The Widower's Son
Still best-known as the author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe continues in this, his fourteenth novel, to explore the life and longings of the lower-class loner, the misfit in modern British society. With other post-World War II British writers such as John Osborne, Sillitoe focused attention sharply on the world-betrayed British antihero. He made his readers conscious of the “kitchen sink,” “lost-empire” school of storytelling as he powerfully evoked the “anger of young men” who found their world bereft of more than mere empire.
In previous novels such as The Death of William Posters and its sequel A Tree on Fire, Sillitoe’s protagonists seemed to find meaning for their lives only through violent action. They wrenched themselves relentlessly loose from marriages, children, friends, causes. They intentionally challenged laws, broke rules, strove to destroy the old life, hoping to create new forms of possibility for living. They lost their old selves and found new ones through involvement in revolutionary movements which they could not name, which they seemed not able to fathom except as action. Their only joy came in being swept along in this existential fashion. These characters abruptly, destructively stopped being what tradition had claimed them to be. It made no difference if the change was for the worse. It was change; it was new; it was being. There is a haunting image toward the end of A Tree on Fire when the protagonist realizes a sort of fierce freedom, a lack of mooring, while risking his life, throwing grenades at faceless enemies in the desert of an Algerian landscape. Exhilarated by having no expectations at all, he serves a cause he cannot, will not even articulate. He no longer tries to label experience. He simply is. Existentially, this figure is freely being, realizing himself through action, believing himself somehow instrumental at last in purging a politically pointless world.
In these works, Sillitoe was exploring, seeking redefinitions of values. His commitment to the search is deep, truly revolutionary. His honesty in showing that such searching is unavoidably painful and harshly destructive has shocked many readers. To be comfortable in Sillitoe’s fictional world one must learn to embrace rather than resist vulnerability, change, ironic mystery. Thus a new definition of freedom is wrought. It is not something one is granted, not something one achieves; it is a condition one creates through relinquishment of all the old attitudes towards value itself. It is learning to be truly, purely selfish; learning to be alive, not dreaming about someday living.
In these two novels, Sillitoe’s progression of idea took cramped civilians and altered them through existential events and happenstance into asocial warriors. Blasted by the boredom of peace, they found value for themselves in conflict. They found a kind of joy in being part of the scorching of the earth. This was Sillitoe’s most challenging redefinition: destruction, violence, breakdown are natural, to be accepted. Indeed, they clear the way for yet newer concepts which will in turn be swept away. The novelist’s hard-edged view of life as a mysterious, deliriously erratic force to be celebrated, experienced, and savored at the moment rather than controlled, legislated, and held in abeyance is a compelling one. In this century, so fraught with restrictions and betrayals of all kinds, on all levels, it is an idea so radically across the grain of reality as to seem romantic and futile. Purification through terrorization is romantic only to the terrorists. That is what shocks and shakes the complacent reader who comes to Sillitoe’s world unprepared. That protagonist he has explored so well is truly terrible in his aloneness, his selfishness, his choice not to look beyond himself and his own feelings. It is William Posters’ defense against a world he sees as terrible in its attacks on him.
Though these same concerns are present in The Widower’s Son, two major differences in their presentation and explanation cause this book’s theme to contrast with earlier ones, and they give the book an additional maturity of vision.
In The Widower’s Son Sillitoe reverses his previous sequence. In this book a warrior, a destroyer, learns eventually to be a civilian, a conservator. Moreover, Sillitoe portrays his protagonist’s destructive, “breaking loose” actions as ceasing and becoming finally productive. Pushing beyond the earlier theme of futility of blind rejection of all social structures, Sillitoe’s new civilian finds meaning and growth toward maturity in his own redefinitions, in his own versions of the traditions of self, nation, family, and work. It is an interesting and significant development coming from Sillitoe. He seems truly to be wary now of war as the necessary metaphor of life, marriage, and family. Here, he creates a possible peace. It is still lonely, still withdrawn, still distrustful of social forms which are too sweeping and inclusive. Sillitoe has not gone soft; he has simply pulled his characters both away from society and from destruction of it. He has pulled them into the carefully maintained peace of “mobility” and change within the framework of stringently nurtured anonymity. His new characters learn to make no waves and to avoid those made by others. Sillitoe is such a restless and probing writer, however, that one wonders what further revolution of the lifecycle he will project after his rest-stop on this plateau. Surprise and change are the simultaneously frightening and stimulating constants in his work. The Widower’s Son is an apt illustration of his ability to alter, to astonish. His power is flourishing in this very redirection.
(The entire section is 2401 words.)