it aside. I'll give it a second go, now that I've read your thoughts.

  2. Hmm, I never picked up on the rape either, though I suppose I read the book pretty young... I'll have to go back and check that, I'm curious now as to how it'll come across.

  3. Another book I haven't read! It would be good to read to compare life between then and now in the current welfare system in the UK. It doesn't sound pleasant, though. Did you find it depressing to read, or realistic? Other than the opening scene, which is shocking (even if not explicit).

  4. Bookfool- That scene was the only one of its kind. That particular friend didn't make a reappearance (or if so he wasn't named again) and the only other time women were mentioned was to describe how inacessible most homeless men found their company. There was one homeless woman he encounter and that description was interesting- basically she didn't want to be associated with them at all!

    Biblibio- I was surprised by it, this time. I think it went mis-understood by my more naive mind the first time. Or I blocked it out and forgot about it!

    Susan- It was a bit depressing, but mostly just felt realistic and interesting to see how different people dealt with the hardships of living in poverty at the time.

  5. Jesus! I didn't have any burning desire to read this book in the first place, but I very very much do not want to read the opening sequence. If I ever do pick it up, do you think it'll be okay to just skip that bit? Start on the second chapter? Will I be missing anything important?

  6. Jenny- Definitely you can skip it and read the rest! It is chapter 2.


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