(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the opening lines of The Right to an Answer, the expatriate narrator and protagonist, J. W. Denham, reveals his purpose: “I want to clarify in my own mind the nature of the mess that so many people seem to be in nowadays.” The mess to which he refers is both “social and moral.” For Denham, life in postwar England revolves around the television and the pub, with the most common activities being drinking and adultery. The irony is that he sees this mess only once every two years (for approximately six weeks), when he returns from his post in a Tokyo-based trading company and his Japanese mistress. Confronted with the very issues he criticizes, he is unable to act.

This particular homecoming introduces Denham to his widowed father’s friends at the local pub, the Black Swan, whose philosopher-owner, Ted Arden, is a descendent of William Shakespeare’s wife. There Denham meets Walter Winter, whom he silently renames Winterbottom, and watches with him as Winter’s wife, Alice, comes in with two men and another woman. Denham, who deduces that this foursome is an adulterous one, sees this situation as one of the primary problems of postwar England and both pities and despises Winter for being a part of it. Later that same evening, as he sits and drinks with Ted and the pub’s employees (Selwyn, a prophetic imbecile, and Cedric, the barboy), Winter enters and they all get drunk and argue about religion, politics, and sex. Denham speaks loudly and righteously about morality, or the lack of it, and claims that no one takes commitments or responsibilities seriously anymore. At this point, he reluctantly befriends Winter and insists on catching his wife “in the act” in order to “cast the first stone.” He drags Winter out into the street, stands below what he thinks is Winter’s bedroom window, and drunkenly shouts: “Adulteress. Adulterer.” Winter tells him that he is at the wrong house and disappears into the night, leaving Denham stumbling down the dark street.

The next day, with a hangover and a faulty memory, Denham meets Everett, a poet who needs a financial sponsor for his literary magazine, Hermes. In addition to the money, Everett wants to write an article about Denham: “the returned exile and how he sees philistine England.” A few days later, they meet at a private club, the Hippogriff, and there Denham meets Imogen, Everett’s brash daughter, who has just left her husband. She wastes no time in insulting Denham for his money, his life-style, and his boredom. At this point, before he can pursue any relationship with Imogen, Winter, or Everett, Denham is unexpectedly called away on business and sent to Ceylon to train a new salesman.

While waiting to leave for Ceylon, Denham spends a few days in London. One night, he picks up a girl on the street. They go to a hotel; she asks for five pounds, and then excuses herself and goes into the bathroom. Denham undresses and waits, but she never returns. Realizing that she has left through an adjoining room, he gets dressed and leaves. A few days later, in Ceylon, he meets a stranger, “a sort of racketeer, lonely, sentimental, highly moral.” Denham tells him about his experience with the prostitute in London, and the man, Len, claims that he and his cohorts believe that in order to stop that sort of thing, one should punish the girl with a “good beating up.” Denham accuses the man of playing God, and...

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The Right to an Answer Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Aggeler, Geoffrey. Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist, 1979.

Aggeler, Geoffrey. “The Comic Art of Anthony Burgess,” in Arizona Quarterly. XXV (1969), pp. 234-51.

DeVitis, A. A. Anthony Burgess, 1972.

LeClair, Thomas. “Essential Opposition: The Novels of Anthony Burgess,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XII, no. 3 (1971), pp. 77-94.

Pritchard, William H. “The Novels of Anthony Burgess,” in Massachusetts Review. VII (1966), pp. 525-539.