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Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell's semi-autobiographical account of living in poverty in both cities. The narrative begins in Paris where Orwell lived for two years, attempting to subsist by giving English lessons and contributing reviews and articles to various periodicals. He ended up working as a plongeur (dishwasher and kitchen assistant) at a hotel where he earned barely enough to survive- but he got free red wine while he worked. Next Orwell moved to London where along with writing and tutoring he worked as a bookshop assistant, an experience which would inspire his later novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

The book was first published in 1933.

Summary of Chapters

Chapters I - XXII: Paris

Orwell begins by describing in the first few chapters what life is like in his hotel 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: his scant income vanishes when 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 decides are con men who exact membership dues for a 'secret' revolutionary group and then disappear.

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 the hotel as he understands it. He goes on to talk of his routine life as one of the working poor in Paris: slaving and sleeping, then drinking on Saturday night until 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 a murder that was committed outside the hotel where he stays 'just beneath my 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 penniless again when he and Boris quit their hotel jobs to take work at a new restaurant, the 'Auberge de Jehan Cottard', where Boris feels sure he will be a waiter again. (At the hotel he had been doing lower grade work.) But Boris tells Orwell the patron, 'an ex-colonel of the Russian Army,' 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' and looking back wistfully at his relatively leisured and orderly life at the Hotel X. Boris 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.

This is a good example of Orwell's socialism during this period.

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

Chapters XXIII - XXXVIII: London

George Orwell arrives in London expecting 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'. Unfortunately for Orwell, his would-be employer has gone abroad.

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

At the end of his 'down and out' period, Orwell comes to a powerful realization:

At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. 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, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

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