Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One of the most interesting themes of Born in Captivity is the inability of even the most determined subject to escape the ancient structure of British society. After Lumley rejects his upper-class standing, the result of his university graduation, he finds that he is accepted neither in middle-class society (because he refuses to climb) nor in working-class society (because his very accent sets him apart and arouses suspicion). His frequent encounters with people whom he knew at school and at the university demonstrate the fact that the old-boy network operates even when a rebel has attempted to escape it. The old association suggests a friendship which never existed and a similarity of outlook which in the case of Lumley is quite nonexistent.

At the hospital, Lumley does discover a society which has its own hierarchy, and within that society he is contented. Yet when he goes to the home of his hospital girlfriend, he is once again confronted with the class system. Only in the hospital itself is the British social system inoperable.

In a world full of lower-class and middle-class people scrambling to rise, primarily by making money, Lumley abandons the gentle speech habits of the university, habits which are made possible only because their very tones suggest privilege and position already attained. With the millionaire patient at the hospital, Lumley can fall back into that pattern, “that softness and slight hesitancy of speech.” His patient’s vulnerability “called it out again despite himself, and made him realize afresh that it was a speech-habit common to the disabled.” It is interesting that the millionaire himself is not verbally aggressive, but then, he had inherited a business; he had not risen from the ranks. If aggressive language will eventually dominate British society, if the Oxbridge accent, conscious of its own superiority, will fall, Wain’s novel does not indicate that the hierarchy, however “disabled,” has disappeared in the postwar Britain about which he writes.