Down and Out in Paris and London


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Table of contents

    Down and Out in Paris and London: George Orwell

    George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blaire in Bengal, India, in 1903. His English father was a lower-level civil servant, and his French mother was the daughter of a teak merchant who had operated out of what was then Burma (Myanmar). As was typical for English children born to civil-service families based in India, he was sent to study in England from a young age.

    His family were not wealthy, but Orwell’s intelligence earned him scholarships to Eton and Wellington. He attended Eton from 1917 to 1921, leaving without finishing 6th form. From there, he applied to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he spent five years. Not much is known about his life during this time in the police force, but the stay ruined his health, causing lifelong repercussions. He composed two essays 'A hanging' (1931) and 'Shooting an Elephant' (1936) as well as his novel, Burmese Days (1934), based on his experiences in what is now Myanmar.

    Orwell resigned from the police force in 1927 and began a nomadic five-year stint, moving between his parent's home in Suffolk, teaching posts at private schools, living on the streets in London and being a dishwasher in Paris. This experience led to the publication of his book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).

    After ill health led him to quit teaching for a job in a Hampstead bookshop, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in 1936. They moved to Hertfordshire, and over the next decade Orwell wrote many of his most famous works while struggling with worsening health issues. Orwell and O’Shaughnessy remained married until her early death at 39. They were both unfaithful.

    Shortly before his death, he married his assistant, Sonia Brownell, and finished a final draft of 1984 (1949). He died at age 46 of tuberculosis.

    Down and Out in Paris and London, a statue of George Orwell next to a quote by the author, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An image of George Orwell's statue at the BBC.

    Down and Out in Paris and London: Genre

    Down and Out in Paris and London is considered a memoir. The book is a fictionalised depiction of Orwell’s experiences as a plongeur in Paris and his time spent as a homeless person in London. Although dealing with the controversial subject matter in a serious way, Orwell also uses humour and irony throughout the book.

    A plongeur is the French word for a dishwasher, the lowest level of a worker in the restaurant or hotel industry.

    Down and Out in Paris and London: Summary

    The novel is set over two sections, split between the cities of Paris and London.

    Chapters 1 – 23: Paris

    Beginning in Paris, the protagonist and unnamed narrator has his savings stolen. As a result, he works as a dishwasher in the high-end Hotel X and then in the kitchen of a chic Parisian restaurant, Auberge de Jehan Cottard. Through his and his friend Boris’s experiences, Orwell depicts the working conditions and some realities of life for the working poor of Paris.

    After several weeks of long hours and squalid working conditions with infrequent pay, the narrator mails a friend for financial help and a job. His friend sends him some money and offers him a job in England as a tutor.

    The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. (Chapter 1)

    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 [.... He has] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour 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. (Chapter 22)

    Consider and contrast the situation that Boris finds himself in versus what you will learn about Paddy Jaques and Bozo. What are the differences and similarities between their situations and attitudes? Do you think it would be possible for Paddy Jaques or Bozo to better their situation as Boris did?

    Chapters 24 – 48: London

    Moving to London, the narrator finds that his new employer has gone abroad for a while. He is forced to live as a transient, termed ‘tramp’ in the text until they return. He describes his experiences of life as a homeless person in the capital city. Through him, Orwell depicts the realities of the charitable organisations and workhouses, the only shelter available to the homeless. Colloquially referred to as ‘spikes’, the workhouses were temporary and dehumanising experiences. He also details the social exclusion and exploitation he suffered and the characters he meets on the margins of society, like Paddy Jaques and Bozo. He also addresses the social and economic inequalities of both cities.

    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. (Chapter 24)

    At the end of the book, Orwell is upfront about the obvious limits of his lived experience of being transient and a member of the working poor. In chapter 38, he admits that he has not seen ‘more than the fringe of poverty’. He could always have gone home to his parents, which was not an option for most people he met. It was however enough to inspire the book and change his views on poverty. He concludes by saying:

    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. (Chapter 38)

    Why do you think that Orwell no longer expected gratitude for charity after his experiences as a homeless person?

    Down and Out in Paris and London: Themes

    Orwell explores several themes in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, but it is worth looking at a few key ones in a little more detail.

    Oppression and exploitation

    In the age that Orwell wrote this book, the prevailing view was that poverty was caused by internal factors such as laziness, boorishness, or a character flaw rather than a combination of external and internal factors. Orwell depicted a situation where oppressive external forces were also determining factors, creating and maintaining conditions of poverty or even homelessness.

    For example, his representation of the Parisian hotel and restaurant industry caused controversy, as the elegant façade was revealed to conceal harsh working conditions and squalor. The strict hierarchy starting at managers and ending with dishwashers was just the beginning of the inequality portrayed. Orwell described a life where he was paid just enough to survive with zero to limited opportunity for progression, and where he worked inhuman hours in filthy conditions.

    After the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, a Parisian restaurant industry leader made a complaint of unfair representation to The Times. A book reviewer mentioned that Americans who had eaten in chic Parisian restaurants or hotels would experience a 'retrospective retch'1 – presumably over the conditions that existed behind closed kitchen doors.

    Orwell depicts the British government as another oppressor of the poor in examples such as the law that no tramp can spend more than one consecutive night in one spike, forcing the homeless to be permanently on the move. Even the restaurants where the tramps take their food vouchers give them less food than what the voucher was worth, as the staff knew that the tramps would have no recourse to justice.

    Social inequality and cycles of poverty

    Linked to Orwell’s theme of oppression is the theme of social inequality. In the era that the book was written, a person’s economic status was often closely tied to their social standing.

    In Paris, Orwell highlighted the cycle of poverty, where it was near to impossible to get a good job without the proper clothes or to break out of the low pay, long hour rut. The strict social hierarchy of the hotel and restaurant industry was depicted as a way to establish and maintain social inequality.

    In the London chapters, Orwell mentioned the odd situation were beggars who became too dishevelled or poverty-stricken faced more limited charity opportunities, as other people felt disgust rather than pity.

    Down and Out in Paris and London: Characters

    There are several key characters referenced in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, apart from the narrator himself. A few of the more significant include:

    The narrator

    The unnamed narrator is a British man in his early twenties who relays his personal experiences of poverty and homelessness in Paris and London. He is considered to be Orwell’s fictionalised version of himself.


    Boris is the narrator’s roommate and friend in Paris. An optimistic, arthritic Russian, he secures their jobs at the Hotel X and the restaurant, Auberge de Jehan Cottard. He eventually achieves his dream of being a waiter and living with a woman who 'never smells of garlic'.

    Paddy Jaques

    The narrator’s travel companion and guide in London, Paddy Jaques, is an Irishman who knows the ins and outs of the city’s charitable organisations. He is an expert beggar who freely shares his limited supply of food and money.


    The narrator meets Bozo in London, along with his friend, Paddy Jaques. An artist who was crippled as a house painter, Bozo paints murals in exchange for handouts. An atheist and former amateur astronomer, he refuses all religious donations and frequently expresses his views on religion, politics, and art.

    Down and Out in Paris and London - Key Takeaways

    • Down and Out in Paris and London is a memoir written by George Orwell and published in 1933.
    • Through an unnamed narrator, Orwell fictionalised his experiences of poverty in Paris and homelessness in London.
    • Orwell experienced what he termed as the ‘fringes of poverty’ as he could always have returned to his parent’s house in Suffolk or received help from wealthy friends, but his portrayal was unusual for the time or even today.
    • The narrator meets many characters in Paris and London from Boris who achieves his dreams to 'spike' expert Paddy Jaques and the ethical Bozo.
    • The key themes in Down and Out in Paris and London include oppression and the cycle of poverty, as well as social inequality.

    1 Bruegel, 'The infernal underside of the restaurant industry,' 1933.


    1. Fig. 1 - Statue of George Orwell at BBC Broadcasting House ( by JRennocks licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Down and Out in Paris and London

    What genre is Down and Out in Paris and London?


    When was Down and Out in Paris and London written?

    The book, Down and Out in Paris and London  was published in 1933.

    Is Down and Out in Paris and London a true story?

    The book is based on Orwell's experiences in London and Paris, so it a fictionalised version of true events.

    What inspired George Orwell to write Down and Out in Paris and London?

    Orwell's experiences as a dishwasher and a homeless person inspired the book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

    What is the tone of Down and Out in Paris and London?

    Orwell treats serious subjects with gravity, as well as a fair amount of humour, including extensive use of irony.

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