Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell explores the nature and impact of poverty in society. It details the experiences of his travelogue from his native home in England to Paris, France, where he lived on the fringes of society as a restaurant dishwasher, the plongeur whom he says “are slaves of the modern world”. Back in London, he expects to land a respectable job, but instead he is plunged into the even rougher side of life: his prospective employer has traveled abroad, and consequently, he is forced to live as a homeless tramp in the streets of London. Orwell captures the universal reality of poverty and the fate of society’s poorest, whose lives could be best summed up as a hand-to mouth existence.
Out and Down in Paris and London has provoked diverse responses from different quarters, with some criticizing it for its over-exaggeration of the reality of poverty in general and demonizing restaurant work in particular. However, others have concurred with George Orwell’s portrayal of poverty in society, and the degrading effects it has upon individuals and society. William Vollman (2008), Poor People, say that poverty makes individuals to struggle in hopelessness and despair. In The Visible Poor: Homelessness in the United States, Joel Blau in defining demographic patterns, the poor are often labeled as society’s black sheep for being different from the rest (Balu 17). Allison Leff (2002) argues that it creates an ‘unequal society’, while Phil Bartle (2010) adds that by denying them self-reliance, poverty makes the poor to internalize negative attitudes that wounds self esteem. By examining the portrayal of poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London, the paper argues that George Orwell presents a realistic portrayal of the negative impact of material deprivation upon individuals’ sense of self-worth.
George Orwell portrays poor people as being of lower intellectual abilities since their reasoning is limited to the satisfaction of their baser needs. He asserts that their mechanical existence makes intellectual thought impossible. He writes that “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition” (Orwell 38). This lack of interest or the capacity to engage in abstract reasoning (i.e. not related to immediate physical satisfaction) on the part of the impoverished is also presented by Phil Bartle, who says that poverty denies them even the ability to reason for themselves. He states that “Poverty as a social problem is a deeply embedded wound that permeates every dimension of culture and society, which include lack of decision making ability, (Bartle, 2010). These arguments suggest that poor people cannot indulge in higher realms of thoughts beyond the needs of their stomachs, thereby degrading them to the level of animals. As demonstrated by the lives of the beggars and tramps in Down and Out, it takes the benevolence of society to put food into their mouth and the mercies of providence to shelter them form the cold of the night. In this light, the value of the poor as human beings is greatly compromised in that they are regarded as a burden to society.
Through the characters of Bori and Bozo, Orwell suggests that the condition of the poor, which is a perpetual condemnation to a life of servitude to society, makes individuals to regard themselves as worthless and insignificant. He writes in Down and Out that plongeurs and others of his station have got no reason to complain about their conditions, since it (their suffering) agrees with their station in society. In support of this view, William Vollman observes that material deprivation compels the poor to resign their fate into “the hopelessness and brutality of poverty” (Vollman 2008). On his part, Phil Bartle is more expressive in saying that “it is a “poverty of spirit,” that allows members of that community to believe in and share despair, hopelessness, apathy, and timidity” (Bartle, 2010). In this sense, the nature of poor people’s daily laboring, not to earn for purposes of saving, but rather for immediate consumption, indicates that ideally they have no future to speak of, since they don’t even reason about tomorrow. As it were, their whole being is with today’s concerns for food and shelter. Consequently, it encourages a negative perception of their significance and status in society, since they have no place in society’s quest for the finer things of life and a better future.
In Orwell’s view, material endowment, or lack of it, influences one’s moral attitudes. In Orwell’s Down and Out, the tramps have a similar view of their personality, which justifies their lack of gratitude as argued out by Bozo. He says that he is decent enough not to say thanks to a person who drops a coin into his begging bowl, and all beggars ought to take a similar stance. George Orwell captures this reality by noting that “Poverty frees the beggars from normal standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work” (Orwell xxiii). In this regard, the poor consider themselves incapable of maintaining standard behavior norms that reflect society’s values, since their socio-economic status renders such values irrelevant to their lives. The adoption of an antisocial attitude is shown in a research on the impact of poverty by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which found out that hunger can create a rebellious character among individuals, as well as other psychological disorders. The report states that “Emotional consequences of food insecurity can include family tension, anxiety, low self-esteem and hostility” (Leff, 2003). This suggests that poor people, such as beggars and those dependent on relief assistance interpret their poverty as a symbol of shame and failure. In turn, it pricks their conscience in relations to their worthy as human beings
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