The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner Essay - Critical Essays

Alan Sillitoe


Although not intended only for young readers, the stories in Sillitoe’s collection have great appeal and significance for them, particularly four of the first-person narratives. Those stories present young men coming-of-age in an economically depressed, violent, and even vindictive society, with an emphasis on important realizations by those characters that enable them to survive. The most important thematic similarity of those realizations is existential isolation in an absurdly antagonistic world that the young men must constantly suspect, deceive, and defy in order to maintain psychological integrity.

In “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” the teenage narrator, in Borstal Reformatory as a result of participation in a store robbery, is allowed to leave the reformatory for running practice in preparation for a nationwide competition among penal institutions. The narrator, however, is not deceived by this “privilege,” realizing that the reformatory governor only wants the glory of victory and does not care about the narrator’s personal fate. With the runner’s loneliness as astute symbol of existential isolation, the narrator realizes that he cannot compromise his personal integrity by allowing himself to be used for others’ glorification, but he must deceive the antagonistic powers that be by concealing his intention to lose the race deliberately and then must defy those powers by losing. To do otherwise would be to join a system that killed his father through cancer acquired in horrendous factory conditions and to betray the spirit of his father, who continued his defiance to the point of chasing from his home the doctors who wanted to hospitalize (institutionalize) and sedate (control) him. Doubtless like his father, the narrator realizes the price of his independence, and indeed spends his remaining time at Borstal at the worst possible tasks for the longest possible hours, developing...

(The entire section is 790 words.)