A Moral-less “Down and Out”

Author George Orwell in the 1940s.
Author George Orwell in the 1940s.

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London takes us out of the 18th and 19th century and catapults us into the ‘modern’ age of the 20th. Just as in Moll Flanders, the story laid out in Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of the character whose life and experiences with which the reader is being regaled. However, unlike Moll Flanders, the narrator in Orwell’s novel offers no moral judgments on anything that he himself has done or on any of the tales of debauchery and ‘lowness’ he tells of the others he encounters. Orwell simply presents the experiences as they are and leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not they were ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or somewhere in between.

Take, for example, the story that the quarter’s ‘runaway’, Charlie, tells of the girl he raped. This is in only the second chapter and is told in incredible detail and with characterization, as if the reader is actually hearing Charlie tell it, word for word. I believe that it is expected for the reader to find this story completely repugnant and horrifying. It leaves one unsure how to feel about the character of Charlie, who has been described in the most poetic terms, as well as how to feel about the narrator himself. Yet the narrator offers no judgment on the tale. Indeed, he doesn’t even write down his own visceral reactions to it, ending it simply with: “He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter” (Orwell, 15).

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

Why does Orwell take this stance? Why does he and his narrator seemingly refuse to moralize any of the experiences related in the novel? I believe it is because Orwell’s authorial goals in writing Down and Out were not to show ‘lowlife’ behavior and culture as an effect of any kind of moral degradation, but rather an economic and systematic failure. One of the few times the narrator discusses his experiences philosophically is, when he has left Paris for London, as he explores the plight of the plongeur’. He examines this station in life not from a moral, but a social standpoint, pointing to the “fear of the mob” that the upper-classes have that keep them from advocating for change (Orwell, 119). In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is focused on sociological insights, not moral ones.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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