Orwell’s Description of Poverty in Britain

In the excerpts from The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes the daily struggle of living in poverty in England—particularly for men.  In Down and Out in Paris and London, he strives to depict “tramps,” or vagabonds in a more positive way, and offer the reader an opportunity to overlook former prejudices. He describes tramps as Englishmen with broken spirits; they are not dangerous or manic.  In his later book, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes his findings when visiting houses in lower-class neighborhoods in England, and provides examples of the filthy residences that thousands of English families are forced to call home. He argues how difficult it is to support a family on such a low income, and describes the loss of hope that many people feel after living in such disgusting homes for so long. Generally, Orwell’s aim in these excerpts is to humanize the lower classes of England who have often been swept aside to the margins of society.

Something that I thought was interesting in Orwell’s excerpts was that he mentioned the lack of productivity of people who were down and out, and incapable of giving back to the state. While Orwell’s aim was to make the reader feel sympathetic toward members of society living in poverty, it seems contradictory to his argument to go on to describe them as a loss to the community. His book was released in 1933, the same year that eugenics in Germany took off, so it is interesting to compare and contrast Nazi Germany to Orwell’s eugenics at the time.

I also thought that Orwell brought up a fascinating point about the very different roles of males and females when discussing tramps.  Orwell stated that being a tramp as a man was mentally debilitating, because there was little or no access to women.  Women were not tramping, because during that time, they relied on men to support them. Because male tramps were unable to engage in sexual activity with women, they turned to other men to satisfy their desires.  Ultimately, the number of men who were out of work and living as vagabonds had an impact on the traditional gender roles of that time.

Orwell often describes the “broken spirits” of homeless men, and aims to inform the audience that people who are living in poverty are not dangerous. His two pieces were written in 1933 and 1937, times that weaker members of society were frowned upon, and often corrected.  How much do you think his work impacted the people of Britain and France? Do you think their perceptions of the lower classes change? Or did they remain loyal to the eugenics movements at that time?

3 thoughts on “Orwell’s Description of Poverty in Britain

  1. This is a great post! The author does a fantastic job of summarizing Orwell”s two pieces as well as providing analytical opinions on her main argument of poverty in britain among families and their poor living conditions. You do a great job of talking about when Orwell’s pieces were written and what is occurring around the world at the time. I found your personal opinions on Orwell’s blog very conducive to our learning and knowledge about what is occurring in Europe at the time (eugenics movement). Your questions are very interesting and thought provoking. Great job!

  2. The point you bring up about homosexuality among tramps conjures up some interesting questions. Does this tramp homosexuality contribute to the tendency of other Englishmen and women to see them as less than human, considering the prejudices of the time?

  3. I also thought the point of homosexuality was interesting. In today’s society it is accepted that homosexuals are born that way, and it is in their genetic makeup. I think that Orwell’s take on being gay reflects the time period, and shows just how much our understanding of genetics and sexuality has changed over time. We can now distinguish the difference between being gay and engaging in a gay act, but back in Orwell’s time it was one in the same.

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