More than just air
The act of reading allows one to explore many other worlds and lives and, in doing so, provides a more pervasive understanding of one’s own personal world and life. In reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, I was given a brief but very informative and emotional glimpse into the life of a man struggling to cope with poverty and misfortune who was able to write with a prose uniquely capable of conveying his experiences.
People tend not to think much of the homeless and most even force themselves to completely ignore those in poverty — going so far as to pretend nothing but air occupies the space in which a homeless person sits on the street begging for spare change. I will admit to having felt the same way towards the homeless during my life and have often failed to see them as whole individuals with personalities and stories to share, instead seeing them merely as those who somehow failed in life and who now depend on the kindness of others to survive.
Orwell’s book was able both to show just how false these previously-held beliefs of mine were and to allow me to empathize with those in poverty at a level much deeper than in the past. Even within the first several pages of the book, he manages to portray to the reader the idea that the homeless are a group of ‘eccentric characters’,
The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people — people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. (Orwell 3).
One quickly realizes the undeniable truth behind the above passage and likely begins to recall previous encounters with the homeless in which they seem to have had little regard for ‘ordinary standards of behaviour’.
The overwhelming majority of the book presented experiences and feelings which I could not easily relate to my personal life but a passage describing the overall way in which poverty felt to Orwell and how it affected him proved to be one of the few exceptions:
You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it — you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. (Orwell 13).
I have certainly not yet experienced a level of poverty resembling anything similar to Orwell’s (and hope I never will) but this passage was nevertheless easy to relate to and identify with. The idea of pretending to live as though nothing has changed during times when money is scarce and being ‘tangled in a net of lies’ is a feeling that I am, to some extent, familiar with. My family has experienced many periods of time during which money has been tight and I have, as a direct consequence, been put in positions in which I have had to pretend as though everything is still the same and have had to lie to others, placing myself in awkward social situations. From skipping lunchtime outings with friends to missing birthday parties to staying home while friends go to the movies, I, in order to save money, have often had to disappoint friends of mine and, as a result, lead them to believe that I for some reason do not wish to spend time with them — that I perhaps do not wish to be friends with them. This taste of poverty that I have experienced, however diluted from the real thing it may be, allowed me to empathize with this facet of Orwell’s description of poverty.
Through all of the experiences Orwell brings the reader along for, one finishes the book having been desensitized to the fact that he was in fact homeless — homeless in the same way as those taking up space on the streets who people learn to pretend as being nothing but air. One follows him through these adventures and considers him as being no different from a regular person, with distinct characteristics, opinions, and interesting stories to share, and allows one to see the unjustified and cruel way in which the homeless are viewed for what it truly is, something which Orwell describes perfectly,
People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary ‘working’ men. They are a race apart — outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men ‘work’, beggars do not ‘work’; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not ‘earn’ his living, as a bricklayer or a library critic ‘earns’ his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable. (Orwell 174).
Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. London: Penguin, 1940. Print.