Novels · poverty

“Genuinely Down and Out”- The Richness of Poverty in Literature

“If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”- he tapped his forehead -“and you’re alright.”

Poverty in literature is the opposite of poverty in real life. It’s poverty in a parallel universe, where the poor aren’t walked past on street corners, where their poverty is what makes their characters endearing. Being poor is almost always an indication of a better class of character- it makes for richer personalities and experiences.

Literature is saturated with examples of this- in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry tells Draco he “can tell the wrong sort for himself”, in the characters of Oliver, Fagan and the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in Charlie Bucket and his grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Poverty does not necessitate the evilness that real life statistics suggest it generates- here is a place where ‘broken window theory’ doesn’t apply, where people root for them rather than refuse them opportunities and block them at every corner. No one says it’s their own fault- everybody sympthasizes, and everybody loves them.

It is, of course, a romanticized version of poverty- though poverty is perhaps one of the least ‘romantic’ subjects that one can think of. However it seems that the romantic idea of it is that it suggests the possibility of being poor and not being ‘lesser’ for it. That being poor is not even close to the worst thing that a person might be, because, in truth, it isn’t, though many think it is. Down and Out in Paris and London is very effective in conveying this through actual experience.

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“It is a feeling of relief, almost pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs- and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

This so perfectly illustrates that what people believe it is impossible to cope with is, in fact, possible. That humans, as a whole, are incredibly resilient and can survive in the worst situations. It also illustrates a negative thing about humans- in that we would be relieved to know we had reached the dogs, because we would no longer be concerned about our status and our roles in the world. That being “down and out” could actually be beneficial to some peoples character- to have nothing is not necessarily to literally have nothing- there is something to be gained from the experience. Traits that the rich cannot possess because their money and privilege bars them from such experience, but that come readily to the poor because their lack of money demands the experience. The poor may not be financially rich, but this gives them something the rich can never posses, because it is an experience that quite literally cannot be bought.

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