People of the Abyss, The

by Jack London (1903)


Though it predates Orwell’s similar Down and Out in Paris and London by a few decades, it pales in comparison to its successor in both tone and engagement. Whereas Orwell’s profound humanism is evident in each of his descriptions, London is quite literally slumming it and none too conflicted about it. He looks at the East End slum-dwellers as subjects, almost as if they’re zoo animals, and describes them in bestial terms. It’s revealing certainly, and outrage-inducing as well, but you never get the sense that he actually cares about anyone he’s cavorting with. I also enjoyed Orwell’s account more because of his open embrace of socialism. London appears to have leanings and comes right up to the precipice of declaring himself against capitalism before meekly turning back.

Apart from the tonal and attitudinal problems, London bogs his account down with dated statistics and accounting tables. There are a handful of striking passages (which I’ll list below) but they’re hidden in pages of repetitive, numbing anecdotes. In parts the book also recalls Carolina Maria de Jesus’s account of a Brazilian favelaChild of the Dark, a fact which highlights the overall cross-cultural similarities between slums.

The last chapter is interesting in that he comes closest to condemning “Civilization,” by which I take him to mean capitalism. The novelty is the concision with which he analyzes the problem, determining first of all that Civilization has not “bettered the lot of the average man” despite having increased his producing power. His answer to why this is so is “mismanagement,” though substituting “capitalism” would clearly be more accurate.

The most impactful passages for me:

And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the Abyss to marry. They are the stones by the builder rejected. There is no place for them in the social fabric, while all the forces of society drive them downward till they perish. At the bottom of the Abyss they are feeble, besotted, and imbecile. If they reproduce, the life is so cheap that perforce it perishes of itself. The work of the world goes on above them, and they do not care to take part in it, nor are they able. Moreover, the work of the world does not need them. There are plenty, far fitter than they, clinging to the steep slope above, and struggling frantically to slide no more. 41

So one is forced to conclude that the Abyss is literally a huge man-killing machine, and when I pass along the little out-of-the-way streets with the full-bellied artisans at the doors, I am aware of a greater sorrow for them than for the 450,000 lost and hopeless wretches dying at the bottom of the pit. They, at least, are dying, that is the point; while these have yet to go through the slow and preliminary pangs extending through two and even three generations. 47

The unfit and the unneeded! The miserable and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of prostitution — of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labor. If this is the best that civilization can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss. 288

The following was the most heartbreaking anecdote, about a formerly middle/working-class father who killed his family after months of watching them starve:

The thing had happened. He had fought, and starved, and suffered for eighteen months. He got up one September morning, early. He opened his pocket-knife. He cut the throat of his wife, Hannah Cavilla, aged thirty-three. He cut the throat of his first-born, Frank, aged twelve. He cut the throat of his son, Walter, aged eight. He cut the throat of his daughter, Nellie, aged four. He cut the throat of his youngest-born, Ernest, aged sixteen months. Then he watched beside the dead all day until the evening, when the police came, and he told them to put a penny in the slot of the gas-meter in order that they might have light to see. 272-3

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