Two verbless sentences introduce the scene-setting opening chapters, which describe the atmosphere in the Paris quarter and introduce various characters who appear later in the book. From Chapter III to Chapter X, where the narrator obtains a job at "Hotel X," he describes his descent into poverty, often in tragi-comic terms. An Italian compositor forges room keys and steals his savings and his scant income vanishes when the English lessons he is giving stop. He begins at first to "sell" some of his clothes, and then to "pawn" his remaining clothes, and then searches for work with a Russian waiter named Boris—work as a porter at Les Halles, work as an English teacher and restaurant work. He recounts his two-day experience without any food and tells of meeting Russian "Communists" who, he later concludes, on their disappearance, must be mere swindlers.
After the various ordeals of unemployment and hunger the narrator obtains a job as a plongeur (dishwasher) in the "Hôtel X" near the Place de la Concorde, and begins to work long hours there. In Chapter XIII, he describes the "caste system" of the hotel—"manager-cooks-waiters-plongeurs"—and, in Chapter XIV, its frantic and seemingly chaotic workings. He notes also "the dirt in the Hôtel X.," which became apparent "as soon as one penetrated into the service quarters." He talks of his routine life among the working poor of Paris, slaving and sleeping, and then drinking on Saturday night through the early hours of Sunday morning. In Chapter XVI, he refers briefly to a murder committed "just beneath my window [while he was sleeping .... The thing that strikes me in looking back," he says, "is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder [....] We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?"
Misled by Boris's optimism, the narrator is briefly penniless again after he and Boris quit their hotel jobs in the expectation of work at a new restaurant, the "Auberge de Jehan Cottard," where Boris feels sure he will become a waiter again; at the Hotel X, he had been doing lower-grade work. The "patron" of the Auberge, "an ex-colonel of the Russian Army," seems to have financial difficulties. The narrator is not paid for ten days and is compelled to spend a night on a bench—"It was very uncomfortable—the arm of the seat cuts into your back—and much colder than I had expected"—rather than face his landlady over the outstanding rent.
At the restaurant, the narrator finds himself working "seventeen and a half hours" a day, "almost without a break," and looking back wistfully at his relatively leisured and orderly life at the Hotel X. Boris works even longer: "eighteen hours a day, seven days a week." The narrator claims that "such hours, though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris." He adds
by the way, that the Auberge was not the ordinary cheap eating-house frequented by students and workmen. We did not provide an adequate meal at less than twenty-five francs, and we were picturesque and artistic, which sent up our social standing. There were the indecent pictures in the bar, and the Norman decorations—sham beams on the walls, electric lights done up as candlesticks, "peasant" pottery, even a mounting-block at the door—and the patron and the head waiter were Russian officers, and many of the customers titled Russian refugees. In short, we were decidedly chic.
He falls into a routine again and speaks of quite literally fighting for a place on the Paris Métro to reach the "cold, filthy kitchen" by seven. Despite the filth and incompetence, the restaurant turns out to be a success.
The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes recounted by some of the minor characters, such as Valenti, an Italian waiter at Hotel X, and Charlie, "one of the local curiosities," who is "a youth of family and education who had run away from home." In Chapter XXII, the narrator considers the life of a plongeur :
[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack [.... He has] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.
Because of the stress of the long hours, he mails to a friend, "B," back in London, asking if he could get him a job that allows more than five hours' sleep a night. His friend duly replies, offering a job taking care of a "congenital imbecile," and sends him some money to get his possessions from the pawn. The narrator then quits his job as a plongeur and leaves for London.
The narrator arrives in London expecting to have the job waiting for him. Unfortunately the would-be employers have gone abroad, "patient and all."
Until his employers return, the narrator lives as a tramp, sleeping in an assortment of venues: lodging houses, tramps' hostels or "spikes," and Salvation Army shelters. Because vagrants can not "enter any one spike, or any two London spikes, more than once in a month, on pain of being confined for a week," he is required to keep on the move, with the result that long hours are spent tramping or waiting for hostels to open. Chapters XXV to XXXV describe his various journeys, the different forms of accommodation, a selection of the people he meets, and the tramps' reaction to Christian charity: "Evidently the tramps were not grateful for their free tea. And yet it was excellent [....] I am sure too that it was given in a good spirit, without any intention of humiliating us; so in fairness we ought to have been grateful—still, we were not." Characters in this section of the book include the Irish tramp called Paddy, "a good fellow" whose "ignorance was limitless and appalling," and the pavement artist Bozo, who has a good literary background and was formerly an amateur astronomer, but who has suffered a succession of misfortunes.
The final chapters provide a catalogue of various types of accommodation open to tramps. The narrator offers some general remarks, concluding,
At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.