Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell is best known for his fictional works Animal Farm and 1984. But when it comes to his greatest empathic writing, Down and Out in Paris and London ranks as outstanding. What makes this a great empathy book is that the second half, in which Orwell describes his time ‘tramping’ on the streets of East London in the late 1920s and early 1930s, constitutes a radical empathy experiment. Orwell was from a privileged background – he went to Eton and was a colonial police officer in Burma. After becoming disgusted with his personal role in imperialism, he decided to return to Britain to discover the realities of everyday life on the social margins. So he sold his suit and got himself some tramping gear. As he describes brilliantly in the book, he spent his days with beggars, out of work labourers and other people living on the streets, in the doss houses and in the workhouses. Sometimes Orwell went out just for a few days, other times for weeks at a time. Although he always had the possibility of running back to his parents’ comfortable home in Suffolk, he never did, and was strict about venturing out without a penny in his pocket. Orwell was really engaged in an adventure of experiential empathy, having the physical experience of immersing himself in the lives of people about whom he knew very little. And it was transformative for Orwell. His experiences certainly widened his moral universe – he became more caring about beggars and other destitute people (though he recognised he was just a temporary visitor, and hadn’t learned what it was really like to spend years in poverty). But he also gained new friendships, expanded his curiosity about strangers, and got himself plenty of great literary material. In other words, empathy made Orwell good, but it was also good for him.