The Independent

“Down and Out in Paris and London” Book Review

Patrick McIntyre, Staff Writer

April 17, 2012

  Orwell always had a knack for examining the current, and maybe more importantly, the forthcoming status quo. As the author of indispensable works like 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell became a household name during the mid 20th century, and ‘Orwellian’ became a common term utilized to describe any insidiously dystopian piece of work. Because of the importance of those two literary accomplishments, an earlier work by Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, has flown under the radar since its 1933 publishing. This indelible memoir has increased in significance through time and its societal commentary is crucial in the Orwellian dynamic. The “plongeur,” workers toiling away at despicable jobs, working themselves to hunger and death, is one of the key focuses of Down and Out. Amongst them, a British writer in his 20’s provides a heartfelt narration and attempts to carve out a living between two European capitals. Unable to find steady respectable work, he is forced to subscribe to the booming service culture of hotels and restaurants. Serving the rich, washing dishes, preparing meals, and running errands for 12 hours a day while barely earning a living are all part of the ‘plongeur’s’ life. The ratty hotel rooms he attempts to board in inevitably chase him out when money is scarce. Finding a roof to cover his head for the night is the writer’s chief goal with his dismal earnings, with food coming up a distant second. His fellow poverty stricken ‘plongeurs’ run rampant through the streets, working hard when work is available, and starving when it isn’t. Autobiographical qualities echo loudly throughout the story. Although not a photocopy of Orwell’s struggling youth, enough of his real experiences align themselves with those of the writer in the story. These tales of struggles and inevitable defeat clearly shaped Orwell’s later works. The coercion of the masses, a favorite topic of Orwell, is movingly presented. Not from the view of the thinker, but through the narrative of just one insignificant example of those masses. Down and Out has increased in relevance over the last half-century, and this adds to its commentary about the plight of the downtrodden factions of society. Orwell presents the life of those working menial jobs—work that refuses to provide sufficient income, all of which has become more prominent in our country—and begs the readers to evaluate the structure of a society that produces these ‘plongeurs.’ “The mob are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.” He writes these words as the worker, the one in the trenches suffering the wounds. If 1984 and Animal Farm were dystopian pieces of art, commenting omnisciently on society and its inevitable desecration of the working poor, then Down and Out is the story of those working poor- real accounts of those relegated to the bottom and strapped down without a hope of escape.        ...

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George Orwell