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Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London cover

Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell's personal account of living in poverty in both cities. It begins in Paris, where Orwell lived for two years surviving by giving English lessons and contributing reviews and articles to various periodicals. Two years later, Orwell moved to London, where, along with writing and tutoring, he worked as a bookshop assistant, an experience which was to inform his later novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It was first published in 1933.

Table of contents

Summary of Chapters

Chapters I – XXIII: Paris

Orwell begins by giving us a description, in the first few chapters, of what life was like in his hotel and bistro, and introduces some of the characters that inhabit the later chapters. From chapters III and IV up to chapter X, where Orwell finds himself a job at "Hotel X.", he describes his descent into poverty: he loses income as the English lessons he was giving stop and he begins to pawn his possessions and search for work with a Russian waiter named Boris. He recounts his two day experience without any food and tells of meeting Russian "Communists", who he later believes were conmen exacting membership dues for a secret revolutionary group and then disappearing.

After the various ordeals of unemployment and near starvation, Orwell begins working long hours as a plongeur in the "Hotel X." and describes, in chapter XIV, the frantic and seemingly chaotic workings of his hotel as he understood it. He goes on to talk of the routine life as a workman in Paris: working and sleeping, then drinking on Saturday night till the early hours of Sunday morning — the "one thing that made life worth living" for some of the unmarried men of the quarter. In chapter XVI, Orwell mentions that a murder took place outside the hotel where he stayed, "just beneath [his] window". "[T]he thing that strikes me in looking back," he says, "is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder... We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over murder?"

Orwell is briefly short of money again when he and Boris quit their hotel jobs to take work at a restaurant, the "Auberge de Jehan Cottard", where Boris seems sure that he will have the chance to be a waiter again (at the hotel he had been doing lower work). But the patron, "an ex-colonel of the Russian Army," Boris tells Orwell, seems to have financial difficulties — Orwell is not paid for ten days, and spends a night on a bench rather than face his landlady over rent: "It was very uncomfortable — the arm of the seat cuts into your back — and much colder than I had expected."

At the restaurant Orwell finds himself working "seventeen and a half hours" a day, "almost without a break." Boris, he tells us, works even longer: "eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Such hours," he explains, "though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris." He falls into a routine again, and talks of literally fighting for a place on the Paris Metro to reach the "cold, filthy kitchen" of the restaurant by seven.

In one of the final chapters on his life in Paris, Orwell considers the life of a plongeur:

[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack... [they have] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.

Here Orwell's socialist opinions show through; opinions doubted by some after his later denunciations of Stalinism in the satirical Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but clearly demonstrated in his essays and other works. He concludes that the plongeurs' slavery continues because the rich — unavoidably ignorant of the real condition of the poor, having never experienced it — are quite content to keep them in poverty, because, although they recognise it is a bad condition, they fear "the mob" and think that the liberty of "the mob" would be a threat to their own liberty.

All this is interspersed with recounted anecdotes told by some of the minor characters, such as Valenti, an Italian waiter at the hotel were Orwell worked, and "one of the local curiosities," Charlie, "a youth of family and education who had run away from home."

Chapters XIII – XXXVIII: London

George Orwell arrives in London expected to have a job waiting for him: he was told by a friend, whom he refers to as "B.", that he would get paid to mind an "imbecile". However, unfortunately for Orwell, his would-be employer has gone abroad.

Until his employer returns, Orwell lives as a tramp, sleeping in "spikes" (compounds where tramps could sleep for free but were obliged to move on. They couldn't stay at the same spike more than twice a month). Characters in this section of the book include the Irish tramp Paddy and the pavement artist Bozo.

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Down and Out in Paris and London







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