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The People of the Abyss

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Dorset Street in London's notorious Whitechapel district, photographed in 1902 for The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is a book by Jack London, containing his first-hand account of several weeks spent living in the Whitechapel district of the East End of London in 1902.[1] London attempted to understand the working-class of this deprived area of the city, sleeping in workhouses[2] or on the streets, and staying as a lodger with a poor family. The conditions he experienced and wrote about were the same as those endured by an estimated 500,000 of the contemporary London poor.

Antecedents and legacy[edit]

There had been several previous accounts of slum conditions in England, notably The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) by Friedrich Engels. Most had been based on secondhand sources, unlike London's personal account. A contemporary advertisement for the book compared it to Jacob Riis's sensational How the Other Half Lives (1890), which had documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1880s.[3]

George Orwell was inspired by The People of the Abyss, which he had read in his teens. In the 1930s, he began disguising himself as a derelict and made tramping expeditions into the poor section of London. The influence of The People of the Abyss can be seen in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.[4]

Reviewing the book for the Daily Express, journalist and editor Bertram Fletcher Robinson wrote that it would be "difficult to find a more depressing volume".[5]


When London wrote the book, the phrase "the Abyss", with its connotation of Hell, was in wide use to refer to the life of the urban poor. It featured in H. G. Wells's popular 1901 book Anticipations multiple times, along with the phrase "the People of the Abyss",[6] which he would use again in Chapter 3 of Mankind in the Making (1903). In 1907 London used the expression "the people of the abyss" in The Iron Heel,[7] a work of dystopian science fiction set in the United States.[8]


  • Rees, Rosemary; Shephard, Colin, "OCR British Depth Study 1906-1918: British Society in Change", London : Hodder Murray, Jan 23, 2002, ISBN 0-7195-7734-9 Reference - Page 10 Source 4

See also[edit]

  • Victorian Slum House, a BBC series about a modern recreation of a slum tenement and its inhabitants in the East End of London


  1. ^ Swafford, Kevin (2015). "Among the Disposable: Jack London in the East End of London". The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 48 (2): 15–40. doi:10.1353/mml.2016.0002. JSTOR 43796031. S2CID 147931813.
  2. ^ "Richard Gray - the Lycanthorpe".
  3. ^ Shaw, Albert (1903). The American Monthly Review of Reviews. Review of Reviews. p. 854. Retrieved 11 November 2017 – via Internet Archive. It tingles with the vitality of his fiction, and with a directness only possible from a man who knows London as Jacob Riis knows New York.
  4. ^ Shelden, Michael (1991). Orwell: The Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016709-2. p. 62. Orwell read The People of the Abyss while at St. Cyprians; London's book was a "definite source of inspiration"; Orwell "was following its example" (p. 121).
  5. ^ "difficult to find a more depressing volume". Ashburton Guardian. 9 January 1904. p. 2.
  6. ^ Wells, H. G. (1999) [1901]. Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. New York: Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-40673-3.
  7. ^ Rideout, Walter B (1992). The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Columbia University Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-231-08077-8. London focuses his climax on 'the People of the Abyss' — H. G. Wells' phrase now appears as a chapter title."
  8. ^ Theodore Dalrymple, "The Dystopian Imagination," in Our Culture, What's Left of It (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005)}, p. 106.

External links[edit]