In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and chapter four of The Road to Wigan Pier he writes about groups of destitute people in Britain who live on the fringes of society under hideous circumstances. Down and Out in Paris and London focusses on the homeless epidemic that has afflicted the country. Orwell depicts how these so called “tramps” live a mundane existence that does not contribute in any way to the good of society. He seeks to inform the public of the difficulties that these people face in order to combat some of the prejudices that exist towards them. In The Road to Wigan Peer Orwell describes the horrendous housing conditions that the impoverished class of industrial workers are forced to inhabit. The shortage of adequate housing forces these inhabitants to cram into overcrowded, dilapidated, and oftentimes condemned houses because they are the only available housing options of any sort. Many of these people would have gladly moved into different housing situations had the opportunity existed.
It was interesting how Orwell addressed the the much higher proportion of homeless men compared to homeless women. Many of Orwell’s contemporaries had failed to take this discrepancy into consideration when evaluating the homeless problem. It was nearly impossible for men to meet women because there were very few women who lived amongst them and it would be quite rare that a women of a higher economic class would desire a male from the lower class. Orwell writes “the evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him spiritually and physically… And there can be no doubt that sexual starvation contributes with this rotting process,” in order to empathize with their predicament. I found this quote fascinating because it states how although sexual pursuit is not as important to human wellbeing as food, water, and shelter, it is still an important aspect of a person’s health.
Orwell proposed a solution to lower the expense that homeless individuals had placed on the state by putting them to work. He argued that they would be able to settle down and live a decent and structured life. Although they would be working and contributing to the good of the whole of society, aren’t the conditions experienced by the working class as described in The Road to Wigan Pier nearly as impoverished and grief stricken as those suffered by the tramps. Does this housing situation really constitute a decent and settled life in your opinion?
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?
Chapter IV of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier made many interesting points about poverty and housing conditions in Interwar England. Orwell developed a very in depth study of the living conditions and how this may have affected the psyche of the inhabitants.
The Interwar Period was very concerned with behavior and order, especially in the wake of the Great War’s chaos. Psychology was one way in which many scholars began to try to understand the actions of both society and the individual. This type of study also began to influence other academic areas, like History, Anthropology and Literature. Orwell demonstrates, in questioning the behavior of this group, how various areas of study had become more interwoven.
Orwell at one point in Chapter IV discusses how some impoverished families portrayed themselves as more economically comfortable. Many Corporation houses seem to have been filled with well-maintained furniture; these items seemed to belong in a more financially stable house—a family that is not living at or below the poverty line. Orwell argues “it is in the rooms upstairs that the gauntness of poverty really discloses itself.” (60) He believes that it is a matter of pride to protect the nicer, more valuable pieces of furniture so that the family can appear to be less impoverished. These had most likely been passed down within the family throughout generations. It is the items that need to be bought every few years or months that were more difficult for these families to afford (i.e. bedclothes), and therefore, fewer families in more desperate financial situations had access to many basic items, like bedclothes.
This excerpt shares some similarities with Leora Auslanders’s article “’National Taste?’ Citizenship Law, State Form, and Everyday Aesthetics in Modern France and Germany, 1920-1940.” Both pieces referred to the tendency to “keep up with the Joneses.” How did this idea, needing to present a better image to the public or society, reflect larger themes from this period? Was this a reaction to the chaos of the war? Or a reaction to the uncertainty of the period? Or would this type of behavior have occurred regardless of wars, death and economic troubles?