George Orwell: © With kind permission of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
In his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes his experience living among the poor and destitute in and around the two cities. It was the author’s first book-length publication and the first work to appear under the pseudonym George Orwell.
Down and Out reflects the author’s preoccupation with social inequality and the conditions that create homelessness. The book begins by describing the protagonist’s stay in Paris, where he works as a dishwasher, before he moves back to England to explore life on the margins in London. In this fragment, the author, who has just arrived in London, is forced to sell his clothes to be able to pay for a place to stay the night. When he puts on the shabby clothes he’s just obtained, he feels he is instantly transformed into a tramp, so much so that he does not even recognise his own reflection. This episode enables Orwell to explore the dehumanizing consequences of poverty: people immediately look at him with disgust, and his worn outfit seems to attract even more filth. As he puts it: ‘Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone it flies towards you from all directions’.
Orwell’s method of living like a tramp in order to write a truthful exploration of poverty has a long tradition in English literature. In many ways, Down and Out can be regarded as a continuation of the reports written by Victorian middle-class journalists who disguised themselves as vagrants in order to give insider accounts of the lives of the poor. Orwell is frank about the limits of his investigation, concluding his memoir by admitting that he has not seen ‘more than the fringe of poverty’. At the end of the book he also explains how the experience has made him reconsider his prejudices: ‘I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy…’