Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Filip Pultar



Politics and Morality in the Works of George Orwell from 1933 to 1937

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D.

2014

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

……………………………………………..

Author’s signature

Acknowledgement

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my supervisor, Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D., for his guidance, advice, and encouragement. I would also like to thank my friends and family who have supported me throughout the process of writing.

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

Chapter One: Anti-imperialism in Burmese Days: Exploitation and Guilt 10

1.1 Orwell’s Portrayal of Imperialism: Corruption and Avoidance of Guilt 10

1.2 Racism in the Colonies: The Notion of White Superiority 20

1.3 Perception of Shame: The Negative Connotation of White Skin 26

Chapter Two: The Depiction of Poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London: Exploitation, Humiliation, and Prejudice 29

2.1 Two Sides of Poverty: Suffering and Liberation 29

2.2 The Reasons for Exploitation of Labour: Parisian Plongeurs as Modern Slaves 33

2.3 Shame, Humiliation, and Degradation Connected with Poverty 39

2.4 Orwell the Moralist: Prejudice Demonizing the English Tramp 41

Chapter Three: Socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier: The Politics of Equality 46

3.1 The Issue of Class Division: The Creation of Social Barriers 46

3.2 The Effects of Unemployment on Mental and Physical Health 55

3.3 Socialism: A Way out of Despotism 58

3.4 Mechanical Progress: The Creation of a World of Fools 63

Conclusions 66

Works Cited 70

Resumé 72

Résumé 73

Introduction

Eric Arthur Blair, better known under his nom de plume George Orwell, dedicated his writing career to the exploration of injustice, oppression, and inequality. The thesis is primarily concerned with three of Orwell’s less well-known works written between years 1933 to 1937: Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. These particular works have been chosen for analysis due to the way in which their contents complement each other. In Burmese Days Orwell expresses his antipathy towards imperialism and oppression. Down and Out in Paris and London focuses on his experience of poverty and social injustice. The Road to Wigan Pier deals with the issue of social inequality which connects the previous two works together. Furthermore, an autobiographical element can be found in all of the selected books. Even in Burmese Days – a work of fiction – the inspiration in Orwell’s police service in Burma can be traced. This adds to the credibility of these works as the author can be considered fairly knowledgeable in the discussed problems.

The thesis will explore Orwell’s attitude towards exploitation, his anti-imperialist sentiments, and his growing inclination towards socialism depicted in the selected works. The theory that Orwell considers indifference and prejudice to be the essential aspects of the continuing injustice facing the destitute is proposed. Furthermore, the recurring sensual themes and moral ideas in Orwell’s works will be examined. Notably, his perception of shame, guilt, and humiliation will be studied. The thesis will also try to determine Orwell’s suggested solutions to the problems depicted in the primary sources.

The major secondary sources include the biography George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick, the economic study The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth by Benjamin M. Friedman, the socialist study The Philosophy of Socialism by Arthur Clutton-Brock, the socialist pamphlet Socialism, Equality and Happiness by Minnie Pallister, and the book Orwell by Edward M. Thomas.

Bernard Crick, Orwell’s prominent biographer, provides insight into Orwell’s anti-imperialist opinions, Orwell’s impressions from working as an imperial policeman in Burma, and the overview of the political unrest in Burma following the First World War. These information should prove valuable in determining the reasons for Orwell’s aversion to imperialism. Friedman provides information about the psychological effects of poverty. He also explains how poverty affects the local economy of the state. Clutton-Brock clarifies one of the principal aspects of socialism – the necessity of cooperation. Furthermore, he juxtaposes the dangers of altruistic regimes which include brutal repression with the aim of socialism to promote equality. Pallister elaborates on the idea of the undervaluation of manual workers which supports Orwell’s study of the British coal miners. She also explains the idea of equality from the perspective of socialism. The rhetorical analysis of Orwell’s works conducted by Thomas will help establish the aims of Orwell’s writing and determine his moral ideas. Moreover, Thomas explains Orwell’s attitude towards poverty in Great Britain and its connection with humiliation.

The first chapter will analyse Orwell’s antipathy towards the British Empire reflected in his novel Burmese Days. It will focus primarily on his portrayal of imperial regime in Burma as an exploitative despotism and its effects on white officers stationed in the colony. The relation between exploitation and guilt will be examined in order to determine the ways in which Orwell’s characters try to deal with guilty conscience, shame, and isolation. Furthermore, Orwell’s idea of corruption spread through colonialism will be explored. The chapter will also deal with the depiction of racism in the novel and its most significant political consequences.

The first subsection of the chapter will deal in detail with the reasons for Orwell’s loathing of imperialism. The focus will be put on the way in which Orwell portrays imperialism in his novel. The aim will be to determine the particular corrupting features of the regime. The second subsection will be concerned with the portrayal of racism in the novel. The depicted reasons for racial hatred as well as its consequences will be analysed. The third subsection will deal with the negative connotation of white skin and the depiction of shame in the novel. Orwell’s anti-European opinions will be explored in this subsection.

The second chapter will be concerned with Orwell’s experience of poverty depicted in his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. The effects of the social stigmata connected with poverty on the situation of the destitute will be examined. The aim will be to determine whether prejudice and preconceived ideas prove to be obstacles preventing the amelioration of the unsatisfactory situation. Moreover, the chapter will deal with Orwell’s ideas about modern slavery which consists of meaningless time-consuming jobs meant to utterly exhaust the workers in order to forestall their participation in politics. The relation between degradation and poverty will be analysed so as to determine the stimuli for the supposedly inappropriate conduct of the impoverished. The focus will be put on Orwell’s moral ideas and their influence on his writing.

The first subsection of the chapter will explore the division of negative and positive features of poverty argued by Orwell with focus being put on the negative features. The second subsection will examine the occupation of Parisian plongeurs from Orwell’s point of view. The aim will be to determine the parallel between this job and the institution of slavery. The third subsection will focus on the psychological effects of poverty – shame, humiliation, and degradation. The subsection will be concerned with the London section of the book and it will argue that humiliation is an inherent aspect of destitution. The fourth subsection will deal with Orwell’s moral ideas – notably the idea that prejudice complicates the life of English tramps.

The third chapter will deal with Orwell’s socialist ideas and the depiction of poverty in his documentary book The Road to Wigan Pier. The British issue of class will be explored in order to determine the main reasons for the continuing social inequality. The chapter will also focus on Orwell’s account of destitution in the industrial areas of the United Kingdom. The aim will be to define the detrimental physical and psychological effects of poverty and unemployment. Orwell’s attitude towards socialism will be analysed with emphasis put on the reasons for his sympathy for the system and his view of poor success of socialism in the UK. Furthermore, the chapter will be concerned with Orwell’s perception of mechanical progress as a possible threat to morally sound society.

The first subsection of the chapter will analyse Orwell’s criticism of the British class division. Orwell’s claim that social classes create a barrier between people by instigating irrational prejudice from a very early age will be explored. The second subsection will deal with the effects of unemployment which Orwell describes in his documentary book. These serve the purpose of emphasizing the negative features of poverty. The third subsection will focus on Orwell’s socialist views. Socialism will be juxtaposed with fascism – an example of a despotic system – in order to determine the greatest merits of socialism. The fourth subsection will examine Orwell’s attitude towards mechanical progress. The aim will be to study his peculiar belief that disasters are a necessary requierement for human virtues and moral values to exist.

The thesis provides an analysis of Orwell’s early political writing which is arguably the less thoroughly explored period of the author’s career. The work is not specifically concerned with Orwell’s later books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It should provide insight into the development of Orwell’s political thinking prior to the writing of his two best-known works.

Chapter One: Anti-imperialism in Burmese Days: Exploitation and Guilt

1.1 Orwell’s Portrayal of Imperialism: Corruption and Avoidance of Guilt

Colonization is one of the prominent themes of Burmese Days. Orwell explores the aims of the British Empire in colonial Burma. He criticizes imperialism on the grounds of being an exploitative and despotic regime which corrupts the colony. He dissents from the traditional justification of colonialism which suggests that Europeans spread civilization and eradicate savagery. Conversely, he believes in the purely negative influence of the British Empire. White officers therefore have to deal with guilt connected to their conscious exploitation of Burma. According to Orwell, one cannot openly express such opinions in the colony as freedom of speech is strictly limited by the British authorities. Trust appears to be dangerous which creates a stultifying atmosphere of isolation in which friendship cannot be established. Orwell suggests that an active approach must be adopted in order to ameliorate the situation. Passive opposition can be regarded as complacency which indirectly supports imperialism. Orwell also depicts the growing antipathy of the native inhabitants of Burma towards Europeans which perhaps suggests the beginning of decolonization.

Orwell is highly critical of the colonial rule of the British Empire. He explores the true purpose of colonialism which he believes to be exploitation. The depiction of the white characters in the novel fully supports his belief. The notion of alleged European superiority is expressed through the character of Ellis who exclaims: “[W]hat are we supposed to be doing in this country? If we aren't going to rule, why the devil don't we clear out?” (Orwell, Burmese Days 22). The dominance of the country can be regarded the true purpose of colonizers. The principal enticements of imperialism therefore comprise power and money. Even Flory, the rather virtuous protagonist of the novel, claims: “I don't want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. … I'm here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man's burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose” (Orwell, Burmese Days 37). Flory’s function appears to be the resolute refutation of any possible noble causes of colonization. The character arguably represents the most virtuous European in the novel. Thus by emphasizing his awareness of the exploitative factor of imperialism, Orwell proposes the idea of collective guilt.

The edification of colonies is presented in the novel as a hypocritical justification of imperialism supposed to merely conceal the true aim of colonial rule – exploitation. Bernard Crick claims in his biography George Orwell: A Life that “there was in Blair a tolerant respect for indigenous cultures, coupled with a cynicism about the … civilizing mission” (174). This suggests that Orwell naturally had propensity to sympathize with the native inhabitants rather than the European colonizers whom he considered oppressors. He projects his antipathy towards imperialism through Flory who does not believe in the superiority of white colonizers over Burmans. Flory adopts a purely pragmatic and cynical attitude towards the matter of colonization. In his opinion the exploitation of the country is the sole purpose of colonization and white officials are blatantly aware of that. The objectivity of this claim can be supported with Ania Loomba’s study Colonialism, Postcolonialism in which she defines colonialism as “the conquest and control of other people’s land and goods” (8). This definition corresponds with Orwell’s portrayal of colonial Burma as a world of exploitation and abuse of power. Orwell’s anti-imperialist opinions stem largely from the negative influence of imperialism on the colonized country.

The aforementioned justifications were often emphasized during the period of Pax Britannica. Carl P. Watts (547-50) elaborates on the notion of British Peace in his essay “Pax Britannica” and describes it as a period of imperial prosperity lasting from the second half of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, “[t]he British had a sense of imperial mission and sought to bestow the benefits of their civilization upon native peoples” (Watts 547). However, Flory mocks the idea of Pax Britannica and considers its supposedly noble aims to be mendacious:

Pox Britannica is its proper name. … Of course we keep the peace in India, in our own interest, but what does all this law and order business boil down to? More banks and more prisons – that's all it means. … [B]efore we've finished we'll have wrecked the whole Burmese national culture. But we're not civilizing them, we're only rubbing our dirt on to them. (Orwell, Burmese Days 40)

Orwell believes that regardless of the official justification of colonialism, in reality it does not benefit the native population. On the contrary, it introduces a bureaucratic and restrictive regime into the colonies. Instead of edifying the colonial countries the British introduce new vices. The process of civilizing the colonies boils down to forcing of colonizers’ own culture upon the colonized countries which leads to the destruction of the original culture. Since many officials present in colonies are aware of the detrimental influence of imperialism and their own part in it, the sense of guilt is inseparably connected with colonization.

This could perhaps explain the constant effort to justify colonialism. Orwell refuses to believe that any such justification is possible. This can be seen in Flory’s contemplation of the colonial rule. He claims that “the lie [is] that we're here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. … There's an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It's at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives” (Orwell, Burmese Days 37). By using the pronoung ‘us’ Orwell subtly reiterates the idea of collective guilt. Furthermore, he tries to determine the reasons for European animosity towards the Burmese. He comes to the conclusion that it originates in the mental pressure related to the conscious participation in the exploitative regime.

The issue of complacency can be seen on the character of Flory. He opposes the idea of the British prestige and the white man’s burden. Yet he does little against it. While Flory does not advocate violence, he does not openly oppose Ellis either. He oftentimes succumbs to the pressure of his countrymen. He is aware of his own guilty part on the oppressive regime as he claims: “God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it” (Orwell, Burmese Days 31). He suggests that passivity is equivalent to the acceptance of the situation and strengthening of the regime. Orwell portrays an environment in which it is extremely difficult to improve the colonial rule since those who wish to do so are in minority. They are subjected to pressure by those who wish to maintain the oppressive regime and who revel in the dominance of the natives, represented in the novel by Ellis and Westfield. Flory’s struggle to stand up for his friend Dr Veraswami perhaps represents the futile struggle to improve the treatment of the native population by the colonizers. Flory himself represents the complacency of those who do not actively oppose the oppressive regime. This is a characteristic aspect of Orwell’s writing. He urges the readers to act by showing them that by ignoring the problem, one becomes part of the problem and indirectly approves of it.

The novel also deals with the future development of the British colonial rule, suggesting the beginning of decolonization. According to Crick, there was an outburst of anti-imperialist sentiments in Burma following the First World War:

Nationalist sentiments began to spread during the [First World] War[.] … Discontent and national sentiments flared up. … In 1919, Burma … had been specifically excluded from the reforms of the Government of India Act. This measure was to introduce to India … a system of dual government … by which Indians were given representation in elected assemblies as well as having higher posts in the civil service open to them. … [Exclusion from this important step towards] eventual self-rule … was bitterly resented. (145)

Even though the reforms were eventually extended to Burma, “the old mutual trust had broken down” (Crick 146) and “there was a general atmosphere of hostility” (Crick 146). The growing antipathy towards imperialism in Burma was the result of the continuing lack of privileges. This is reflected in Burmese Days as the resentment of the native population against Europeans caused by injustice. When Ellis blinds a young boy in an affray, the Burmans wish to punish the aggressor themselves. They justify the request in the following way: “We know that there is no justice for us in your courts, so we must punish Ellit ourselves” (Orwell, Burmese Days 257). Orwell portrays the frustration of Burmans at being constantly treated unequally. Given that he served as a policeman in Burma, he would have experienced this injustice at first hand. He is aware of the unfair treatment of the natives and condemns it. Therefore he makes Ellis act in a mindless fit of rage, creating an amoral brute of him which ought to make readers sympathize with the oppressed Burmans. Furthermore, he shows that the natives are capable of resistance.

This escalates in the riot at the end of the novel. Although the riot is a relatively small-scale one and does not achieve any significant victory as there comes no change of regime and the political situation remains the same, Orwell nevertheless emphasizes the fragility of the British Empire and the possibility of its decline. The riot can be considered a warning sign. Orwell suggests that the problem of ill-treatment of the natives needs to be solved. Presumably the liberation of the colony can be regarded as the solution.

Eventual decolonization appears to be inevitable. If we look at the perspective of Fredric Jameson in his essay “Modernism and Imperialism”, he suggests that “colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system as a whole is now located elsewhere, beyong the metropolis” (50) and “[s]uch spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole” (51). The individual colonies are therefore likely to gradually liberate themselves. Colonialism creates an unstable environment in which people’s discontentment steadily grows. With regard to this, Orwell warns against brutal repression of colonial freedoms which only increases the tension. He uses the unsympathetic characters of Ellis and Westfield to elicit aversion to violence in the reader. Ellis suggests that the solution to the loosening influence of the British Empire would be adopting a more strict regime and firmer treatment of Orientals (Orwell, Burmese Days 29). Westfield somewhat shares this view as “[a]ccording to him, nothing save a full-sized rebellion, and the consequent reign of martial law, could save the Empire from decay” (Orwell, Burmese Days 30). Oppression seems to be the optimal way of maintaining loyalty for Ellis and Westfield. However, through his favourable depiction of Burmans Orwell himself propounds peaceful means of reconciliation – respect and fair treatment. The attitude of Ellis and Westfield is presented as deplorable.

Exploitation is not the only aspect of colonialism criticized by Orwell. Crick comments on Orwell’s loathing of imperialism as he claims that “Blair had come morally to reject the system of alien rule” (169). Furthermore, shortly before resigning from the Imperial Police, Orwell explained his hatred towards imperialism by claiming that imperialism is despotic and self-interested (Crick 173-4). These anti-imperialist opinions are reflected in Burmese Days. Imperialism is depicted as a despotic regime which restricts personal freedom of the natives as well as imperial officers:

The Indian Empire is a despotism … with theft as its final object. … It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. … [E]ven friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. … You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. … Your whole life is a life of lies. … The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. … [I]t is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret. (Orwell, Burmese Days 68-70)

Orwell depicts the Indian Empire as a restrictive regime in which one cannot express his or her disapproval. There appears to be censorship and limited freedom of speech. This creates a desolating atmosphere in which complete trust proves to be unattainable. The loneliness portrayed in Burmese Days stems from the isolation in a society in which one cannot have a true friend. One’s life comprises a set of lies necessary to be successful. Orwell describes the corrupting effect of such an environment. One begins to resent his or her own countrymen who represent the oppressive regime. The debaucheries in which the British indulge according to Orwell contribute to this aversion as they can be regarded as immoral and corrupt. There even appears a mention that the aim of imperialism is theft, suggesting the criminal nature of the regime.

The corrupting effect of the British Empire on morality in Burma is aptly expressed in the ironic newspaper article read by U Po Kyin at the beginning of the novel:

In these happy times, when we poor blacks are being uplifted by the mighty western civilisation, with its manifold blessings such as the cinematograph, machine-guns, syphilis, etc., what subject could be more inspiring than the private lives of our European benefactors? … Mr Macgregor … is 'a family man' as our dear English cousins say. … So much so that he has already three children in the district of Kyauktada, where he has been a year, and in his last district of Shwemyo he left six young progenies behind him. (Orwell, Burmese Days 6)

The contributions of the British are mocked in the article. It emerges that the supposed uplifting features of colonialism are in reality violence and diseases. Furthermore, the traditional western values do not seem to persist in colonial Burma. It is evident that Mr Macgregor has children with multiple women. It is also implied that he does not look after his Burmese offspring. Thus the sanctity of family apparently does not exist in the colonial Empire and promiscuity proliferates. Ronald Hyam analyses this phenomenon in his study Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience. He claims that “at the beginning of the twentieth century … concubinage … was common in Burma” (Hyam 158). While it was condemned as demoralising, “moral issues and a man’s private life did not concern the government so long as they did not cause a public scandal” (Hyam 158). The moral values in colonies therefore differ significantly from those of Great Britain. As the editor is sentenced to prison for the article, Orwell once again highlights the limited freedom of speech in the colony.

The portrayal of the novel’s antagonist U Po Kyin further develops Orwell’s idea of imperial corruption. He is a callous, cunning, and unscrupulous scoundrel who takes bribes abundantly. He also destroys his opposition ruthlessly. Nevertheless, he achieves a great success as an imperial officer. What the British in Orwell’s opinion consider to be the worst offence is holding “disloyal, anti-British opinions. That is far worse than bribery” (Orwell, Burmese Days 8). They do not seem to mind the high level of corruption as long as their subjects are loyal and obedient.

Thus Orwell suggests that loyalty is the most valued trait in the British Empire with traditional moral values being subsidiary. Colonial Burma is portrayed as an immoral place where prestige and loyalty to the Empire mean everything and corruption thrives. It is impossible to retain moral values in such an environment since one finds himself slandered and denigrated when standing in the way of a more ambitious individual. This can be seen in the libellous letter sent to Flory by U Po Kyin:

The doctor is eminently dishonest, disloyal and corrupt public servant. Coloured water is he providing to patients at the hospital and selling drugs for own profit, besides many bribes, extortions, etc. Two prisoners has he flogged with bamboos, afterwards rubbing chilis into the place if relatives do not send money. Besides this he is implicated with the Nationalist Party and lately provided material for a very evil article which appeared in the Burmese Patriot attacking Mr Macgregor, the honoured Deputy Commissioner.

He is also sleeping by force with female patients at the hospital. (Orwell, Burmese Days 78-79)

U Po Kyin’s uncorroborated accusations against the doctor ought to utterly defame him. The resolute tone of U Po Kyin’s letter asserts these claims to be truthful. The doctor should appear unprofessional and vile as well as involved with an undesirable political party promoting nationalistic tendencies. U Po Kyin’s poison pen letter is signed “A FRIEND” (Orwell, Burmese Days 79). However, Flory recognizes it as “a covert threat” (Orwell, Burmese Days 79). The word friend therefore gains a sinister connotation. Orwell suggests that it is dangerous to trust anyone in colonial Burma. The practices of the colony comprise not only libels but also intimidation.

While U Po Kyin is a Burman, he can be considered a British creation. He identifies himself with the corrupted political system of the British Empire and skilfully climbs the social ladder. He is repeatedly promoted despite committing various felonies. U Po Kyin represents the kind of person who is likely to be most successful in the colonial society. He is vicious, conceited, venal and utterly unscrupulous. His success suggests that those are the personality traits that one requires in order to succeed in the colony. The British influence is presented as thoroughly negative in Burmese Days. Orwell condemns imperialism as a corrupting element which brings no merits to the colonies.

The imperial regime portrayed by Orwell resembles that of the Party in his later novel Nineteen-Eighty Four. Mindless conformity is required. U Po Kyin wishes to dispose of Dr Veraswami on the grounds of criminal solidarity since the doctor does not participate in the same practice as U Po Kyin, he refuses to take bribes and therefore poses a problem for those who do take them (Orwell, Burmese Days 12). The thoroughly corrupted system of government forces one to adopt the immoral practices. The fact that U Po Kyin does not need to prove his suspicions in order to validate them confirms the narrative’s claim that “[i]n India you are not judged for what you do, but for what you are. The merest breath of suspicion against his loyalty can ruin an Oriental official” (Orwell, Burmese Days 139). It is perhaps the fear of retribution that deems disloyalty unpardonable. According to Crick, “[Orwell] felt himself ground between the hatred of his fellow-English and Burmese hatred of him” (165). He claimed that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (Crick 165). The Europeans depicted in Burmese Days perhaps realize their unjust treatment of the Burmese and therefore cannot afford to give them an opportunity to take justice into their own hands. Colonialism is connected with constant paranoia. The native inhabitants of the colony are naturally prone to desire freedom and the threat of a revolution looms over the white officers.

Orwell studies the purpose of colonialism in his novel Burmese Days. He focuses on the British influence in Burma. He disapproves of imperialism and refutes the noble cause of colonization – the effort to civilize the supposedly savage native inhabitants. Instead, he shows the detrimental effect of the imperial regime which destroys the original culture and creates a corrupt country in which unscrupulousness and viciousness are the necessary components of success. It appears that the chief purpose of colonialism is exploitation. Thus guilt haunts the colonizers and forces them to constantly justify themselves. Moreover, Orwell depicts imperialism as a despotic regime which does not enable anyone to openly criticize it. Calumniation and intimidation appear to be commonly employed practices in the colony. Orwell uses the character of Flory to show that complacency strengthens the regime as the situation remains unaltered. The novel also suggests that colonies are prone to eventually rise against the continuing injustice and perhaps liberate themselves.


1.2 Racism in the Colonies: The Notion of White Superiority

Orwell depicts most of his European characters as racist. Apart from Flory, there is little sympathy for the natives among the rest of white inhabitants of Kyauktada. Orwell suggests that the British do not wish to grant political privileges to Burmans and they neither wish to associate with them. Majority of European characters seem to consider Burmans inferior. They perceive them as uncivilized workforce. There is also a notion of physical repulsiveness of the natives among Europeans. In particular Elizabeth considers them hideous and wicked-looking. Orwell stresses the disparity between the importance of a European and a Burmese life in the colony, suggesting that the former is considered more valuable. Racism is another aspect of imperialism which Orwell criticizes extensively.

Most Europeans in Burmese Days are portrayed as innately racist. According to U Po Kyin, “[n]o European has any faith in a man with a black face. … These people have no feeling of loyalty towards a native” (Orwell, Burmese Days 9). This suggests that colonialism is in essence racist and equality is not possible in colonial countries. The different skin colour of Burmans is proposed to be the main reason for racism. Jameson provides insight into the common perception of the natives by Europeans: “All of the subjugated peoples … were considered to be naturally subservient to a superior, advanced, developed, and morally mature Europe” (72). However, Orwell portrays his white characters as amoral, suggesting that he disagrees with the notion of white superiority.

One of the subplots of the novel revolves around the acceptance of a native member into the European Club of Kyauktada. Orwell uses the subplot to exemplify the continuing political and social inequality in Burma. Since “the European Club is … the real seat of the British power” (Orwell, Burmese Days 14), the acceptance of a Burman represents mingling of the two cultures and perhaps even a certain degree of equality and comradeship. However, this turns out to be a serious issue for the white members of the Club, chiefly for Ellis. Ellis detests the idea of having a native in the white company as an equal. He strives to preserve the Club in its current state. Ellis asserts that “[the] Club is a place where we [Europeans] come to enjoy ourselves, and we don’t want natives poking about in here. We like to think there's still one place where we're free of them” (Orwell, Burmese Days 27-28). He essentially claims that Europeans consider the natives to be related to business and otherwise merely an inconvenience which disrupts their enjoyment of the country. Moreover, due to the aforementioned political significance of the European club as the British seat of power, Ellis suggests that he does not wish a native to be part of the club and share this power. He does not want the natives to have any political privileges.

Ellis is the most prominent racist character of the novel. He constantly mocks Orientals and comments on them in a rather vulgar manner. When Flory suggests that Dr Veraswami should join the Club, Ellis replies:

I should have thought in a case like this, when it's a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you'd have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor is your best pal. … [I]t's a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you'd like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. (Orwell, Burmese Days 21)

Ellis is characterized by his overt hatred towards the natives. He insults them frequently and promotes stereotypes. He strives to elicit repulsion for the natives through the use of disparaging comments. Furthermore, he reiterates his wish to prevent Burmans from entering the Club. Orwell depicts the pressure exerted on Flory. Ellis is portrayed as a self-assured and vocal character who does not doubt his racist beliefs. Conversely, Flory is rather timid, cowardly, and easily intimidated. Ellis realizes this and attempts to coerce him into submission.

Ellis is not the only racist white character in the novel. Hostility and disgust are common responses of white characters towards Orientals in Burmese Days. Elizabeth is disquieted by the natives since in her opinion:

[N]atives were … interesting, no doubt, but finally only a 'subject' people, an inferior people with black faces. … [Flory] was asking her to … admire people with black faces, almost savages, whose appearance still made her shudder! … How revoltingly ugly these people are[.] … [T]hey have such hideous-shaped heads! … And then the way their foreheads slant back – it makes them look so wicked. (Orwell, Burmese Days 121-22)

She is appalled by the notion that Flory wishes her to admire people whom she considers inferior. Elizabeth does not substantiate her claims in any way, she simply assumes different coloured people to be naturally inferior to those with white skin. Furthermore, she is disgusted by Orientals. Their physical appearance repulses her. Her attitude presents one of the most serious issues of colonial racism. She represents the condescending belief in white superiority. According to Loomba, “[t]he ideology of racial superiority translated … into class terms” (109) means that the native population was often regarded by the colonizers as “the natural working classes” (109) and as a result exploited. Colonialism is based on the unreasonable idea of innate inequality between different peoples which is used to justify exploitation of the native inhabitants. Orwell uses the character of Elizabeth to show the characteristic attitude of white Europeans which he considers wrong.

The animosity of Europeans towards Burmans in the novel is rather peculiar since Flory admits that official regulations of the British Empire encourage fair treatment:

You don't realize just what kind of pressure is put on one to make one do things like that. There was nothing to make me sign the notice. Nothing could have happened if I'd refused. There's no law telling us to be beastly to Orientals – quite the contrary. But – it's just that one daren't be loyal to an Oriental when it means going against the others. It doesn't do. (Orwell, Burmese Days 151)

Associating oneself with an Oriental is considered a betrayal of the other Europeans. It is not legal pressure, but social pressure that dictates the hostile relations between the British and Burmans. Although Flory realizes that he would not be officially sanctioned for speaking up for his friend, he wishes to avoid a conflict with his countrymen, presumably with Ellis. It seems that the option to establish equality cannot be left on the British officers themselves as the racist ones vehemently object to it and exert pressure on others in order to prevent natives from gaining privileges.

The racial conflict becomes violent when Maxwell kills a native man whose relatives murder Maxwell in retribution. While no one is particularly shocked by Maxwell’s killing of an Oriental, the murder of a white man immediately causes uproar: “Eight hundred people, possibly, are murdered every year in Burma; they matter nothing; but the murder of a white man is a monstrosity, a sacrilege. Poor Maxwell would be avenged, that was certain” (Orwell, Burmese Days 247-48). This excerpt shows the disparity and inequality between Europeans and Orientals as perceived by Orwell. The lives of Europeans and Orientals do not seem to be of the same value to the characters in the novel. By juxtaposing the ignored immense death-rate of the natives with a single death of a white person which provokes such strong reaction, the absurdity of the presumed white superiority is shown.

The Europeans mean to take revenge upon Maxwell’s killers. However, they seek revenge on the community, on Orientals as such. They do not seek justice for Maxwell but revenge motivated by racial hatred. This is apparent from the conversation between Ellis and Westfield:

'Good! And when you've arrested them, if you aren't sure of getting a conviction, ... shoot them! Fake up an escape or something. Anything sooner than let those b–s go free.'

'They won't go free, don't you fear. We'll get 'em. Get somebody, anyhow. Much better hang wrong fellow than no fellow,' he added, unconsciously quoting. (Orwell, Burmese Days 250)

They are willing to murder innocent people simply on the basis of their skin colour and a crime committed by their countrymen, partially to serve as an exemplary case for others and partially to satisfy their base loathing.

When Ellis hurts a Burmese boy which results in the boy’s loss of sight (Orwell, Burmese Days 251-54), the Europeans enter a state of paranoia and fear retribution which indeed comes swiftly. However, the riot provoked by Ellis’s actions is not violent. While the Burmese demand Ellis handed to them, they do not directly assault the Europeans. The Burmese simply demand justice. While the Europeans previously did not care about whom they punish for the crime so long as it is an Oriental, the Burmese are very specific in their demands and only wish to punish Ellis, promising to cause no harm to the rest (Orwell, Burmese Days 256-57). They are portrayed as moral and just. This further emphasizes the anti-imperialist nature of the novel. Orwell depicts white representatives of imperialism as morally inferior to the native inhabitants of Burma. Imperialism therefore appears to be thoroughly corrupt.

Orwell portrays racism as an innate aspect of imperialism. Many of his white characters genuinely believe in the superiority of whites over Burmans. However, Orwell himself does not advocate racism. Conversely, he depicts Burmans as predominantly more moral than Europeans. Death of a white man appears to be considered a tragedy while deaths of Burmans do not concern most of the European characters. Orwell criticizes imperialism for its racist nature which encourages unequal treatment of the natives.


1.3 Perception of Shame: The Negative Connotation of White Skin

Orwell studies in his novel the effects of shame. Flory’s birthmark symbolizes shame and constantly troubles him. The birthmark becomes most apparent in contrast with his pale skin and it can therefore be interpreted as a symbol for shame resulting from colonial exploitation. Flory’s disgrace originates in his sexual relationship with a native woman Ma Hla May whom he arguably uses to satisfy his desire. A comparison can be drawn between this relationship and colonial exploitation. Shame in the novel then represents guilt related to imperialism. Flory’s attempts to conceal the birthmark are reminiscent of the European effort to justify colonialism instead of facing its true exploitative nature. Following Flory’s death his birthmark fades away which can mean that the only way to divest of colonial shame is to leave colonies.

Another prominent theme of the novel is shame which is symbolized by Flory’s hideous birthmark. The birthmark is of paramount importance in his life. Flory feels extremely self-conscious, embarassed, and insecure about it. He even learns to automatically position his body so as not to show the birthmark (Orwell, Burmese Days 14). Furthermore, “[h]e always remembered the birthmark when he had done something to be ashamed of” (Orwell, Burmese Days 53). Flory is convinced that “[w]hen he turned pale the birthmark made him look hideously ugly” (Orwell, Burmese Days 157). This could be symbolic of the white colour of his skin. It is yet another reminder of Orwell’s antipathy towards Europeans in Burma. The birthmark symbolizes shame and the paler Flory’s skin gets, the more hideous he looks. His shame is therefore inadvertantly connected with white colour and paleness. The birthmark can be interpreted as symbolic innate shame connected with colonialism. Orwell perhaps suggests that all white men in colonies share partial guilt of the oppressive system.

The birthmark plays a crucial role during Ma Hla May’s tantrum in the church. The scandalous scene ashames Flory and the birthmark becomes the centre of attention:

[Flory’s] face [was] rigid and so bloodless that the birth-mark seemed to glow upon it like a streak of blue paint. … His face appalled [Elizabeth], it was so ghastly, rigid and old. It was like a skull. Only the birthmark seemed alive in it. She hated him now for his birthmark. She had never known till this moment how dishonouring, how unforgivable a thing it was. (Orwell, Burmese Days 286)

The birthmark epitomizes every negative aspect of Flory’s personality in Elizabeth’s eyes but most importantly his relationship with Ma Hla May which represents another form of exploitation. Flory uses Ma Hla May to satiate his sexual urge. In the process he utterly destroys her and consequently strives to avoid her. During the church scene she calls him a liar and a coward (Orwell, Burmese Days 284) as if to prove that colonizers cannot cope with their guilty conscience and avoid responsibility by inventing justifications. Orwell suggests that such shame cannot be forgiven. Since he deals in depth with the issue of colonial guilt in the novel, this can be interpreted as a claim that the wrongs committed by colonizers should not be ignored. The birthmark conspicuously resembles the process of justification connected with imperialism. It is a mark of shame which Flory strenuously attempts to hide the same way as colonizers strive to vindicate their cause.

The birthmark represents shame and since “[w]ith [Flory’s] death, the birthmark had faded immediately, so that it was no more than a faint grey stain” (Orwell, Burmese Days 294), Flory’s suicide can be perceived as a somewhat courageous and honourable act – a radical solution to his disgrace. Upon his demise, the shame was perhaps to be forgotten eventually. Given the aforementioned relation between the birthmark and Flory’s white skin, Flory’s death possibly symbolizes decolonization as he metaphorically leaves the country and the symbol of his shame fades away. The only way for Europeans to redeem themselves can be to leave colonies.

There can be similarities observed between Orwell’s portrayal of shame in Burmese Days and guilt related to colonialism. Flory’s birthmark as a symbol of shame contrasts with his white skin which suggests that his shame is most visible when his skin gets pale. Thus the birthmark can represent the shame of white colonizers about their ill-treatment of the colonies – the white skin is inadvertently connected with shame. Flory’s relationship with Ma Hla May resembles colonization since he abuses her to satisfy his sexual urge the same way as imperialism exploits its colonies. Orwell suggests that such exploitation cannot be forgiven and the only possibility of redemption arises from abandoning imperialism.


Chapter Two: The Depiction of Poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London: Exploitation, Humiliation, and Prejudice

2.1 Two Sides of Poverty: Suffering and Liberation

One of the prominent themes of Down and Out in Paris and London is poverty. Orwell studies the effects of destitution which prove to be rather complex. Poverty carries both physical and psychological consequences. The former include notably hunger which negatively impacts one's state of health as well as one's capability of working. Hunger also suppresses certain standards of behaviour. Flouting of these can be a cause of contempt by other people. The latter revolves around the social stigma created by poverty which produces sense of shame and loss of self-respect. Moreover, if poverty is not mitigated, it multiplies as it indirectly affects even the rich. Orwell also notices certain redeeming features of poverty, such as the liberating effect which arises from the lack of property as the anxiety about losing one's posessions is considerably reduced.

Orwell believes that the effects of poverty represent a complex issue. Apart from the physical effects such as hunger, he focuses on the psychological effects as well. These may prove equally if not more negative:

[Poverty] is extraordinarily complicated. … [I]t is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first[.] … You discover … the secrecy attaching to poverty. … [Y]ou dare not admit it [your poverty] – you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. … All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies. (Orwell, Down and Out 17)

The pressure of society to keep appearances for the sake of one’s reputation haunts an indigent person. One has to avoid appearing destitute which paradoxically is a costly endeavour when one has financial problems and ought to be spending money carefully and economically. Poverty then becomes a shameful social stigma which may prompt contempt rather than sympathy. Moreover, there is the boredom and squalor connected with poverty. These contribute to the loss of self-respect.

One of the most immediate and most serious physical effects of poverty is hunger. Orwell describes his experience of hunger in the following way: “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. … Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger” (Down and Out 32). Further effects of hunger relate to the pressing urge of its satiation which overcomes otherwise strong social behavioural habits. Orwell claims that “[i]t is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but [he] was too hungry to care” (Down and Out 43). He suggests that while normally he would likely opt not to eat at that particular place in order not to outrage girls who might be present there, he did not care at that moment. Hunger makes one suppress the deeply rooted social conventions. Thus social behaviour which is generally accepted as proper can be argued to be possible only when one’s basic needs are fulfilled which is often not possible for the destitute. It can be therefore somewhat irrational to accuse impoverished people of improper behaviour which is often connected with tramps, since their current situation does not encourage them to observe the socially acceptable standards of behaviour. Improper behaviour is one the aspects that upper classes criticize the lower classes for, Orwell shows that these reproaches stem from the lack of knowledge of the situation of the poor.

Hunger also affects negatively one’s capability of working. When hunger lasts for an extended period of time, it may lead to undernourishment. Partha Dasgupta in his study An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution claims that “we may say that undernourishment is a state in which the physical functioning of a person is impaired to the point where she cannot maintain an adequate level of performance at physical work, or at resisting or recovering from the effects of any of a garden variety of diseases” (412). This contributes to poverty immensely as one does not eventually have enough energy to work and to earn money. Thus poverty itself passively breeds more poverty.

While Orwell is concerned primarily with poverty of an individual, it is important to observe the effects of poverty on a larger scale in order to fully appreciate the importance of its reduction. When the issue is analysed from an economic perspective rather than that of social equality, Benjamin Friedman argues in his study The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth that extremely uneven wealth distribution can prove problematic for further development of the state:

Large income disparities also create pressures for redistributive spending policies that require high rates of taxation. … [H]igh tax rates, or even merely the fear of high tax rates – not to mention outright expropriations – likewise depress incentives to invest in the local economy and to undertake other initiatives that promote a country’s economic development. (359)

According to Friedman poverty affects the rich considerably since they should be in theory subjected to larger taxes in order to balance the economic disparity. Naturally, in effort to protect their wealth, they do not invest as much as they would normally do into the local economy with comparatively high tax rates and the local economy therefore deteriorates, producing more poverty.

However, Orwell describes the positive features of poverty as well. These include primarily the notion of freedom related to the lack of property which could potentially be lost and a freedom to behave in a usually unacceptable way. He highlights the liberating impact of poverty on one’s personality by which he explains the eccentricity of some of the impoverished characters in the Parisian section of the book. He claims that “[p]overty frees them [eccentric destitute people] from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work” (Orwell, Down and Out 10). Ordinary standards of behaviour appear to be an obligatory part of social conduct which suppresses one’s real personality and indigent people no longer have to abide these behavioural norms. Furthermore, Orwell studies the liberating effect of the lack of property:

[Y]ou also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. … You are bored, but you are not afraid. … It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. … It takes off a lot of anxiety. (Down and Out 19)

Thus Orwell realizes that destitution is somewhat connected with carefreeness. One does not have to worry about future since not having money liberates one from having to plan how to spend them economically. Moreover, a destitute person can be rid of the expectations and demands which one generally encounters throughout life and which create strong psychological pressure. Higher social status carries burdens of restrictive behavioural patterns. Poverty can therefore in a sense be regarded as true freedom. However, it is connected with different kinds of restrictions which will be analysed in the following sections of this chapter.

Friedman studies a similar phenomenon to the liberating effect of poverty described by Orwell. He claims that the fear of loss is stronger than the concern about a lack of property:

[The] reluctance to give up whatever people already have concretely in hand pervades human attitudes toward matters including wealth, income, lifestyle, risks to health or even life, and even seemingly trivial aspects of everyday occurrences. … [W]hat people think depends on what they have. … Even in responding to hypothetical questions, most people … show that losses loom larger than gains[.] (Friedman 84)

Thus the less wealth people have, the less they have to worry about losing it. A person with little to no property need not be concerned about maintaining it and can instead focus on pursuing his or her other goals. While this arguably does not mean an easier and happier life as an impoverished person must deal with the pressing question of survival, there are indisputably certain aspects of poverty that free one of encumbering social constraints and therefore can be regarded as positive. The hardships of destitution connected with physical well-being are to a certain extent compensated with a distinctive sense of freedom.

Orwell comes to the conclusion that negative effects of poverty constitute of psychological and physical problems. From the physical problems he focuses mainly on hunger which impairs one’s ability to work and even one’s state of health. Furthermore, it affects one’s conduct, weakening the usual norms of behaviour. Psychological effects of poverty include shame, loss of self-respect, and insecurity connected with retaining one’s social status. Poverty negatively affects the local economy and as a result breeds more poverty. Therefore it needs to be purposefully mitigated. Orwell also comments on the positive features of poverty, notably the fact that it liberates one from worries about the future and property.
2.2 The Reasons for Exploitation of Labour: Parisian Plongeurs as Modern Slaves

In the first part of Down and Out Orwell depicts his experience from working as a dishwasher in Paris. He comes to the conclusion that dishwashers are modern slaves as their occupation offers no prospects, it is exhausting and time-consuming and the job itself is quite unnecessary. Orwell believes that the purpose of such occupation is to exhaust the lower classes in order to prevent them from interfering in politics. It is ultimately a means of control of population. Dishwashers rarely have the time and energy to educate themselves. They are stuck in their situation. Orwell’s first-hand experience of the issue has to be taken into consideration and serves as a certain guarantee of authenticity and relevance of his claims.

In the Parisian section of Down and Out Orwell describes his experience of working as a plongeur – a dishwasher in a hotel. The arduous job combines unpromising prospects with stultifying monotony:

[The job of plongeurs] offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and at the same time has not a trace of skill or interest[.] … They have no way of escaping from this life, for they cannot save a penny from their wages, and working from sixty to a hundred hours a week leaves them no time to train for anything else. (Orwell, Down and Out 59)

It seems that the main problem of this occupation are not necessarily the present disagreeable conditions but rather the future prospects. Orwell realizes that there is little possibility of improvement for plongeurs since the exhausting nature of their job leaves them little energy to pursue self-refinement. They do not acquire the necessary qualification to be employed in a more prospective job and therefore are stuck in their meaningless drudgery. Craig L. Carr comments on this issue in his study Orwell, Politics, and Power claiming that “the tragedy of a life of poverty can be grasped only when one recognizes that the poor are also terribly powerless” (40). The poor do not always have the option to improve their situation regardless of their determination and effort.

To a certain extent, this is equivalent to restriction of freedom. While a destitute person is not technically imprisoned, he or she cannot pursue success freely. Dasgupta lists the major ingredients of person’s welfare which illustrate this further:

[T]he principal ingredients of a person’s interests are immediate. They are, for example, her state of health and the number of years she expects to live, her command over commodities and services. … [T]hey consist of the degree to which she is free to form associations and friendships, to speak her mind, to do what she rationally desires to do[.] (5-6)

With any of these ingredients restricted the person’s welfare cannot be fully achieved. The effect of poverty on health has already been discussed in the section 2.1. Orwell’s observations of plongeurs show that their occupation inevitably limits them as they are only rarely able to change their current situation. They are not free to do what they desire to do.

Friedman analyses this phenomenon from the general viewpoint of poverty: “For most people, in most societies, poverty means not only being poor now but having little prospect of not being poor in the future. In most cases it also means seeing one’s children have only limited chances of escaping poverty themselves” (351). The aspect of poverty which is perhaps not immediately obvious but appaling nonetheless, is therefore its permanency. Poverty often forces people to perform meaningless tasks repeatedly in order to earn a living and prevents them from self-improving. The social status can be largely hereditary and therefore more permanent than physical effects such as hunger.

With regard to the nature of permanency of poverty Orwell believes that it is not sufficient to say that the dishwashers’ conditions are merely unsatisfactory. Since they are often trapped in their situation, he draws a comparison with slavery:

[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. … His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. He is cut off from marriage, or, if he marries, his wife must work too. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. … [Plongeurs] do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them. (Orwell, Down and Out 85)

Orwell points out the lack of freedom experienced by Parisian plongeurs which bears resemblance to the institution of slavery. Plongeurs cannot afford to lose their job because of their poor economic situation but the job itself wears them out and cuts them off from social life. They are forced by their circumstances to keep a job which essentially ruins their lives. It is not only physically exhausting but it also negatively affects their mental abilities. Since education and pursuit of knowledge require leisure which plongeurs lack, they are predetermined to remain ill-educated.

As for the reason why plongeurs work in such conditions, Orwell believes that their occupation is merely a device to exhaust them and mitigate possible danger that these people might otherwise pose for the governing classes. According to Orwell, the job of Parisian dishwashers is not only restrictive for social life but also unnecessary:

I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) … would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think. … This is particularly the attitude of intelligent, cultivated people[.] … [T]hey imagine that any liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own liberty. (Down and Out 87)

Therefore unlike the work of miners of Wigan examined in the third chapter – an occupation which is exceptionally exhausting but at least useful for the society – Orwell suggests that the work of Parisian dishwashers is merely work for work’s sake. There is little merit to it and it serves primarily the purpose of wasting the energy of the dishwashers so as to prevent them from becoming politically active and possibly troublesome for the governing classes. Their occupation indirectly keeps the exhausted men in ignorance. This is another parallel with slavery as one of the aims of the institution is to control slaves and keep them docile.

With such powerful claims the question of credibility emerges. It is important to keep in mind that Down and Out in Paris and London is largely autobiographical and therefore not simply a theoretical reflection on an ethically questionable situation. As far as Orwell can be considered trustworthy, it is an account of the actual situation. It can be regarded as factual rather than fictitious even though certain aspects of the book are arguably adjusted so as to fit author’s style and to stress his points. Loraine Saunders in her analysis of Orwell’s style in her book The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell claims that “[h]ow trustworthy or otherwise Orwell’s observations are is something that runs deep through Orwell criticism” (134). It is true that a somewhat characteristic aspect of Orwell’s writing is his frequent generalization as well as the tendency to present his subjective opinions as objective facts. While both of these could reflect negativelly in the question of credibility and Orwell’s writing indeed appears to be more subjective than objective, his investigative effort to obtain first-hand information about the subjects of his writing is significant factor of his credibility. Edward M. Thomas in his book Orwell praises Orwell’s approach to his documentary writing. Thomas claims that “[Down and Out in Paris and London] is remarkable for never falling into falsity or irrelevance, which are perhaps the special dangers for this sort of writing. Orwell is writing not merely about the situation, but from within it” (17). He commends Orwell’s focus on the problem without excessive pathos.

Saunders also elaborates on Orwell’s documentary style of writing, she particularly focuses on Orwell’s narrators and the final effect of his writing on the reader:

There is much originality in the realization of Orwell’s themes, particularly in the subtlety of narrative authority, which appears consciously to resist the explicit proselytizing and didactic voice prevalent in his documentary and essay writing. As a result, questions surrounding fact and fallacy, originality and imitation, diminish in importance, and one is left unencumbered to enjoy the delights afforded by highly crafted prose[.]” (141)

Saunders admires Orwell’s ability to write in such an absorbing fashion which perhaps compensates for the possible unreliability of certain information. Slight adjustments of facts and embellishments then prove to be beneficial for the sake of attractiveness of Orwell’s books which ultimately helps spread the information further. Orwell combines factual documentary writing with his talent for creating a compelling story.

According to Orwell, Parisian dishwashers represent the slaves of the modern age. The job offers no prospects and its principal purpose is supposedly to exhaust these workers. Orwell deduces this from the fact that the job is essentially meaningless and unnecessary and it impedes any improvement needed to get a more desirable occupation. Thus it traps the plongeurs in their unfavourable situation and as a result they do not pose threat to the governing classes. Orwell bases these observations on his own experience and therefore adds credibility to his claims as he is not merely analysing the issue from a theoretical perspective.


2.3 Shame, Humiliation, and Degradation Connected with Poverty

The London section of Down and Out is concerned primarily with the humiliation and degradation caused by charity. Orwell observes how charity can come across as patronizing and humiliating for the English tramps since their situation is accentuated in the process. This elicits bitterness and indignation which reflects in seeming ungratefulness. Orwell believes that it is in fact not ungratefulness but rather a natural reaction to being humiliated. Tramps do not feel that the help is provided unselfishly as they are expected to be thankful to their benefactors. Thus Orwell identifies as the principal issue of London poverty its connection with the class issue and resulting humiliation.

The London part of Down and Out is largely devoted to the depiction of how English tramps perceive degradation and how charity humiliates them. This experience differs greatly from that of Paris where Orwell observes exhaustion and the impossibility of self-fulfillment. Thomas comments on Orwell’s perception of English poverty and humiliation:

[T]he return to England brought Orwell to a poverty which was interwoven with the class structure he knew from childhood; the second part of the book is so much more painful because humiliation is here added to hardship. He has to fight not only against the physical circumstances of poverty but also against his own inbred middle-class feelings of status and self-respect. (18)

Therefore poverty in England intermingles with the issue of class which will be explored in chapter 3. According to Thomas, English destitution is strongly connected with the loss of self-respect stemming from the deeply rooted class division. Destitute people become associated with a lower class and a lower social status.

The appearance of a tramp bears powerful connotations. Since the appearance itself serves as a mark of humiliation, however unsubstantiated such preconceived conclusion might be. Orwell believes that “[c]lothes are powerful things. Dressed in a tramp’s clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded” (Down and Out 88). It seems that dressed as a tramp you are expected to be inferior. Adverse reactions to tramps often stem from prejudice.

Another degradation arises in workhouses where men are forced to wear uniforms. They consider this humiliating because it stresses their situation. Orwell claims that “the thing really hated in the workhouse, as a stigma of charity, is the uniform; if the men could wear their own clothes … they would not mind being paupers” (Down and Out 140). They perceive the obligation to wear uniforms as restrictive. Moreover, it emphasizes their social status. They are marked, stigmatized by these uniforms as if to distinguish them from other people. The humiliation stems from the fact that their unfavourable situation is accentuated by the obligation to wear garments which designate them as destitute.

Orwell explains that the tramps cannot be grateful for charity since it degrades them. They are expected to show their gratitude which constantly reminds them of their situation. Charity can therefore seem patronizing to them: “[T]he tramps were not grateful for their tea. … I am sure too that it was given in a good spirit, without any intention of humiliating us; so in fairness we ought to have been grateful — still, we were not” (Orwell, Down and Out 103). It appears that charity in itself is automatically perceived negatively by the tramps as it inherently stresses their weakness – the dependence on others. Gratitude would confirm the weakness. Therefore the tramps often respond with anger so as to maintain their dignity.

Orwell describes the degrading and humiliating effect of charity on English tramps. He believes that charity can oftentimes appear patronizing and instead of gratitude it elicits indignation. The reason for this can be the fact that the unfortunate social situation of tramps is highlighted by charitable organizations. Furthermore, it is expected from tramps to respond with gratitude which puts pressure on them and reminds them of their indigence. Orwell considers this to be a major issue of London poverty.


2.4 Orwell the Moralist: Prejudice Demonizing the English Tramp



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