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“A Belly with a Few Accessory Organs”

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“A Belly with a Few Accessory Organs”

By far the most common symbology expressed by smoking in Down and Out in Paris and London has to do with deprivation—Orwell equates smoking with life-sustaining activities, mostly eating.

There are no less than 41 references to smoking in Orwell’s first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which is just over 200 pages long. Orwell manages to mention the habit at least once every five pages, often in a pining, wishful sense, as throughout most of the book the author was destitute and thus always wondering where his next meal, and afterwards, his next smoke, would come from. His addiction adds to the book’s excitement in many ways, producing tension through contrasting bursts of half-desperate desire and almost-but-not-quite satiation. This sense of anxiety quickens the emotional pulse of the book.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell also appears, in some cases, to be writing about tobacco because he has very little else to write about. One of the worst aspects of poverty, Orwell writes, is the boredom and hunger which turns a poor man into “a belly with a few accessory organs.” Cigarettes, hunger and boredom, as every smoker knows, are the best of friends. In the less-inspired half of the book concerning London, Orwell performs the literary equivalent of chain-smoking, bringing up tobacco 33 times in 88 pages.

cover art

Down and out in Paris and London

George Orwell

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Mar 1972)

The references to smoking in Down and Out in Paris and London can be classified based on what they represent to Orwell relative to his work, as well as what attributes of character and social theory Orwell is trying to illustrate. By far the most common symbology expressed by smoking in Down and Out in Paris and London has to do with deprivation. This is made possible by the fact that Orwell equates smoking with life-sustaining activities, mostly eating.

There are several references to the effect that the author “had nothing to eat or smoke” for varying periods of time, an experience he describes with a detached sense of dread. The embarrassment of being poor hits him when “the tobbaconist keeps asking why [he] has cut down on [his] smoking”, and longing for cigarettes causes him to seek the dubious company of Boris, a Russian layabout who “had not had a bath for months” but was still a good man to know, as he could reliably produce discount cigarettes:

It was tobacco that made everything tolerable. We had plenty of tobacco because some time before, Boris had met a solider (the soldiers are given their tobacco free) and bought 20 or 30 packets at 15 centimes each . He would lie till evening in the grayish, verminous sheets, smoking and reading old newspapers.

The most charming example of Orwell’s likening of tobacco to a staple commodity is in his characterization of a desperately poor London pensioner. The man lived on ten shillings a week, dividing this sum between lodging (five shillings and three pence a week), shaving, (five shillings and sixpence) and a monthly haircut (sixpence), leaving “about four an’ fourpence for food and ‘bacca”. Upon hearing this account, Orwell questions not the man’s smoking habit, but his proclivity toward neatness, exclaiming, “With an income of ten shillings a week, to spend money on a shave—it is awe-inspiring.”

Aside from showcasing the deprivation of the poor through their lack of cigarette buying power, Orwell also uses smoking to portray camaraderie among working people, expressed through their sharing of tobacco. This type of social transaction is one of the main reasons humans smoke in the first place, as evidenced by the sharing of tobacco in traditional Native American societies as a way of breaking the ice at gatherings. Even today, this ritual is carried out at bus stops and nightclubs around the world, where asking for a smoke or a light is one of the most surefire ways to engage a stranger in conversation.

Orwell exploited this social dynamic in order to befriend many of the tramps and plongeurs (French hotel workers) that populate Down and Out in Paris and London. His friendship with Paddy, the grizzled Irishman who teaches Orwell the ins and outs of tramp life in England, is facilitated by Orwell’s offer of a smoke, to which Paddy replies, “By god, there’s sixpennorth of good ‘baccy here … You ain’t been on the road long.”

Paddy, who is constantly on the lookout for discarded cigarette butts, takes Orwell on a tour of the homeless shelters surrounding London, many of which officially ban smoking but look the other way when the inhabitants light up. Orwell’s chief complaint about Salvation Army shelters, aside from the mandatory prayer services, is that they won’t allow residents to smoke. In Orwell’s view, smoking civilized the tramps, allowing them a few brief moments of pleasure in a life that was hard, short and often cruel.

The fact that Orwell saw tobacco as a necessity rather than a luxury belies an innocence about tobacco that was deeply ingrained in Orwell’s generation, to the point where tobacco use went not only unexamined, but almost beyond the realm of examination. It’s a strange place for Orwell to be, as his entire writing life was spent examining, often meticulously, the intricacies of human behavior and their implications to social and political power.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Orwell ignored the health risks or political ramifications of addiction among the smoking classes, as there was little scientific evidence at the time to indicate smoking was unhealthful. While there were several groups and individuals over the years who had decried the habit, smoking was simply so pervasive by the ‘30s, to question its use among poor people would be, if not unthinkable, certainly quixotic.

Orwell might also have found it uncomfortable to question the habit because he existed throughout the research phase of Down and Out in Paris and London as something of an interloper among his subjects. While he was no doubt as broke as he portrayed himself to be, he was not without prospects—he could have earned a comfortable living somewhere if he’d had the temperament for it.

It’s possible that his smoking and obsession with cigarettes was part of an attempt to mask his middle class identity. It stands to reason that if smoking was thought of as a lower class or “bohemian” thing to do. Orwell might have embraced the habit as both a way of identifying with that class and perpetuating his masquerade within it.

Yet there is little to suggest that smoking was confined to the lower and working classes in early 20th century Europe. The evidence actually points to the contrary, that tobacco use had become common among all classes. In that light, one could postulate that smoking, for Orwell, was a way of equalizing and reconciling class differences.

This idea is reinforced by the way he portrays the smoking habits of his characters. In the presentation of a Parisian restaurant owner who is desperately trying to present himself as wealthier and more genteel than he really is, Orwell uses the man’s smoking as a way of exposing his fraudulent character:

The only person who never forgot his manners was the patron. He kept the same hours as the rest of us, but he had no work to do, as it was his wife who really managed things. His sole job, besides ordering supplies, was to stand behind the bar smoking cigarettes and looking gentlemanly, and he did that to perfection.

A poor man smokes to appear as a gentleman; a virtue of the poor becomes a vice of the rich. While the lower caste works and takes smoke breaks, the upper caste smokes and works at their leisure. This type of class envy (and class confusion) is examined in more detail in Orwell’s 1936 book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is based on his conflicted emotions regarding class in a capitalist society.

Josh Indar is a recovering journalist who currently writes novels and short stories. He lives in a little college town in Northern California, where he tutors homeless & foster youth and plays in a band called Severance Package. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. email:

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