By George Orwell.
213 pages
San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1983 (from 1936).
ISBN # 0-15-626224-X

Comments of Bob Corbett
March 2002

This autobiographical novel is told by an unnamed British writer. As it opens he is stuck in Paris with very little money, not enough to have both a bed and food each day. In this first section we follow him around Paris as he seeks day labor, hand outs or any other activity the might net both food and shelter. Life is little more than the pursuit of those items. Perhaps this is the singly most important lesson Orwell preaches – the lives of the down and out are little more than the constant struggle to eat and find a safe place to sleep.

After a while he gets a job as a dish washing in a restaurant working 11 hours a day six days a week. This provides a bit of money, but very little, and does allow him to have a secure bed and food with a bit left over for drink. However, with six work days of 11 hours, it is quite obvious that he has little other life. The long restaurant section is revealing and shocking if Orwell is telling the truth. He details the utter filth of the food preparation and even the deliberate sabotaging of food which carried on in those back rooms of these upscale restaurants. All that counts is the presentation of the food, not the food itself.

After he is exhausted with this work he heads back to his native England to what he believes is an awaiting job, but it turns out he will have more than two months to wait. Again, he is homeless as he was in Paris, on the bum. In this third section he details the situation of the desperately poor men in England at the time. Orwell argues that this situation of poverty is primarily a man’s world with less than 10 per-cent of those on the bum being women.

In the section on poverty in England Orwell spends more time in analysis as well than description. The character of Bozo enters. He has a mangled leg and earns a bit by drawing chalk paintings on the sidewalk. He struggles inside the world of desperate poverty to have some sense of dignity.

“He considered himself in a class above the ordinary run of beggars, who, he said, were an abject lot, without even the decency to be ungrateful.”

Bozo’s general notion is that a life on the bum is just as natural as any other and that straight working people feel superior to the bum, yet in most of their own work they produce little of any social value, thus are little better than the bum who produces either nothing in begging, or things of little worth as his sidewalk drawings. But Bozo rages against those beggars who give up on life and allow themselves to internalize the society’s view of them.

He lectures:

“Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then what is work? A navy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout – in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

“Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? -- for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that is shall be profitable.”

I think it is fairly clear that while the narrator is Orwell in the main, Bozo is the character who allows Orwell to preach and philosophize about poverty, and he is clearly the most interesting person in the novel. He rails for the dignity of humans, even the down and out beggars. When the narrator tells about “slummers,” various preachers who are allowed access to the homeless shelters to preach at people to reform their ways, Bozo says:

“It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”

Mainly, however, Orwell describes poverty as he saw it and experienced it. It is brutal, debilitating, full of suffering and demeaning to the core of one’s being. His account is well written, a bit preachy, often funny and yet touching at nearly every turn. He uses the novel’s form to allow him to tell the stories of men he meets and thus we get many short case studies, some very moving in the sadness of these relatively lost lives.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett