'It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty... You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.'In this semi-autobiographical novel, Orwell wades into the world of human depravity. He takes the reader on a journey through the painfully dreary life of a plonguer (dishwasher) in Paris. From the numbing routine of working in steamy cellars, washing dishes till the mind is subdued into blankness, he charts his journey through hunger, desperation and utmost depravity. London, where he moves to because of the promise of a job, is worse. Here he discovers the treacherous life of a tramp: bug-infested beds, bitter cold, counting pennies and twenty men bathing in a tub of water.
The best parts of his journey are his anecdotes about fellow workers, scraping a living through menial jobs, lies and often thieving. Through the story we encounter Boris, a handicapped Russian refugee who helps Orwell secure a job as a plongeur, the lowest rung in the unforgiving hierarchy of the Parisian hospitality sector. In London, we meet Bozo, a 'screever' or pavement artist, who inspires some of the most profound passages in the book. Orwell narrates how Bozo considered begging to be below him and made cartoons that were commentaries on current political and social events. However, like the life of the poor, the fate of these cartoons were in constant flux; erased either by rain or an errant police man.
Most critically, the story is not a mere chronicle of life and times in the poor of London and Paris. Orwell goes further and questions Society and its need for plongeurs and tramps. He breaks down the romanticisation of poverty and exposes hunger and boredom, hopelessness and a deadening of aspirations. He questions why money has become 'a grand test for virtue'. Almost a century later, we are still asking the same questions.
'You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing...You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs...The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.'