Alan Sillitoe Essay - Critical Essays

Alan Sillitoe Short Fiction Analysis

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” the title story of Alan Sillitoe’s first collection of short fiction, quickly became one of the most widely read stories of modern times. Its basic theme, that one must be true to one’s own instincts and beliefs despite intense social pressure to go against them, is echoed in many of his best-known stories, including “On Saturday Afternoon,” “The Ragman’s Daughter,” “The Good Women,” and “Pit Strike.” Such an attitude strikes a responsive chord in modern readers who feel hemmed in by the dictates of “official” bureaucracies and by government interference in their personal lives. It is important for Sillitoe’s characters to establish their independence in a conformist world, yet at the same time they often subscribe to a class-oriented code of values which pits the disadvantaged working class against the rest of society.

“Uncle Ernest”

Many of Sillitoe’s stories are located in urban working-class slums and reflect the environment he knew himself. In story after story these ghetto-dwellers are seen as society’s underdogs, as victims of a series of injustices, real or imagined, which undermine their sense of personal dignity and self-esteem. Ernest Brown, for example, the protagonist in “Uncle Ernest,” is a lonely, aging upholsterer who befriends Alma and Joan, two young schoolgirls he meets at a local café. In a series of encounters, always at the café and in public view, he buys them food and small gifts and takes pleasure in learning something of their lives. He asks nothing of the girls in return, and they come to think of him affectionately as “Uncle Ernest.” After a few weeks, however, he is accosted by two detectives who accuse him of leading the girls “the wrong way” and forbid him to see them again. Unable to cope with this “official” harassment, Ernest Brown retreats into alcohol and despair.

In one sense “Uncle Ernest” is an anomaly in Sillitoe’s short fiction, for although it illustrates the victimization his characters often face, it chronicles a too-ready acceptance of the larger society’s interference and power. For the most part his characters remain defiant in the face of directives from those in positions of authority.

“On Saturday Afternoon”

“On Saturday Afternoon,” the story of an unnamed working-class man’s attempt to commit suicide, offers a sardonic example of this defiance. The man first tries to hang himself from a light fixture, but before he can succeed the police arrive and arrest him. In response to his bitter comment, “It’s a fine thing if a bloke can’t tek his own life,” the police tell him “it ain’t your life.” They take him to a psychiatric hospital and unwittingly put him in a sixth floor room and fail to restrain him. That night he jumps from the window and succeeds in killing himself.

“On Saturday Afternoon” is typical of Sillitoe’s stories in its assumed attitude to social authority: Although “they” interfere and place controls on an individual’s right to act as he pleases, they can usually be outwitted. Here and in other stories Sillitoe’s workers place great stress on “cunning,” the ability to preserve individual freedom of action in a restrictive or oppressive social environment.

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

This attitude of cunning is well illustrated in Sillitoe’s best-known story, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” The protagonist in this story is simply called Smith, the modern equivalent of Everyman. He is a seventeen-year-old boy who has been put in a Borstal, a reform school, for theft from a baker’s shop. He is also an accomplished long-distance runner and has been chosen by the Governor, or warden, to represent the Borstal in a competition for the All-England Championship. As the reader meets Smith, he is running alone over the early-morning countryside, and as he runs he considers his situation. It soon becomes apparent that he has rejected the warden’s platitudes (“if you play ball with us, we’ll play ball with you”) and has seen through the hypocrisy of his promises as well. He recognizes the difference between his own brand of honesty, which allows him to be true to his own instincts, and the warden’s, which rejects the needs of the individual in favor of social expediency. Smith’s only counter to the warden’s attempt to use him for his own ends is cunning. As he sees it, the warden is “dead from the toenails up,” living as he does in fear of social disapproval and manipulating the inmates of his Borstal to gain social prestige. Smith, however, resolves to fight against becoming swallowed up in social convention, to be true to his own concept of honesty. Adopting such a stance means recognizing “that it’s war between me and them” and leads to his decision to lose the upcoming race.

In the second...

(The entire section is 2036 words.)